Dealing with plot inconsistencies as well as pests in “Alien: Night Shift”

Aidan Michael Brezonick, “Alien: Night Shift” (2019; extended version 2020)

Not one of the better films out of the batch of six made in 2019 to herald the 40th anniversary of the Alien film series, this short flick does have its moody and atmospheric moments. At least the idea of setting it in a colony store where a new employee learns she has to deal with more than just rats and cockroaches as pests is a good one. Sometimes big problems that can threaten an entire colony’s operation can start in places that everyone from the most senior leaders down ignores because the people employed in those places are at the bottom of the social and political hierarchy.

On a routine supply operation to a mining colony on exomoon LV-422 (presumably a sister moon to LV-426), supply-ship crew member Welles (T K Richardson) finds his colleague Harper (Tanner Rittenhouse) who has been missing for the past 24 hours and is looking drunk and dishevelled. Welles brings him into the colony store where senior store employee Springer (Christopher Murray) and new recruit Rolly (Amber Gaston) are working the night shift. Harper’s condition worsens rapidly, he starts vomiting and convulsing, and before you know it … well, this is an Alien film short so you know what happens next. Except that your mind has to fill in most of the details because the film quickly focuses on Welles shooting wildly at close range, fatally wounding Springer and managing to smash all the lights so the entire store is plunged into near-darkness.

Rolly tries to help Springer while Welles quickly scoots out of the colony store. With Springer gone, Rolly hunts down the Alien hiding in amongst the supplies. She finds it and disposes of it – but any feeling of triumph she might have is short-lived as she hears the sounds of panic, shouting and deathly chittering noises from outside the store.

The film is no great advance on the themes and motifs of “Alien” and might actually fill in as a sub-plot for James Cameron’s “Aliens” though the action takes place in a different colony. The acting is not exceptional and the characters are no more than stereotypes. The plot has some inconsistencies that render the film weak: for one thing, if Welles is aiming his gun at the Alien, why does he hit everything else including Springer but the Alien?

In a new extended version, the incident in the colony store is recast in the framework of an interview by investigators hired by mega-corporation Weyland-Yutani interrogating Welles as to what happened. Welles is clearly conflicted and ashamed over his actions, especially in leaving Rolly to cope with the Alien on her own. While they link the incident to the strange mystery of the spaceship Nostromo, in which an entire crew (save one) perished, the investigators appear either clueless or limited by the scope of their duties and training to recognise the seriousness of the LV-422 incident and the threat it poses to all of Weyland-Yutani’s mining colonies on the exomoon. Fans of the original Alien film series will not find much in this extended film that is new as it mainly serves to confirm that Weyland-Yutani is a typically bureaucratic organisation where people work to rule and are not motivated to help their fellow human beings or do more than their job descriptions require them to do.

As a group the six Alien shorts are faithful to most aspects of the original Ridley Scott film – all films feature working class characters in gritty industrial-type settings – but only a few of them transcend the original film in their themes or genre type.

A good setting and cast but weak growth in “Alien: Harvest”

Benjamin Howdeshell, “Alien: Harvest” (2019)

It had stunning CGI visuals, a scary setting in a failing spaceship, a willing cast and a lot of tension … so what went wrong in “Alien: Harvest”? Of the six short films made in 2019 in celebration of the 40th anniversary of the cinema release of Ridley Scott’s “Alien”, “… Harvest” has the least original plot and adds nothing new or refreshing to the mystique and mythology surrounding the Alien film franchise. On a damaged space harvester ship far out in the cosmos, four survivors of a disaster try to find their way to an escape pod using a motion sensor while being pursued by a giant Xenomorph. Too late three of them discover that their guide Mari (Agnes Albright) doesn’t necessarily have their best interests at heart.

The flashing lights, the claustrophobic network of corridors and the industrial look of the harvester’s interiors are faithful to “Alien” and replicate that film’s paranoia, tension and rising horror as the monster cuts down any and all humans who stray into its path. Even androids get short shrift from the monster. At the very end, the very pregnant Hannah starts having labour pains. Not to worry, the Alien has the problem of caring for Hannah’s baby all sorted out already!

The conclusion really doesn’t make sense … the symbolism behind it is unnecessary, even sadistic. How on earth the Alien and its kind can presume to know more about human physiology perhaps more than their own might have most of us scratching our heads. Apart from this, the characters are little more than stereotypes that viewers of the Alien full-length films are familiar with.

Of the six films made, “… Harvest” is the weakest of the lot: it relies too much on viewers being familiar with the original Ridley Scott film and does not create its own viable branch that could grow into a feature-length movie tree.

A darkly comic and tender story of love and companionship in “Alien: Alone”

Noah Miller, “Alien: Alone” (2019)

After seeing all six short films made in 2019 to mark the 40th anniversary of the cinematic release of Ridley Scott’s “Alien”, I must admit they’re not all good and most of them don’t stray very far from the original slasher flick / sci-fi horror genre narrative. Miller’s contribution, the last of the six, comes as a breath of fresh air: taking as its inspiration the original film’s android science officer Ash and that android’s fascination with the Alien to the exclusion of all else, including the safety of the humans on board the Nostromo, “Alien: Alone” dives into a darkly twisted tale of two lost and abandoned beings who find in each other companionship and care. With both facing certain death, one of them determines to save the other and prolong its life – and in so doing, leave a legacy with the other. It so happens that these beings who find friendship and comfort are an android and an Alien.

Hope (Taylor Lyons) is the remaining crew member on board the commercial transport vessel the Otranto. The Otranto is slowly breaking down and Hope spends her dreary days repairing various parts of the vessel and hoping beyond hope that (as her Captain had tolder her) she would be rescued by the Weyland-Yutani Corporation. We figure out very early that Hope is an android when she informs us (in voiceover) that she has counted every rivet in the ship and arrived at a figure of over 28,000. After a fire emergency on the ship reduces the power available so that a section of the ship that hitherto banned access to Hope is now open, Hope walks in and is informed by the ship’s information systems that a life-form in cryogenic deep freeze is ready for resuscitation. Hope revives the life-form which turns out to be the face-hugger form of the Alien. As you’d expect the face-hugger attacks Hope but finds no purchase on the android. At first the two have something of a stand-off but eventually they warm to each other and enjoy each other’s company. Gradually though the face-hugger begins to starve to death and Hope herself realises her own body is breaking down and dying. She decides then and there to save the face-hugger and enable it to complete its life-cycle by powering up the Otranto and taking it somewhere in the vast universe where it is likely to come in contact with a ship of unsuspecting life-forms.

At least until this point, the short film is actually a very touching treatment of loneliness and isolation, and perhaps of the madness that can afflict even androids as a result of extreme isolation. The distress that Hope experiences once she realises she is dying and her companion is dying as well is very palpable, and viewers can feel pity for them both. Lyons does good work as Hope, at once a sensitive being for whom viewers can feel some sympathy … and a ruthless android determined to find a host for her pet. Close-ups of Lyons’ face along with a voiceover from Martha Vincent enable this connection between the character and audiences. Viewers might do well to consider though that as an android, Hope may not be able to override her programming and the objective laid down in her brain circuits: that she exists solely to help bring back Alien specimens to Earth or wherever for Weyland-Yutani Corporation to study and use for its own purposes. Had Miller considered this aspect of Hope, he might have (within the limits of his budget) pursued and expanded on it further in the plot, with the result that perhaps Hope becomes a more complicated character wrestling with her programming and trying to overcome it.

After Hope makes her decision, the tone of the film changes quickly: it becomes a more conventional sci-fi horror flick as the Otranto makes contact with another ship and that ship’s human pilot (played by James Paxton, son of Bill Paxton who played US Colonial Marine Hudson in James Cameron’s “Aliens”) stumbles across Hope and her pet. In the film’s final scene, which is open-ended, Hope and her pet regard each other with new eyes, as it were, and just at the very point when the film cuts out and the final credits start rolling, viewers realise anything and everything could happen. Does Hope die or is somehow able to survive? Does the Alien remember what Hope has done for it? Is the Alien even capable of experiencing a state akin to human emotions and feelings such as pity and gratitude?

While the film’s denouement and conclusion may be disappointing after its build-up, and the sets used in the film are cheap-looking – 20th Century Fox did allocate a small production budget for it – its premise and ideas, all inspired by the original “Alien” film, constitute an original and intriguing development that raises questions about love and companionship, and how a love bond can be so strong that it threatens the lives of others. It calls into question also the nature of androids vis-a-vis humans and whether androids might be worthy of being considered human if they can experience emotion and feeling.

Worker solidarity to save the day and a mining colony in “Alien: Ore”

Kailey and Sam Spear, “Alien: Ore” (2019)

To celebrate the 40th anniversary of Ridley Scott’s sci-fi horror film “Alien”, the film production company 20th Century Fox commissioned six short films to capture the spirit of the original film. Twin sister film-makers Kailey and Sam Spear brought out this work that runs just short of eleven minutes and which (like the original film) focuses on ordinary working people forced to defend themselves with the meagre tools they have when faced with the hideous alien menace.

Lorraine Hawkes (Mikela Jay) goes down into a mine along with her fellow miners to investigate the disappearance of a work colleague. They quickly discover their colleague’s remains along with the remnants of opened alien eggs and realise that a group of aliens has infested the mine. While mine supervisor Hanks (Tara Pratt), following the miners’ movements on her screen, dithers over whether to abandon the miners to their fate or not, one of the aliens starts picking off the miners and those fortunate enough to survive the sudden attack escape back into the elevator. Lorraine though is determined not to allow the aliens to escape out of the mine and threaten the mining colony (where she is raising her grandchild) so she decides to go back down to the mine to stop the aliens’ advance. Her fellow miners follow her in an act of solidarity.

With most of the action occurring in claustrophobic settings – the miners in their crowded elevator or in a tunnel and Hanks in a bunker-like control room – the film makes good use of the restrictive, cramped conditions the characters are forced to work in to create a sense of rising horror and panic. The dim conditions in the mine help obscure the CGI animation used to create the alien and much of what we see of the alien is actually in silhouette. The actors playing the miners look unglamorous and very sweaty in the hot underground mine.

In such a short film with a basic story, a fairly large cast of actors but a small budget, character development is very limited: by deciding to put the colony’s welfare above her own safety and life, Lorraine emerges as a leader among the miners. Hanks’ apparent indecision (which may mask a more sinister agenda to leave the miners to their fate and capture the alien for the mining company – it’s probably a subsidiary of Weyland Yutani Corporation) sets her up as antagonist to Lorraine’s heroine though the women do not actually confront each other. The film deliberately opts for an open ending: we never find out if Lorraine and the miners succeed in driving back the aliens and avenging their dead colleague.

Ordinary working people, abandoned to their own inadequate technology and forced to fight a fierce, inhuman enemy, prepare to sacrifice themselves for their community with grit, when those who should support them desert them instead: this theme is true to the spirit of the original “Alien” film, in which human intelligence, ingenuity and dogged determination do more than technology to bring down a dangerous enemy. A bigger budget, a more developed and lengthier plot, and better character development than reliance on flat stereotyped characters could make this short film an intriguing and intelligent addition to the “Alien” film franchise.

The Manufacturing of a Mass Psychosis – Can Sanity Return to an Insane World?: how the insanity begins and how it can be cured

“The Manufacturing of a Mass Psychosis – Can Sanity Return to an Insane World?” (Academy of Ideas, 24 April 2021)

In past centuries, mass psychosis in Western societies took the form of witch hunts and persecutions, religious wars and genocides, and even dancing manias among nunneries; in the 20th and 21st centuries, mass psychosis has also been expressed in the form of totalitarian state societies where all power is concentrated in a central government and all institutions, codes and systems of authority and governance are created and controlled by that government. In such societies, the rights and freedoms of individuals are given by the government which also reserves the right to deny them to the citizenry. The people are divided into two groups: the rulers (always a minority) and the ruled (the majority), and both groups undergo a mass psychological transformation in which the ruled regress to a passive child-like status dependent on the rulers who become their gods and who believe that they alone have the knowledge, power and authority to rule the masses.

The video explains in a rather general way how the minority of rulers seizes power and maintains it by using shock tactics on a regular or semi-regular basis to sow fear and terror through the masses. Shock tactics can include the use of a threat, real or imagined or deliberately created, and might involve scapegoating a particular group of people such as gypsies or Jews to channel the masses’ anxieties and aggressions. Propaganda, fake news and disinformation, the abuse of statistics, lying by omission and suppression of the truth by labelling truth-seekers as conspiracy theorists (and thereby scapegoating them and portraying them as deplorables or trash) are some of the tools the rulers use as shock tactics, usually in combination, to unsettle the ruled and keep them in a state of fear, anxiety and hysteria.

A further step totalitarian states take to keep people in psychological darkness – what Dutch psychoanalyst Joost Meerloo called “menticide” – is to divide them and isolate them, thereby breaking up social interactions and ultimately fragment communities based on common interests. Break-up and fragmentation can be achieved by seizing the lands and resources of communities and forcing them to live on crowded reservations with other communities; at the same time, the rulers may take away the children of these communities, breaking family, social and cultural continuities. The children have no access to their cultures and languages, and are treated as tabulae rasae to be indoctrinated with whatever the rulers deem fit for them to know to take their place as worker bees and slaves in society.

With menticide being a multi-pronged strategy, the way to counter it, defend against it and to push it back to the point where societies can overthrow their diseased ruling elites and replace them with true democracy is also to adopt an agenda of many tactics and tools with common goals. Breaking free of mass brainwashing, discovering the truth and proclaiming it to as many of the brainwashed as possible, using humour and ridicule to attack the rulers, and creating parallel structures, networks and institutions that exist as a parallel society within the dysfunctional society are ways in which the people can erode the power and authority of hated elites. It has to be said though that such a strategy is a long-term one that often lasts longer than the life-times of the people involved in it. On this though, the video is silent; we are not told that such work is greater than the individuals who initiate it, who labour in it and who ultimately may benefit from it, one day well into the future.

The video’s artwork (much of it by Hieronymous Bosch) ranges from fevered and bizarre, as if inspired by dreadful nightmares, to the surreal and grotesque. The work of Joost Meerloo (“The Rape of the Mind”) is a major source of information and quotations for the video.

This video and its immediate AoI predecessors which also deal with aspects of mass psychosis and the modern totalitarian states that are founded upon it may well have been made by AoI as their response to and criticism of Western nations’ reactions to the COVID-19 pandemic by locking down societies at short notice for long periods, forcing the public to isolate with threats of the disease’s contagiousness, using propaganda and fearmongering tactics to take away individual rights and freedoms, instil anxiety and dependence on government, and to encourage the break-up of groups and communities by scapegoating people who refuse to take up dangerous mRNA injections claimed to protect against COVID-19 or its worst symptoms. If we take the video’s advice, the solution to the transformation of Western so-called liberal democracies into totalitarian dystopias is to apply a complex multi-varied approach of strategies and tactics, not all of which are necessarily going to make sense together, but which share common goals and objectives. Creating parallel structures, networks and institutions to spread truth and to counter mainstream propaganda and disinformation, and also to be a foundation for a new society when the dysfunctional society ultimately destroys itself, are needed; by implication, this is a collective activity to be undertaken by as many individuals and groups working together as possible, The work is greater than the individuals or groups involved in it, and this is something the video neglects to mention. AoI has a clear individualist stance perhaps akin to anarcho-capitalism so to advocate for collective action over individual action or groups of people working either in parallel or together as still self-interested actors – as opposed to people working together because they have decided to sacrifice some of their aims or freedoms to achieve a collective goal or goals that might not benefit them personally – would be beyond the pale for AoI. The result is that the film is very weak on suggesting pragmatic action and remedies for the problems it identifies.

A transcript to the video can be found at this link.

The Mass Psychosis and the Demons of Dostoevsky: how ideas and ideologies lay the groundwork for mass psychosis and control

“The Mass Psychosis and the Demons of Dostoevsky” (Academy of Ideas, 31 March 2021)

Drawing on the work of psychoanalysts Carl Jung and Joost Meerloo, this video explores the impact that ideas and ideologies can have on societies and predispose them to the fears, anxieties and insecurities that in turn drive them and individuals towards collective mass psychosis that legitimises scapegoating and persecution of minorities, supports war and encourages mass murder and genocide. These ideas are described in the video as demons and this metaphor, attributed to the Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky, is expanded into the suggestion that, like demons, ideas can possess humans and direct their thinking, behaviour and actions.

The video gives a general description of what these ideas and ideologies are or might involve – they can promote passivity or learned helplessness, or depict humans as imperfect beings incapable of self-improvement; they can set up humans in a hierarchy in which some humans are exceptional and others are not (and deserve to be driven to extinction); or they can justify the existence of a small elite before whom the majority must bow in obedient slavery – and then goes on to explain how these ideas or ideologies spread in societies aided by the political, social, cultural or economic tools available to them.

As is usual in their videos, AoI use paintings, other artworks and historical film archives (mainly old Soviet film) to illustrate their voice-over narrative. Quotations drawn from Jung, Meerloo and others are also repeated as text on inserted title cards. There is an anti-Communist bias in AoI’s choice of historical news and documentary film but I suspect if AoI had tried to be more even-handed and neutral in their choice of films, they might possibly run afoul of censors in Canada. AoI’s selection of quotations from Meerloo’s work “The Rape of the Mind” (which was also critical of the House Un-American Activities Committee and its actions in the US during the 1950s) might suggest the film-makers are more even-handed than their video at first appears.

One chilling observation featured in the video is that those possessed by such ideas and ideologies that lead to a totalitarian mindset and the quest for power and control believe that what they are doing is good, not just for themselves but for others and the whole of society that they seek to dominate. They are blind to the possibility that they are setting themselves – and by implication, others and even entire nations and regions – up for ruin.

The transcript of the voice-over narrative appears at this link.

Is a Mass Psychosis the Greatest Threat to Humanity? – how mass delusion forms through real, imagined or fabricated threats

Is a Mass Psychosis the Greatest Threat to Humanity? (Academy of Ideas, 27 February 2021)

Academy of Ideas is a Canadian-based website that explores and explains the ideas, philosophies and psychological theories of selected past thinkers and psychologists such as Friedrich Nietzsche, Soren Kierkegaard and Carl Jung among others, with the aim of encouraging self-empowerment and individual action, and helping readers cope with media disinformation. AoI also run a Youtube channel, posting short videos on philosophy, psychology and particular topics that may be relevant (though in a limited way) to viewers’ current social / political contexts. Over the past couple of years AoI has released videos on social psychology, in particular on the phenomenon of mass psychosis in human societies.

In this video, with the use of paintings, drawings and archived film from the 1930s and 1940s, AoI investigates what mass psychosis is and gives historical examples (some of the more recent ones in the 20th and 21st centuries appear to be cherry-picked: for example, Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union under Stalin, China and North Korea) of societies that experienced such a phenomenon. The impact of mass psychosis on individuals, as explained by voice-over references to quotations by Carl Jung (reinforced with the text in inserted title cards), can be severe: individuals in such societies can be overcome and dominated by emotional, fearful and panicky thinking, and can end up carrying out acts including murder that they would normally consider repugnant. A society under psychosis is detached from reality, believing in and influenced by delusions about its place in the world and about other societies in that world, and acting accordingly. The psychosis can be driven by governments, corporations, other organisations (including mass media organisations) and individuals with self-serving agendas and ideologies.

The video goes on to explain that populations can be made fearful and vulnerable to manipulation leading to mass psychosis by threats that can be real or fabricated. Emphasis is put on the background cultural context of the targeted population as AoI sees it: if the society is made up of what AoI considers to be self-reliant, resilient and inwardly strong or inner-directed individuals, those people will confront and overcome the threat (no matter how arduous that effort, be it intellectual, physical and/or moral, may be) with strength and will power both individually and collectively. Once a population is in a state of panic, augmented by fearmongering tactics by mass media, its fears and anxieties can be directed into scapegoating minority groups or into supporting war against perceived enemies, with all the devastating consequences that can follow.

There is not space in the video to explain how pre-existing conditions in a society can influence whether it will respond in a positive or negative way to a crisis or threat: that explanation is given over to another AoI video. The artwork featured in the video – much of it by Hieronymous Bosch and Francisco Goya – is dramatic with strong if dark colouring and features depictions of violence.

While indeed some past 20th-century authoritarian societies do appear to be classic examples of mass psychosis, one also has to explain how these societies rallied against serious external threats, as the Soviet Union did against the Nazi German invasion in 1941 and defeated it, and how these societies managed to end their collective psychosis. On this, the video is silent, perhaps because it takes more than self-reliant and inner-directed individuals, whether acting on their own or together, to overcome mass psychosis: a culture and ideology that emphasises positive thinking and development, and which favours particular collective values and behaviours that might involve self-sacrifice and giving up one’s freedoms, must be present too.

A transcript of the video can be found at this link.

The Philosophy of Byung-Chul Han: Western society as a landscape of over-achievement, exhaustion, stress and burnout

Joshua Krook, “The Philosophy of Byung-Chul Han” (28 February 2021)

In his theory on mass formation psychosis, Belgian clinical psychologist Dr Mattias Desmet identified four features underpinning the emergence of the phenomenon: widespread social fragmentation, isolation and alienation; large numbers of people experiencing a lack of meaning or purpose in their lives; free-floating anxiety in the form of depression and stress; and free-floating psychological discontent often manifesting as aggression and hostility directed against scapegoats. Desmet does not go into much detail on how these features arise or relate to one another – but I chanced on finding on Youtube some videos on the philosophy (or aspects thereof) of South Korean-born German philosopher Byung-Chul Han who has written works on late-stage capitalism with its emphasis on digital technologies, how these technologies drive change and how the pace of this change affects humans and culture. Han’s most famous work is “Müdigkeitsgesellschaft”, known in English as “The Burnout Society”, in which Han treats contemporary Western society as a landscape of depression, stress, burnout and inability to concentrate created by a culture that prioritises a “can-do” attitude and positivity, encouraging everyone to be self-promoting and entrepreneurial, and subtly driving people into what Han calls self-exploitation and constant self-reference. “Achievement” (or rather, the process of becoming something) and recognition become ends in themselves, leading individuals to concentrate on striving to produce and achieve more and more, to succeed more and more, and driving them into exhaustion, stress and burnout – in short, the individual form of the free-floating anxiety that Desmet refers to in his theory of mass formation psychosis.

Vlogger Joshua Krook has put together a 10-minute video introducing the work of Byung-Chul Han to the general public, and a very good survey it is too of Han’s philosophical themes and his most significant writing. Krook sums up Han’s worldview succinctly: we live in a perfectionist, achievement-oriented society where untidiness and negativity are abhorred, and the quest for achievement, success and perfection is driving people into social isolation and mental illness. Some of us become manic about striving for perfection, and to achieve perfection we may become narcissistic and end up losing touch with others and ultimately with reality. If things don’t work out the way we expect them to, we may become intensely angry.

In the space of ten minutes, Krook ranges across five of Han’s most recent books: “The Burnout Society”, “Saving Beauty”, “The Transparent Society”, “Good Entertainment: A Deconstruction of the Western Passion Narrative” and (I think, because Krook does not actually mention the title) “The Agony of Eros”. Intriguing ideas that Krook finds in these works include Han’s criticism of the aesthetic of much current art and culture which emphasises perfection and achievement in the form of smooth lines and surfaces, trapping the viewer in a banal relationship with artistic objects that do not permit individual interpretation or deeper engagement. Another interesting notion is Han’s apparent challenging (as Krook sees it) of the difference between high art and low art, between art for its own sake and art done for self-pleasure, and the suggestion that art done for self-pleasure or for fun, no matter how fleeting it is, may be more authentic than art produced for an earnest purpose.

While Krook’s survey of Han’s work does not directly link Han’s philosophy to supporting Desmet’s mass formation theory, viewers of Krook’s video who also go on to investigate other of Han’s work, such as the philosopher’s analysis of violence in Western society in books such as “Topology of Violence” and “Psychopolitics: Neoliberalism and New Technologies of Power”, will be able to see how Han’s work helps to buttress Desmet’s mass formation theory though it is worth investigating in its own right.

As the voiceover soundtrack to Krook’s video essay is the essay’s most important feature, and is fast and dense with information, viewers may need a transcript of the essay to follow the narration.

Public Latrines in Ancient Rome: a droll introduction to Classical Roman daily life, culture and attitudes

Garrett Ryan, “Public Latrines in Ancient Rome” (Toldinstone, 15 December 2021)

In the space of seven minutes (as twenty seconds are devoted to the mention of the video sponsor whose business is relevant to the subject matter), historian Dr Garrett Ryan deftly gives a quick survey of the use of toilets, private and public, in cities and large towns in the Roman Empire. The first couple of minutes quickly dispenses with private toilets in houses and shops (often located near or even in kitchens so they could double as food garbage bins) and usually emptying into cesspits not necessarily connected to sewers which might allow noxious gases or unwelcome vermin to enter homes. Apartment dwellers made do with clay chamber-pots that would be emptied through the window into streets (and maybe onto unwary pedestrians) below; on many occasions the chamber-pot might well inadvertently follow the wastes with unfortunate, even fatal consequences for the unlucky pedestrians. Public latrines provided an alternative to private toilets and chamber-pots: they could range from two-seat facilities on the ground floors of apartment blocks through 12-seat facilities (fairly common) to massive buildings seating as many as 50, 70 and 80 patrons equipped with heated or mosaic floors, marbled panelling, painted walls and even statues. Even the seats themselves could be made of marble.

After the plug (ahem) for the sponsor, the video explains what using a public latrine would have been like for patrons: you would pass through a swinging door or curtain after paying a fee to the attendant into a dimly lit room (to help preserve privacy) and sit on one of several toilet seats set in bench-like constructions of stone (in southern Europe) or wood (in northern Europe) over hidden sewer pipes carrying grey water from public baths, to do your business. A slot beneath the seat allowed patrons to clean their privates with an absorbent soft Mediterranean-Sea sponge on a stick, moistened before use and cleaned after. Such items of course could spread disease (though Ryan does not mention that the sponge sticks might be cleaned with vinegar after use). Many Romans resorted to using pottery shards, old cloths or used papyrus as toilet paper, or splashed their privates with water. They would wash their hands in basins that were provided. The floors of public latrines were designed to be easily washable and narrow windows set high in the walls enabled some air flow and ventilation. Candles might have burned incense to disguise odours.

Public latrines did have their hazards: if they were located near the sea, the odd octopus might come crawling out of the toilet as did rats and snakes that might bite patrons on the family jewels; and the build-up of hydrogen sulphides together with methane gases beneath the seats caused explosions that did more severe damage than rats and snakes did.

The video is a very droll and entertaining introduction to Roman daily life and the customs and institutions of Roman culture and society. There is very little in the video about how the design of Roman-era public latrines reflects Roman attitudes about cleanliness, public hygiene and sanitation, and how they prioritised public sanitation over the control of public water supply (or not). Roman ideas about what was clean, what was dirty and what caused disease or encouraged disease or disease-causing parasites to spread were very different from ours – because much of our knowledge is built on what Romans did and on what others who followed them did.

Compared to other societies of their time and those that immediately followed them in Europe after Rome fell to Germanic invaders in the fifth century CE, the Romans did not do too badly in trying to keep large urban settlements in which hundreds if not thousands of people lived in crowded conditions, and public cleanliness and sanitation had to be a high priority for urban administrators, clean – and in many parts of Europe including Britain, Roman efforts in public sanitation (and even in building private toilets in houses and shops) were not exceeded until the late nineteenth or even early twentieth centuries.

The Disastrous Liberation of the Philippines: how the US failed to end war and suffering in 1944 – 1945

Carlton Meyer, “The Disastrous Liberation of the Philippines” (Tales of the American Empire, 10 December 2021)

In this short documentary, military historian Carlton Meyer makes his case that the US decision to liberate the Philippines from Japanese rule in 1944, when US armed forces could have bypassed that part of Southeast Asia (as they did with Singapore and Malaysia), and blockaded the island chains stretching from Formosa (Taiwan) through Okinawa and the Ryukyu Islands to southern Japan, and even to the Korean Peninsula, was the most disastrous the US made in the Pacific front against Japan. By attempting to liberate the Philippines, the US action not only resulted in the unnecessary deaths of thousands of US and Filipino soldiers, and of even more thousands of Filipino civilians and the destruction of Filipino cities, but delayed the conclusion of the war. Actions the US took to blockade Japan and cripple its military industries took place much later in 1945 than sooner in 1944. Japan’s offer to surrender might have been accepted sooner as well, though Meyer notes that the US deliberately delayed accepting Japan’s surrender because it wanted to demonstrate the effectiveness of its atomic bomb program to the Soviet Union and that program was not ready in early 1945.

Meyer lays out how the US could have effectively used a blockade of Japan to force that nation to surrender earlier and save millions of lives, not to mention using its troops in areas where they really were needed (in China and Korea perhaps) and thus preventing Soviet entry into the war against Japan. (This probably might not have stopped China and Korea from accepting Communist government but might have reduced popular support for the Communists.) Cutting supplies from Japan to the Philippines by an island blockade could have led to early Japanese surrender in the Philippines followed by an orderly withdrawal of Japanese troops – in most other parts of Asia and the Pacific region, Japanese soldiers surrendered and withdrew without necessarily fighting to the death – and the destruction of cities and towns in the Philippines would have been less severe.

The weakest part of the documentary is in Meyer’s attempt to find and explain why the US did not do what it should have done. There were individuals in the US Joint Chiefs of Staff who supported US Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz’s plan for blockading Japan. Meyer fingers US General Douglas Macarthur as the main advocate for retaking the Philippines in order to salvage his tattered reputation after his catastrophic defence of the Philippines against Japanese invasion in 1942. Whether the Roosevelt administration supported Macarthur over Nimitz’s plan or Nimitz changed his mind (under pressure from others perhaps), Meyer is unable to say. He is also unable to say what reasons may have attached to the US decision to liberate the Philippines and prolong the fighting unnecessarily, and if these reasons might themselves have been based on geopolitical or other agendas, the consequences of which would have given the US political, economic or other strategic advantages in East and Southeast Asia and the Pacific region.

Visual material including maps and archived film and photos help illustrate Meyer’s argument of what the US could and should have done. The voiceover narration can be quite fast and viewers may need to re-run the film to catch the details of what Meyer says. The implications of Meyer’s argument are enormous, as the decision not to follow Nimitz’s plan to blockade Japan resulted not just in unnecessary suffering, death and destruction but had widespread consequences for other parts of Asia beyond Japan and the Philippines which themselves generated further actions and results that are still working out in the geopolitics of this part of the world more than 70 years later.

In the context of Meyer’s Tales of the American Empire series, it’s hard not to think that the US decision to “liberate” the Philippines in the way this was done was perhaps to keep the Filipino people in such a wretched and impoverished state that they would never be able to press for independence.

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