A litany of blunders and oversights in “Deepwater Horizon: Ten Mistakes”

Jess Reid, “Deepwater Horizon: Ten Mistakes” (2021)

An investigation into the causes of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico near the US state of Louisiana in April 2010, that killed 11 workers and created a massive environmental catastrophe in the Gulf, this documentary manages to be fairly well researched yet easy for its target general public audience to follow. Concentrating on the major errors behind the oil rig explosion, starting with aspects of the culture of BP that emphasised the pressure of time and budget over-runs over safety issues, to mistakes and fateful decisions made by engineers on the oil rig, to underestimating the enormous size of the oil spill and the lack of proper plans to cap the well and to clean up the oil spill, the film draws out what it considers to be the major blunders behind the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe and explains how they contributed to the accident. A number of experts including former US Energy Secretary Stephen Chu who served in the first Obama administration add their perspectives to each of the issues raised. Their points are illustrated with fairly simple technical animations and archived film of the explosion and the environmental and economic disaster it caused.

Although very detailed, the film does not do enough to show how the various mistakes it identifies are linked and reflect a corporate culture in the oil industry obsessed with making profits and taking unnecessary risks, especially in a highly risky and dangerous activity such as deep-water oil drilling. In such an industry, the pressure on keeping within time and budget limits can encourage people to take short cuts, to overlook or compromise on safety issues, to conform rather than speak out or express misgivings, and downplay problems or the scale of problems when they occur. Disaster and contingency planning is given short shrift and when a disaster does occur, the corporation resorts to a quick technical fix to disperse the problem to make itself look good for the government, the media, the public and (most of all) its shareholders and investors.

The film fails to pound the US government for its weak regulation of the oil industry and its revolving door personnel policy in which oil industry executives take up positions in the US Department of Energy, loosen regulations on their former employers and then later return to the industry with a change of government. Perhaps the most depressing aspect of the film comes near its end when the government fails to punish BP in proportion to the scale of the explosion and the damage it caused to marine environments and the livelihoods of communities and the industries around the Gulf that rely on viable marine environments and ecosystems there. The consequences of the oil rig disaster and of the use of Corexit dispersant to disperse the oil spill on the health of the people who worked on the rig and in the affected environments were and still are considerable. The experts interviewed in the film agree that many of the mistakes and blunders identified have not been properly dealt with and could lead to another major deep-water oil rig explosion.

The film serves as a good introduction to a major human-made disaster that is still generating long-term environmental, economic and human costs in the Gulf. Viewers wanting more information will need to do their own research but at least they will have a handy foundation to work from.

On the Need for a Programme (A Communist Manifesto: The Classic for Today): a vision and path for capitalist societies towards Communism

Paul Cockshott, “On the Need for a Programme (A Communist Manifesto: The Classic for Today)” (25 June 2021)

In response to a request, UK computer scientist / Marxist economist Paul Cockshott produced a slideshow presentation on what he believes a new Communist program (that is, one that transforms a society from capitalism to Communism) should involve. His presentation is structured chronologically, starting with the founding documents of Communism written by Karl Marx in 1848, and moving through the experience and failure of liberal democratic parliamentary systems and Soviet-style Communism to the current global environmental crisis created by neoliberal political / economic ideologies. Cockshott then alights on why Communism is needed and what its goals are: because the capitalist classes are organised internationally, working classes must also be organised internationally; because the control of science and technologies is in the hands of the capitalists, they are able to use such knowledge and tools to reshape the world according to their own narrow vision with the result that socio-economic inequalities are rising, working classes are becoming more impoverished and global ecosystems are suffering.

Cockshott is careful to distinguish among different groups of “socialists” such as reactionary socialists who use the language and tools of socialism against Communism (examples being the National Socialists of Germany in the mid 20th century); bourgeois socialists who demand a cradle-to-grave welfare-net socialism (that benefits them and which they can deny to working classes if the latter don’t vote the way they are expected to) while retaining capitalist structures and institutions; and classical social democrats who want some Communist measures to patch the loopholes of capitalist structures and existing constitutional systems. From there, Cockshott outlines a vision of Communist economy and society in which digital technologies can be used to restructure resource allocation, production and distribution of goods and services, and how these are accessed by the public according to its needs. Money as it is currently used, the debt-based systems that generate and circulate money and the global financial structures based on those systems will be abolished.

Cockshott then explains how modern States arose and how current political systems are structured to protect the interests of the wealthy and the classes that support them. He goes on to outline what changes are needed for political systems and their institutions to represent working classes and serve their interests. These changes are far-ranging and include changes to the judicial and legal systems, the educational systems from elementary education upwards, and the armed forces and security forces including the police. Cockshott advocates for land nationalisation and economic rents to be paid to local communities. Essential infrastructure and the creation and circulation of money, credit or their fungible equivalents should be centralised under public control.

The presentation ends very abruptly which I find a pity as Cockshott provides no explanation as to how such changes can be brought about and moreover can be sustained in the face of a vicious backlash by capitalist classes and their allies, some of whom will claim to be “socialist”, even “Communist”. As the long history of Western social democracy and its erosion and corruption by neoliberalism, and the failure of Soviet Communism in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union illustrate, those tasked with maintaining socialist and Communist systems and institutions can easily become a new wealthy class identifying with those they are supposed to combat. State-controlled infrastructures can be privatised, their assets sold off and the people working within them made unemployed. The constant struggle of Communist and socialist governments and systems in nations like China, Cuba, Syria and Venezuela to rediscover their original goals and visions, relearn hard lessons and remake themselves where necessary surely serves as a warning to us all.

AUKUS and the danger of war: a persuasive if simplistic argument on the stupidity of the AUKUS pact

Paul Cockshott, “AUKUS and the danger of war” (23 September 2021)

After a Twitter exchange on whether the US was in a fit state militarily to challenge China, and in the wake of the AUKUS naval and defence pact formed by the US, the UK and Australia – it should have been called USUKA but AUKUS flows more mellifluously than “you-suck-ah” – in September 2021, with the pact’s first initiative being to supply nuclear-powered submarines to the Royal Australian Navy (and those submarines to be purportedly built in Adelaide, compelling Australia to break its current contract with France to build 12 diesel submarines), Scottish computer scientist / economist Paul Cockshott created a slideshow explaining how the AUKUS alliance endangers Australia and the US in the event of a war with China in the western Pacific Ocean region. The slideshow demonstrates how dependent Australia will be on the UK and the US in obtaining highly enriched nuclear fuel to power the submarines (and the proliferation risks involved, since enriched nuclear fuel can be used to make bombs) as Australia lacks the know-how and the infrastructure (including nuclear plants) needed to enrich the fuel. From there Cockshott looks at why, after 70 years, Britain has suddenly decided to sell Australia its nuclear technology and expertise, and concludes from examining speeches made by UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Tory MP (and Johnson’s predecessor as Prime Minister) Theresa May that the reason for Australia having nuclear-powered submarines, as they are designed for attack and not defence purposes, is that they ultimately will be part of a US-led naval blockade of China in the event of a conflict over Taiwan based on Western assumptions that China will invade Taiwan – even though over the past 70 years China has respected Taiwan’s physical, political and economic integrity to the extent that China’s hi-tech industries depend on Taiwan for its semiconductors and other raw materials, and tourists, business people and others regularly travel from one country to the other quite freely.

After reaching this conclusion as to the purpose of AUKUS, Cockshott spends the rest of his presentation examining the most likely course of a war between China and AUKUS, and makes his case that a Western blockade of China would be extremely risky and hazardous to AUKUS forces. China would quickly establish air and sea dominance over Taiwan’s territory (including airspace and maritime territory) and US support would be limited to the kind of hurried airlift “rescues” of US citizens seen recently in Kabul when the puppet Ghani government there collapsed in the wake of the Taliban’s peaceful victory in Afghanistan. A possible US attack on China itself, on the assumption that US forces can break through Chinese air and sea defences, is shown to be nigh impossible due to the severe decline in US military capabilities and the advanced age of US bomber planes since 1945. An economic blockade based either on blocking trade routes in Southeast Asia or on sanctions on nations trading with China would disrupt economies all over the world – and encourage even more integration of the Eurasian continent in China’s Belt Road Initiative to circumvent a blockade or sanctions. Cockshott looks at the shipbuilding capabilities of the combatants and finds that China’s shipbuilding capabilities far outstrip those of the US. South Korea would most likely declare neutrality in the war but in the event that Seoul is compelled to side with AUKUS, South Korea would be exposed to attack from North Korea and China.

The result is that the economies of the AUKUS members and any others participating in the war against China will be severely damaged, so much so that their societies and politics will become unstable and the very polities themselves liable to break up. They will lose cultural prestige as well and the very concept of Western liberal democracy – itself hazy and contradictory with its emphasis on free markets unhindered by government oversight and regulation – will be discredited. While China and its allies will also suffer economic damage, they will be in a better position to recover through China’s BRI.

While Cockshott’s presentation is well set out if a bit slow and repetitive, it does appear simplistic to the point where the figures and facts he pulls out look cherry-picked. In a real war, China would have Russian support which could include Russia cutting off natural gas supplies to the UK. An economic blockade initiated by China or Russia of the UK and any European countries allied with that nation and involved in the US war against China could strain relations among them and among other things encourage the British public to turn against London, especially as (with the phasing out of the use of older fossil fuel technologies like coal-dependent technologies) Europe is becoming more and more dependent on importing Russian natural gas. The Taiwanese people themselves, as opposed to their government, might prefer Beijing’s domination to the extent that their forces might pledge to fight on the Chinese side. Australia itself will be a target for attacks and economic blockades and sanctions from China, Russia and their allies, and Australians themselves would have to choose whether remaining part of AUKUS or any alliance with the US is worth risking their future for.

At the same time Cockshott’s presentation is silent on China’s submarine capabilities against future combined AUKUS submarine attacks. One could argue though that there are many ways to fight “hot” wars and not all of them have to be purely military, let alone match one nation’s sub-set of military weapons against another’s exact equivalent. For China, the war AUKUS will wage against it will be a defensive war and defence calls for different strategies and the necessary tactics and hardware those require: the problem is how varied and how deep China’s defensive capabilities are, and if they can withstand the offensive strategies and capabilities of the AUKUS alliance. Cockshott’s presentation suggests that China will have more flexibility and more strategies, tactics and weapons (especially soft non-military weapons) at hand than the AUKUS alliance will.

The issue that remains is why Australian political and defence elites were so stupid and idiotic to sleepwalk into a pact that robs Australia of any sovereignty over its land, sea and air territory, and ultimately puts their own survival in doubt.

The litany of lies, cover-ups, blunders and shortcuts that led to two air crash tragedies in “737 MAX: Ten Mistakes”

Nick Gillan-Smith, “737 MAX: Ten Mistakes” (2021)

A crisp and succinct documentary, going into just enough detail (but not too much so) to satisfy the general public target audience, this investigation of the Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 737 MAX passenger jet crashes in October 2018 and March 2019 respectively breezes through the list of blunders, errors and cover-ups that all but doomed the flights of two jets resulting in the combined total of 346 deaths and severely dented the reputations of Boeing as a reliable aircraft manufacturer and of the US aviation industry generally. The documentary begins its litany back, way back, into the 1960s when Boeing unveiled its 737 models which immediately became the company’s favoured workhorses, being sold to airlines all over the world for decades. In the first decade of the 2000s, rival aircraft manufacturer Airbus brought out a new, more fuel-efficient model which put pressure on Boeing to come up with a competitive counterpart. This set off a series of actions, combined with pressure on Boeing employees, to tinker with adding new, heavier and longer engines onto the current 737 model rather than design and engineer a new plane from scratch which would have required at least a decade and more to complete. Adding the new engines to the 737 model entailed other changes, not least the addition of new anti-stalling Maneuver Characteristics Augmentation Systems (MCAS) software to help keep the plane’s balance during flight. This would have required pilots already familiar with flying the 737 model to undertake more flight simulation training (which airlines would have had to pay for) and the updating of flight manuals.

Each “mistake” – the term really encompasses the various cock-ups, short-cuts and “sssh, don’t tell” cover-ups – is explained through a mix of interviews with aviation experts and a pilot, and how it contributed to the catastrophes in Indonesia and Ethiopia. The Airbus innovation caught Boeing by surprise and the US company was under pressure from managers and shareholders to come up with a product that was also fuel-efficient as soon as it could. Pressure was put on employees and contractors with the result that short-cuts were taken and the issue of safety became secondary to the pursuit of cost-cutting and quick profits. Testing more or less fell by the wayside. The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) allowed Boeing to conduct its own safety testing and inspections and to approve the results of such tests. Boeing told the FAA that pilots would not need extra training and failed to include mention of the MCAS in its flight manuals.

On top of all this, when the Indonesian accident occurred, Boeing immediately blamed pilot error for the tragedy. As Lion Air did not have a great record for safety, Boeing’s explanation seemed plausible enough, at least until the Ethiopian Airlines jet fell out of the sky in March 2019. The recovery of that plane’s flight recorder tapes soon led to the revelation that the Ethiopian flight crew had the exact same problem as the Lion Air pilots did in controlling the plane and trying to stop it from nose-diving. As Ethiopian Airlines had an excellent reputation for flight safety, pilot error could no longer be blamed.

Lion Air does not get off lightly either in that the airline is revealed as not having or keeping records of problems with individual jets: the Lion Air 737 MAX jet was shown to have had a nosediving problem on a short trip just before its final journey. In this case though, the flight crew were lucky that an off-duty captain was travelling as a passenger and was able to assist with controlling the plane. Though the flight crew reported the problem, for some reason this issue was not relayed to the next flight crew who had to fly the plane the next day.

Though the documentary wraps up fairly quickly (and superficially) by noting that Boeing was forced to ground all 737 MAX jets and that US Congress committee inquiries were held – hilariously, Congressional meetings are called “parliamentary” meetings – with the result that Boeing was fined heavy amounts and now faces lawsuits from families of crash victims, it fails to show how several of the problems identified are inter-related and demonstrate that a culture of excellence and prioritising safety no longer exists at Boeing. The change of organisational culture from one based on careful design and meticulous research, a high standard of engineering excellence and regard for flight crew and passenger safety to one obsessed with profit and cutting costs to the extent of passing work to non-union factory labour or outsourcing work to lower-paid engineers in Third World nations is not covered; many of the short-cuts and cover-ups, and in some cases even outright conflicts of interest (and with the FAA turning a blind eye to such corruption) have their origins in the gradual Wall Street takeover of Boeing, exemplified by Boeing HQ’s shift from Seattle, where much of the engineering and manufacturing work was being done, to Chicago (home of neoliberal economics) some time in the late 1990s. Unfortunately it seems to me that Boeing is not alone among US corporations to fall prey to the neoliberal cult of worshipping Profit Uber Alles and damning everything else – even safety measures – that cuts into making profits for corporate banker shareholders.

The Father: a good if generic character study of the impact of dementia on its victims and their families

Florian Zeller, “The Father” (2020)

Detailing an elderly father’s deterioration from dementia, and the effects his condition has on the people around him, this film adopts the dementia victim’s perspective to draw in viewers to share in the victim’s disorientation, paranoia, mood swings, loss of memory and ultimately loss of identity. Viewers come to identify with the victim’s confusion and experience his emotional devastation and fear of losing himself as he begins to enter the disease’s final and most advanced stage of memory loss and fragmentation. The film begins with Anne (Olivia Colman), a middle-class Londoner, telling her father Anthony (Anthony Hopkins) that she is going to live in Paris with a new partner after five years of being a divorcee, and that she can no longer help him every day as she used to do. From here on, the film follows Anthony as he tries to cope with this news and deal with yet another care-giver, Laura (Imogen Poots), after all the other care-givers who have left him because of his mood swings and his tantrums. A sense of mystery develops as various mysterious people (played by Mark Gatiss, Rufus Sewell and Olivia Williams) move in and out of the London apartment where Anthony lives. These people are not readily identified by name – audiences may assume Sewell is playing either Anne’s ex-husband or her new boyfriend – and Anthony either takes them for people he knows or treats them as strangers and responds to them with hostility. Only at the very end of the film are the characters played by Gatiss and Williams revealed, and the apartment where Anthony has been living is exposed for what it actually is after all its transformations and changes in furniture and decor throughout the film. A second mystery, almost a sub-plot, that involves the whereabouts of Anthony’s second daughter Lucy (Imogen Poots again) develops in the characters’ dialogue.

Originally adapted from director Florian Zeller’s French-language play “Le Pere”, the film relies a great deal on Hopkins and Colman to bring the father and daughter and their fractious relationship to life in a convincing manner. Hopkins brings his full range and experience as both a stage and film actor to portray Anthony, especially in the film’s final moments when he has an emotional breakdown and becomes infant-like: this is the most heart-wrenching part of the film, all the more so because by this time the daughter Anne is absent. Colman’s role as the caring daughter is rather more stereotyped as viewers are limited to seeing and experiencing things from Anthony’s viewpoint; thus we do not see what work she does and what her relationship with Sewell’s character is actually like. Colman does do excellent work with what she is given but viewers may well feel she should have been given more to flesh out Anne as a woman forced to give up much of her life and put it on hold to care for someone whose need for help is rapidly becoming more than she is able to give. The rest of the cast give good support.

While the film’s focus on the dementia victim’s viewpoint is original and admirable, at the same time it has the effect of making Anthony’s condition and the difficulties it causes for his family rather banal and generic, and insulated from the outside world. We do not see any difficulties Anne and Anthony might have in dealing with medical personnel or the National Health Service generally. The film takes place in a London yet to be besieged by COVID-19 pandemic lock-down: the events of the film might have been more interesting if Anne were prevented or restricted by lock-down in looking after her father and how Anthony copes with extended periods of isolation that he is unable to understand the reasons for. It is obvious from the comfortable if ever-changing apartment surroundings that Anthony and Anne are very well-off but there is no discussion of money issues or medical payment delays among the characters that could have generated further tension and conflict. The result is a film that can only go so far in demonstrating how dementia and other diseases that devastate elderly people can have a tremendous emotional, financial and logistical impact on their families, and no more. “The Father” is a good film as character studies go but it is not a great film.

The Courier: a film of personal growth and suffering and of friendship transcending politics and ideology

Dominic Cooke, “The Courier” (2020)

The story of Greville Wynne, a most unlikely character ever to become a spy for MI6 during the Cold War in the early 1960s, shuttling between London and Moscow and ferrying classified Soviet information given him by a military official in the Kremlin that reveals nuclear warfare capabilities to MI6 and the CIA, is given widescreen movie treatment that explores the nature of friendship and loyalty in extreme circumstances. Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch) comes to the attention of MI6 and the CIA, represented respectively by handlers Dickie Franks (Angus Wright) and Emily Donovan (Rachel Brosnahan) as he travels frequently to eastern Europe as a sales representative for an engineering company. Wynne is asked to go to Moscow and contact Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze), a Soviet military intel official, who will give him papers to bring back to London, in his usual role as sales representative. After initially resisting the offer, Wynne goes ahead to Moscow and meets Penkovsky. A routine is quickly established: Wynne starts making trips to Moscow to catch up with Penkovsky who takes him to the opera and the ballet, and introduces the British man to his family, all the while feeding Wynne with information and photographs that eventually prove valuable to US intelligence and the White House in defusing the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. However the Soviets themselves have a mole working in MI6 – there were a number of double agents in British intelligence working for the USSR – and the mole helps the GRU to work out who is passing valuable Soviet secrets to the British. Penkovsky and then Wynne are arrested by the GRU, tried and charged with espionage, and both men are thrown into gaol. Wynne winds up in the then notorious Lubyanka prison where he suffers many privations and beatings over a period of nearly two years before he returns to Britain in 1964 as part of a spy swap.

The film serves mainly as a character study of an ordinary Englishman, initially unremarkable in personality and very apolitical, suddenly thrust into a situation where he eventually is forced to take sides and finds himself capable of heroism to try to save a man he comes to regard as a friend when that man’s life is in danger. In doing so, he is captured and is forced to suffer brutal violence, near-starvation and ill health in prison, subjected to psychological manipulation and not knowing if he has been abandoned by MI6. Cumberbatch does excellent work as Wynne who grows in moral stature through the film even though what he does as a courier is a thankless task – there is no suggestion that MI6 and the CIA reward him for the risks he is exposed to. Indeed MI6 is quite willing to discard Penkovsky and his desire to defect to th West once the GRU (Soviet military intelligence) is onto his trail and only Donovan rallies to Wynne’s side to try to save Penkovsky from arrest and certain death. The suffering Wynne undergoes is matched in the physical rigours Cumberbatch had to undergo including near-starvation to get the haggard look. Unfortunately the film ends at the point where Wynne is released from prison and reunited with wife Sheila (Jessie Buckley) and son Andrew (Keir Hill) and we do not see the psychological traumas and other effects – including separation and divorce from Sheila – Wynne suffered, and this perhaps is a grave oversight on the part of the script.

The other actors in the film, and Ninidze in particular, also give very good performances. Buckley does what she can with a very limited role as Wynne’s long-suffering wife. As a sop to current Western identity politics, the character of Donovan is a composite character of several actual CIA and MI6 agents who include a British woman, Janet Chisholm, who also was a conduit for Penkovsky. The cinematography is well done, emphasising the greys of a world of 60 years ago in which black and white were actually not so clear-cut as we think they were, without being remarkable. The scenes set in Moscow or which involve Russians appear very stereotyped and viewers get no real sense of how Russians might have viewed Penkovsky and Wynne after they have been caught and their espionage made public.

The film is well made and fairly faithful to its source material, extracting from it a story about one man’s personal growth and a friendship that transcends politics and the grubby and frequently unethical world of espionage. Still I can’t help but feel that “The Courier” was made largely in the service of current British government propaganda and deliberate disinformation and lies demonising Russia for no reason other than that Russia has been a long-standing rival to British global imperialist and predatory ambitions, and that this context in which the film was made must surely have had some influence on the way the script was written and what may have had to be omitted. While the Americans get what they want to outfox the Soviets on the latter’s deployment of missile bases in Cuba, and the Soviets shut down Penkovsky as a traitor, the British must still be seen to “win” in some way, hence perhaps stopping an interesting story of how espionage was usually done and how unsuspecting ordinary people got roped into spying and ended up paying a price for it, just to achieve that “happy ending”. Intel agencies carry on duelling against each other in spite of the alarming collateral damage they create along the way.

CTRL Z: gentle romantic time-travel comedy with a sting in its tail

James Kennedy, “CTRL Z” (2017)

Cats may have nine lives but the characters in this very funny sci-fi romantic comedy end up having nearly 4,800 lives thanks to a time-travel device invented by main character Ed (Edward Easton), a socially shy romantic who finds talking to and impressing Sarah (Katie Beresford) the girl of his dreams so excruciatingly difficult that he needs an infinite number of attempts to work up the courage to approach her. Each time he makes a dreadful mistake, he has to reset his time device back to the point where he is about to leave the table at the fast food restaurant to walk over to where she sits alone – but this means after making his mistake he has to die or kill himself. For support he has brought along a friend Carrie (Kath Hughes) and for much of the film’s running time Ed and Carrie keep up a constant repartee about his time-travelling box (which Ed explains has certain limitations, all of which are necessary for the way in which the plot eventually unfolds: the time-travel device only goes back in time to a predetermined time but is able to loop over and over indefinitely), the effects it has already had on both their lives – they have been stuck in the fast food restaurant for three years already – and the countless (ahem) times Ed has tried to talk to Sarah without getting sick and throwing up. Eventually after Carrie’s numerous suggestions to Ed fail, Ed turns to the waitress (Natalie Ferrigno) for help and the waitress suggests Sarah is upset and not amenable to being chatted up. Ed then tries in his own way to offer comfort to Sarah who is touched by his gesture of kindness.

From then on the surprises pile on quite thick and fast: Ed’s attempt at romance seems to have failed once again but then there is a twist and for the first time in a long time Ed’s life seems to be on track with a definite friendship. The climax when it comes – when Ed steps out onto the road – is sudden and savage, and Ed’s face, when he goes into an endless time loop, is sure to spark speculation about his behaviour during that loop. Having got off first base finally after nearly 4,800 tries, does he now suddenly realise that making second base is more difficult than he knows … or is the euphoria of leaving first base so good that he wants to relive that moment for as long as he can even if it means dying another 4,800 times? And what will happen after the plutonium in his time-travel device finally decays after, say … 82 million years later?

Comedians Easton and Hughes have good chemistry together and their timing is excellent while Beresford and Ferrigno have much less to do and seem more limited. The other minor characters in the fast food restaurant serve as decoration but even they are quite memorable in their reactions to Ed and Carrie stabbing each other with steak knives. The fast food restaurant setting with the low lighting throws the emphasis on Ed and Carrie, and the film noirish evening / late night ambience adds mystery and a sense of this story being isolated and self-contained that suits the plot with its looping repetitions.

A significant moment comes when Ed and Carrie step outside the fast food restaurant for a quick smoke and Carrie accuses Ed of reworking his life’s narrative in a way that suits his selfish purposes while others (like her) are not allowed the same privilege. At the same time the decisions that Ed makes and reworks (or on the other hand, does not make or rework) surely have an effect on other people’s lives that are long-lasting: over the three years that Ed has been working up the courage to talk to Sarah, she and the other people in the fast food restaurant may have lost three years of their lives. Interestingly it’s only when Sarah makes a decision that all characters, Ed included, can move on from three years of endless repetitions.

Ostensibly a film about friendships and the difficulties of romantic love and how it must be negotiated, “Ctrl Z” has a little sting in its tail that might say something about the nature of repetition, addiction and ultimately control over one’s life and other people’s lives. What seems to be apparent victory for Ed turns out to have a price.

This Time Away: a succinct and heartwarming character study with a sting in its tail

Magali Barbe, “This Time Away” (2019)

A very heartwarming little film, succinct and taut in its telling, yet filled with tenderness and depth, this character study is a showcase of great storytelling and acting. Nigel (Timothy Spall) lives alone on his sprawling property, not wanting to see or speak to anyone else, determined to live out his twilight years in isolation after the death of his wife. Daughter Louise (Jessica Ellersby) does what she can to look after Dad but, depressed and unhappy, Nigel tersely sends her away. Time passes and the house – and Nigel as well – becomes unkempt and messy.

One day Nigel looks out the window to see a bunch of kids kicking something in his front garden so he angrily stomps outside and shoos them away. The object the children were tormenting turns out to be a little robot which eagerly follows Nigel into the house and soon becomes his companion. The robot names itself Max when Nigel wants to know what to call it. Over time Max restores order and cleanliness to the house and studio – where Nigel keeps his old notebooks on building prototype robots. As Max becomes familiar with Nigel’s house and routines, it spies an old photograph of Louise and Nigel tells Max who she is and her relation to him. Through this and other actions, viewers quickly grasp that Nigel has never been a very expressive man verbally but has always preferred to express himself by using his brain and hands to build things and create a comfortable and prosperous life for himself and his family.

Little does Nigel realise though that Max isn’t the only one observing him and his routine, the changing interiors in the house, and the changes in Nigel day by day as the robot gives him a reason to continue living …

As sole actor for much of the short film, Spall is in his element playing a character who needs connection with others and is unhappy being alone but finds asking for help difficult. His acting is minimal but it can be very nuanced and repeated viewings of this film will reward viewers with the care and depth he puts into portraying Nigel. The camera follows and sometimes dwells on Spall’s craggy features, and the actor and the character merge into each other. As Louise, Ellersby has much less to do but in her brief appearances she has affection and care for Nigel and his gruff behaviours.

The film makes quite good use of light to show the gradual changes in Nigel’s life after Max’s arrival and how those changes reflect his emotional improvement and perhaps his acceptance of his wife’s death and preparedness to let go of old attitudes and grudges. The plot is very minimal though one might puzzle over why Nigel appears never to question Max on how it turned up at his home when it did and why.

While the film appears to have a happy ending, it is also slightly chilling in its revelation that Max is really a tool for manipulating Nigel and it does suggest that we humans are much more malleable than we are prepared to admit. That man-made technology does a better job than a human in reconnecting an individual human to society and encouraging him to make changes in his life that improve him may say something deep and critical about the nature of our relationships with objects and other humans. After all, if Max can bring Nigel back into society, Max can just as easily mould Nigel into something that diminishes him as a human … and Nigel could very easily become a prisoner.

Two & Two: a study of how an individual dedicated to the truth can live in a police state society

Babak Anvari, “Two & Two ” (2011)

Notable for its minimal grey and dreary setting which throws all the audience’s attention onto the dialogue, the plot and the film’s themes, “2 + 2 =5” is a mini-study of repressive totalitarian government. Somewhere in Iran, in a boys’ school a brusque male school-teacher (Bijan Daneshmand) enters a grimy classroom where twelve young students are already seated. Through an intercom on the wall next to the blackboard, the headmaster’s voice admonishes the students that changes are a-foot and they are to obey their teacher without question. The teacher then writes 2 + 2 = 5 on the blackboard and compels the students to repeat what he has written several times over. Two boys object, saying that 2 + 2 = 4: the first boy is quickly put in his place by the teacher but the second student stands his ground bravely. Three senior boys are brought into the classroom to intimidate the student as he continues to assert that 2 + 2 =4. He is eventually brought down by imaginary machine-gun fire from the seniors, as if before a firing squad, and the other boys are horrified at the carnage. As the senior boys drag out the boy, the remaining boys are forced to repeat continuously after the teacher that 2 + 2 = 5 and to write down that sum. However the constant repetition cannot pry into one boy’s mind no matter how many times the repetition is bashed into his brain.

For such a short film, obviously made on the proverbial shoe-string budget, the plotting is deeply affecting as a student is forced to decide between pursuing the truth and blind conformity to the values of a virtual police state. The drab appearance of the classroom and the clothes worn by the boys emphasise their lack of individuality. The older students are clearly a metaphor for the security forces who enforce arbitrary laws, themselves often drawn from the society they are to police with brutal violence. Close-ups are frequently used to differentiate one boy from the next and to reveal their individual natures. Throughout the film the defiant student is subjected to harassment from the teachers and the senior students, and wins no support from his fellow classmates. After his death, the teacher dismisses him as rubbish and proceeds to drum the New Mathematics into his students over and over. However much he gains in outward loyalty though, his lesson has little effect on some students who decide for themselves what to believe.

The film addresses the question of how an individual with inner integrity and clear values can exist in a dysfunctional society that demands absolute obedience to its ideals and ideologies. How is one to pursue the truth, and what value does truth have in a society that spurns it? Once the truth has been found, how is one then to spread it and make others aware in the face of continuous lying and suppression of the truth? These are all intriguing questions for viewers to consider.

The Red Dagger: a fiery poem essay narration and diatribe against corruption and oppression

Alan Cox, Heathcote Williams, “The Red Dagger” (2013?)

Presented in six parts on Youtube, British actor / poet Heathcote Williams’ poem essay “The Red Dagger”, a diatribe against the City of London and the part it has played in oppressing humanity across the world since the 1300s at least, is given vivid and impassioned audiovisual life by fellow UK actor Alan Cox who narrates the poem and supplies the montage of art, photographs, film stills and snippets of film and video to accompany his recitation. The red dagger of the title refers to the red sword that appears on the emblem of the City of London and, according to Williams and Cox, represents the dagger used in the murder of Wat Tyler, one of the leaders of the Peasants’ Revolt in England, in 1381 by officers loyal to King Richard II. (According to other sources I have read, the red sword on the emblem is a representation of St Paul, the patron saint of London.) Through the details of Wat Tyler’s Rebellion, in which Tyler and rebel monk John Ball led a movement insisting on social equality, abolishing the political hierarchy supporting the monarchy and ending the feudal system (under which peasants were the de facto property of landlords, bound to their masters’ lands), the poet Williams calls attention to the corruption of the political and economic elites that surrounded King Richard II (reigned 1377 – 1399) and finds parallels with the present City of London, its corruption and its control of the global financial industry, and how the activities of the financial elites impoverish and enslave entire nations.

Parts 1 and 2 of Cox’s fiery narration cover the 1381 uprising of English peasants against the King and his lords, and in itself the uprising as portrayed is very stirring. Whether or not the uprising has lessons for us in the 21st century might be debatable: for one thing, the levels of technology in mediaeval England were low, scientific and other general knowledge was limited, and the manipulation and exploitation that English elites exerted over the peasantry correspondingly were limited to mainly physical means, with some limited brainwashing of people’s minds courtesy of the Christian Church, a significant landowner and itself a major landlord oppressor of peasants. The most significant parts of Cox’s narration are Parts 3 and 4 in which he goes into detail about the extent of the activities and networking of the elites in the City of London and its secretive institutions, the extent to which the City of London controls the British government, its past participation in the British colonial / imperial project and the Atlantic slave trade, and its current participation in trafficking arms to nations with sordid human rights records and the global drug trade. Individuals and businesses in the UK financial services industry take advantage of opportunities to evade paying taxes owed to the government by sending money into offshore trust accounts or transfer pricing arrangements in tax havens. Something of the lavish, decadent culture of the City of London elites, dependent on rich banqueting and the associated networking, fuelled by addictions to drugs, casual sex and use of prostitutes, and possible links to sex trafficking and other sordid underground activities, is revealed in the narration and montage.

Cox’s film and Williams’ poem cover much ground and detail of how the City of London operates and has operated over the centuries, and viewers might well need to see the film at least twice to absorb most details. Being based entirely around Williams’ poem, the film does not give information sources so viewers will need to do their own research to confirm the information about the City of London. (A good start is Nicolas Shaxson’s book “Treasure Islands” which investigates the global scourge that is taxation evasion.) While the poem and film might play hard and fast with some details in parts, and Tyler’s actual rebellion might not have been as utopian, idealistic and socialist as the poem implies, the poetry genre proves to be an ideal format by which Williams (1941 – 2017) brings important political, economic, social and historical information to the general public’s attention.

The film along with transcripts of each part and footnotes giving information sources can be viewed at this link.