Saturday, 23 February 2013

Classic Films: To Kill A Mockingbird

"I swore never to read again after 'To Kill a Mockingbird' gave me no useful advice on killing mockingbirds. It did teach me not to judge a man based on the colour of his skin, but what good does that do me?" - Homer Simpson
I've never seen a Hollywood film, or any other film for that matter, that makes the case for racism. Perhaps they exist, but I do not know of them. It's not to say that films have no racist elements to them, or at the very least don't help the case against racism by their (ab)use of stereotypes; but as far as films go, the anti-racism message is one of those things one can explicitly preach without it being derided as propaganda.

It doesn't (shouldn't?) need to be said that the message of such films is a very socially important one. And as far as films go in the genre, To Kill A Mockingbird is the most powerful I have seen. It was, I think, because of it telling the story through the eyes of innocent children. The simple plea for empathy combined with Gregory Peck's excellent articulation of the cultural norms, were points well made.

I'm used to modern courtroom dramas where there's always doubt put on the circumstances. There can never be a clear-cut case anymore, probably because it feels contrived. This being a clear case of injustice wouldn't make for good TV today, but it was important for the message about the prejudices of the time. It struck me as really odd that only one side of the closing arguments was presented, but given what the film was trying to say, it was the right decision to do so.

While later films directly addressing race like Mississippi Burning or American History X tried their hand at realism, To Kill A Mockingbird was fantasy. By telling the story the way it did, it seemed to represent a hope for the future - a future in which people would look beyond their own prejudices and those of their society and towards what makes each of us valuable as humans. Maybe it was a naive hope (certainly a hope that looks hopelessly anachronistic from my 21st century perspective), but it's hard not to feel moved by that hope.

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Informed Consumerism

I remember a news article a few years ago about a butcher in Perth who started selling horse meat, despite receiving death threats for doing so. It's one of those interesting cases where differences in cultural sensibilities come to light. With the recent horse meat scandal in Europe, it seems that the British share that Australian revulsion to the thought of eating horse meat, while the rest of Europe is instead outraged over the mislabelling of the meat.

I can sympathise with people having a taboo violated without their consent, though that problem stems from the underlying problem of not having informed consent. If they were correctly identified as horse meat burgers, it existing might have been a source of revulsion to some, but at least then they could have avoided the product. The incorrect labelling is the problem here.

One of the things that hit me strongest in Food Inc. was the corporate reluctance to properly label food items. Their reasoning: the consumer is too ill-informed to be able to be given accurate information. Of all the things in that movie that could have outraged me, that outraged me the most. I'm pro-science and not in any way opposed to bringing science to our food, but it's vitally important that I as a consumer is not being misled about what I'm eating.

In the case of the horse meat, the companies involved violated that most basic and important of societal agreements - a transaction in good faith. As consumers, we aren't in a position to trace back the source of our food to its exact origin, nor do we have DNA testing equipment that can be taken with us to the supermarket. The labels are all we really have in order to make an informed choice. Obfuscation and dishonesty violate that social contract.

We can't be informed consumers unless we know what it is we are consuming. I'd contend leaked exposé videos of parts of the process with varying degrees of truth are a symptom of this lost understanding. I'd also contend those paranoid chain emails and websites about deadly products are too. Though it's understandable, if something so innocuous as what meat is being used in a product cannot be correctly conveyed, just what can we trust about a secretive and arcane industry?

Saturday, 16 February 2013

Classic Films: Chinatown

"You're a very nosy fellow, kitty cat. Huh? You know what happens to nosy fellows? Huh? No? Wanna guess? Huh? No? Okay. They lose their noses." - Thug
I'm in two minds about Chinatown. In its favour, the film was well made, had great performances, interesting characters, and kept up the tension and mystery. On the other hand, the red herring twist was reminiscent of M. Night Shyamalan at his worst. The movie begins innocuously as a murder mystery, gradually building into a political conspiracy. But with 20 minutes to go, the film reveals that the real dirty truth was an incestuous relationship. After that, it was hard to concentrate on anything other than my disappointment with the film.

Yet over the last few days, I've had a chance to digest the film. And as I thought about it more, the more that grievance seemed insignificant. After all, the reveal is not the journey, and the journey was (otherwise) masterfully done. The whole film being told from a single perspective, including occasionally jumping into the first-person, made for captivating viewing. We saw the events unfold as they appeared to the private eye, where Jack Nicholson's performance as J.J. Gittes made every scene. It was captivating, it was mysterious, and it was very unexpected that LA in the middle of a drought could make for a good location for film noir.

Some of the choices in cinematography surprised me in a good way. One thing that really impressed me was how unchoreographed the fight scenes were. It was ugly to the point of being almost humorous, and very refreshing to see a leading role with someone who hasn't spent his nights secretly training for hand-to-hand combat.

Beyond that, I really don't have much to say. The film was intriguing enough that the incest twist angered me rather than made me pity the film (like I did with The Village), so that to me suggests the story really captivated me up until that point. And I have no complaints about the dark ending, especially after what difference removing the feel-good ending did to Blade Runner.

Saturday, 9 February 2013

Classic Films: Network

"We're talking about putting a manifestly irresponsible man on national television." - Frank Hackett
When I first heard that quote uttered, my mind immediately leapt to Glenn Beck. Of course that name could be filled by any number of pundits on TV today, and my mind jumped to the conclusion that this was going to be a smart drama about the effects of commercialism on news networks. And that message may have been in there, for all I know, but it was lost among heavy and relentless preaching about the evils of television and its effect on last generation. Paranoid preaching that grossly exaggerates the problem, leaving this film not as a smart look at the way ratings drive news and content, but as a blanket condemnation of television on us as individuals.

Perhaps I have Network to thank (blame) for the widespread condemnation of television as a medium. The message was something that's been distributed for as long as I can remember, yet I think the film missed the mark by contrasting the frivolous with the former respectability of the newsroom, instead of going after the pernicious masquerade that the News is. Yes I know this is meant to be a satire, and I know I'm judging the film from a post-FOX era, but the exaggerated news-as-entertainment isn't much of an issue. The moment Peter Finch went to being a newsroom preacher was the moment I lost interest.

But it wasn't enough to have a preacher on TV preaching its ills, but the second half of the film was largely devoted to an old man telling off his mistress with far too many speeches of "back in my day..." It's made worse by the virtue of assuming that TV has taken the humanity out of humans, where now everything is merely acting out a script, and there's no true feeling any more. One scene where the woman's sexual climax comes from listing off ratings was just painful to watch.

The film started with such promise - a fired anchor promises to kill himself on air. While the actual ending could have been a lot worse, the film could have redeemed itself by fulfilling that promise made at the beginning. By that time, the character had shifted from depressed, through outraged, onto borderline insane, then finally into a puppet. Was I meant to care that he was killed for ratings by that stage? He was taken out of all believability long before then. When he implored us to turn off our televisions, I nearly did.

Ironically, it's a TV show that has best captured the ideal of TV news. HBO's The Newsroom does a much better job of it. It too is preachy, but is on the mark. Likewise, the satire that The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, or Australia's CNNNN all hit the mark with brilliant satire. Compared to those, Network comes of as elitist and condescending.

Saturday, 2 February 2013

Classic Films: Dr Strangelove

"Based on the findings of the report, my conclusion was that this idea was not a practical deterrent for reasons which at this moment must be all too obvious." - Dr Strangelove
One of the most memorable passages out of Jon Ronson's The Men Who Stared At Goats was his description of a military general who reasoned himself into his ability to walk through walls. The book, full of wacky antics of men in uniform, loses its hilarity when I stop and reflect on the destructive capacity they have at their disposal.

While it's easy to get moralistic and preachy about nuclear weaponry, I'm glad that Dr Strangelove went the black comedy path. Anything less wouldn't capture the insanity of the proposition at hand. Perhaps the screwball moments were a little too light, but the satirical comedy shone like a nuclear blast.

The real humour, though, was the same humour that Kurt Vonnegut captured so well in Cat's Cradle. The utter disbelief that these events could possibly transpire, not for its implausibility but precisely the opposite. The strive for power, the dehumanisation of the enemy, and the fear that the opponent will do the same - it all seems jaw-droppingly real. Indeed, that's where my jaw was for the final 20 minutes of the film.

The film is soon to turn 50, and I have never known what it's like to live in cold war conditions. The Soviet Union dissolved when I was 7. The nuclear threat, for me, has been what a terrorist network or state hopes to acquire, or (even worse) a proposed solution in the war on terrorism. We're meant to be frightened that North Korea and Iran have nuclear ambitions, but it's odd that we're at 5 minutes to midnight on the Doomsday Clock now, while this film was released at 12 minutes to midnight.

The anti-communist rhetoric of the film (especially Jack D Ripper's speech on base) is something that sounds like the anti-Muslim rhetoric of today. Likewise, the paranoid conspiracy ranting of General Ripper sounds quite normal compared to the insane conspiracies of today. The Orwellian message on the military billboard "Peace is our business" was a nice touch.

The imagery of a cowboy riding a nuclear weapon to Armageddon is perfect. If it were an argument, it's the ultimate reductio ad absurdum to the concept of Mutually Assured Destruction. Rational self-interest is a dangerous thing to gamble on, and with countries still harbouring nuclear ambitions, is there anything to do other than laugh at the insanity? If we didn't laugh, that would be grounds for insanity.

So, yes, I enjoyed Dr Strangelove. Though given I was already a fan of Kubrick, I expected to enjoy it.