Archive for the ‘Jennifer Epps’ Category

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by Jennifer Epps

I normally hate to make Oscar predictions. It usually depresses me. By the time the predictions start proliferating, it’s a cold matter of analysis of the awards already given out by the guilds, BAFTA, Hollywood Foreign Press Association, and (to a certain extent) the critics’ associations, like predicting presidential nominees by counting poll numbers and delegates before the conventions. You wouldn’t even need to have seen the movies first, because it tends to be a simple numbers game. I don’t much like thinking along those lines; I’d rather keep my mind on what should win.

This year is different. I actually think that, rather miraculously, 12 Years a Slave is going to win the Oscar for Best Picture. This may be the one time in Oscar history when the film which so unquestionably deserves to win actually does win.

Moreover, the selection of 12 Years a Slave brings a great many other precedents with it. It is the most uncompromising of the movies likely to be on the list of Best Picture nominees. It is not comfort food. It is not the kind of film which requires nothing of the audience, or reassures them about their own complacencies. Although the performances are amazing, they can’t be separated from the crystal-clear relevance of the film — unlike for instance, the striking, masterful, 8-category nominee There Will Be Blood (2007), when everyone talked about Daniel Day-Lewis’ fearless performance but overlooked the damning psychological portrait of an American oil baron. The directing, acting, screenplay, cinematography, editing, and music of 12 Years a Slave are all astonishing, but none of them let the viewer forget that this is a true story — an adaptation of a first-person slave narrative published in 1853 — and that it is a history churning with urgency about politics, race, and justice in America.

And then, of course, there’s the fact that director Steve McQueen would be the first black director to helm a film that receives the Oscar for Best Picture.

I won’t go into whether he will automatically win the Oscar for Best Director too, since we know very well from last year that the two categories are not necessarily in lockstep, but he should. He would be the first black director to do that as well: John Singleton and Lee Daniels are the only two to ever even be nominated in that category. (It’s hard to believe, but Spike Lee has never been nominated for an Oscar for Best Director — only for Screenplay and Documentary — though he did get a well-deserved Golden Globe directing nom for Do the Right Thing.) No black director has won the Golden Globe for film directing before either. If McQueen wins the top Directors Guild prize leading up to the Oscars, he would also be the first black director to achieve that honor.

It’s certainly a year with an abundance of talented, thoughtful, and fiercely independent directors. (Alfonso Cuarón’s technical skill, graceful style, and boldness of vision in his gorgeous Gravity are especially impressive. Even more notable is the degree to which he turned a potentially “Hollywood-ized’ sci-fi actioner into a compelling meditation on space, our dependence on Mother Earth, and the insignificance and significance of a human life.) I feel rather sorry for Steve McQueen’s competitors, in fact, simply because they might have had better chances another year.

The director, who is about as far removed in attitude and appearance from the cocksure 1960’s movie star Steve McQueen, has actually only made 3 feature films. (Although he has directed an incredible number of shorts.) Yet this British filmmaker’s first feature clearly showed him to be an extraordinary artist, idiosyncratic and visionary. Hunger (2008), a biographical drama like no other, was jaw-dropping. He has simply continued to get better with each feature, single-mindedly carving out his own path with utterly unique projects on rock-serious subjects that few would touch. Hunger is about the 1980’s IRA prisoners’ hunger strike led by Bobby Sands: McQueen makes the concept completely visceral by boldly showing us what it looks like for a person to starve to death. His second film, Shame, mercilessly examines sex addiction, incest, and psychic pain with a minimum of dialogue and a shortage of easy answers.

McQueen’s latest, 12 Years a Slave, is a searing period drama adapted by John Ridley from Solomon Northrup’s memoir. It’s a story that, as McQueen himself has said, was crying out to be made into a film. Northrup was a free, educated, black father and husband; a prominent member of an upstate New York community; an engineer and respected violinist. Then he was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the south.

By focusing on a protagonist who has grown up free, the film is able to expose slavery anew: we can feel the horrors of it more vividly and acutely because the victim is so confident, so used to self-determination. He goes through enormous suffering, his faith and hope are destroyed, and he finds himself unable to philosophically reconcile the horrendous crime against him — yet in this way he’s a kind of witness for all slaves. Though Northrup’s kidnapping is part of an illicit commerce between the states (the process of abolition in the Northern states gave slave owners ample time to divest from their slave holdings, thereby leading many to just sell their slaves to the south), the 12 million Africans who were kidnapped and brought to the Americas before Northrup’s story even began were themselves ripped from their homes, loved ones, and sense of their own humanity in very much the same way.

Actor Chiwetel Ejiofor’s face, no matter how devastated, always reveals the free man inside. And McQueen makes clear the inner dignity of those born into slavery as well, in a variety of scenes with black supporting players — the fact that some are used to this mistreatment certainly doesn’t make it any easier on them than it is on him.

Black men on the boat traveling south try their best to overcome their terrible situation, but the odds are against them. The price of rebellion is death. Another angle is presented by Alfre Woodard, in a cameo as a privileged apple of a white man’s eye; though she plays house rather like a society matron, she bears no illusions about her status or the meaning of the slavery project as a whole — unlike the cartoonish Candyland toadies which Quentin Tarantino had so little sympathy for in Django Unchained.

It is Lupita Nyong’o, however, in a truthful and heartfelt performance as the charming, spirited, much-tormented slave Patsey, who deeply enriches the moral significance and complexity of the world Northrup encounters — and whose continued captivity when Northrup is finally freed helps ensure that we don’t regard it as an unalloyed happy ending. McQueen doesn’t let the audience off the hook.

The movie lays bare in chilling detail a great many of the mechanics of slavery, and even familiar tropes like the masters’ rapes, the wives’ jealousy, and the backbreaking toil are brought home in ways that seem fresh. McQueen’s special ability to invoke the audience’s empathy in Hunger and Shame are even stronger here, where Ejiofor’s raw emotion and spiritual pain lend a depth to his suffering that is almost Shakespearean.

Indeed, the acting is tremendous with the exception of Brad Pitt, and the visiting Canadian he plays too close to the vest (though Pitt should be commended for his vision in producing the film — getting it made in the first place.) Paul Giamatti is first-rate as the slave trader who slaps and shoves his “merchandise’ around and makes domination his business. Paul Dano is quite brave as an overseer who seethes with resentment over Northrup’s intelligence — Dano’s willingness to dig into the ugliness of such a mentality is profound . Sarah Paulson is intense as a brooding, tightly-coiled, wronged wife, full of perhaps the most virulent race-hatred in the movie. And Michael Fassbender (in his third collaboration with McQueen) is wonderful — as he always is — in a colorful, eccentric role as a depressed, alcoholic, hands-on master; his villainy is also Shakespearean, by turns red-hot and soft-spoken, powerful and needy. (In the interests of full disclosure, I must mention that his character’s last name is Epps. Since this is based on a memoir and that might be the real slave master’s name, I pray that there’s no relation.)

There’s such a subtle, wide-ranging understanding of racism in the film, it really is provocative in the way it challenges viewers on issues of personal accountability for social wrongs. The versatile Benedict Cumberbatch is Ford, Northrup’s first master after the kidnapping. Ford is an intelligent and feeling man who admires the special musical and engineering skills of his slave — but he still gives him a violin instead of freedom. Ford’s complicity in the injustice against Northrup is one of the finer points made by the film; Ford sees how much suffering the slave market creates, but he makes only the merest peep and then drops his complaint. (The agony caused by separating parents from their children is an extended topic of the film.) Ford is also impressed, and takes advantage of for the benefits to his business, Northrup’s exceptional levels of education. But when Northrup tries to tell him that he’s a free man, Ford exclaims “I cannot hear that!”

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CARRIE (1976) VS. CARRIE (2013)

Posted: January 12, 2014 in Jennifer Epps

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 by Jennifer Epps

  • The DVD release date for Carrie (2013) is Jan. 14th.

 

When I heard that Kimberly Peirce was directing a new film version of the bullying horror flick Carrie, I thought it a safe bet that the bullying would go cyber (though Carrie herself would be out of the loop), that the gym teacher would have to eschew physical disciplining of the students, and that the high school might have more diversity. I predicted correctly, though none of these updates warranted remaking the movie. Peirce’s feminism, however, did suggest that she would steer Stephen King’s Cinderella story away from some of the most misogynistic excesses of Brian De Palma’s 1976 take on it, — and that was what seemed like a worthwhile endeavor.

The plight of misfit Carrie White and her coming-of-age has archetypal fairy tale resonance in De Palma’s prom-night movie, albeit complicated by De Palma’s typically icky ambivalence about women. (He would exhibit particularly nasty iconography against females in Body Double). The ‘wicked stepmother’ in this Cinderella tale is Carrie’s biological mother, but she feels just as threatened by the ingenue’s budding sexuality as the traditional matrons of these tales. Female peers (stepsisters in the Cinderella case, classmates in Carrie’s) also feel competitive with the heroine, and they do their best to undermine her; she feels she has no female network of support. Happily, a dashing and much-admired Prince Charming, normally out of range for this lowly, unsophisticated girl, discerns her merit; he sees past the cinders be-griming her features to her shining essence, as it were. These sorts of tropes, embraced for so long in fairy tales, began to be questioned and deplored by feminist critics in the 1970s – the same era that the novel and the movie emerged. In addition to transcending De Palma’s male-centric blinders, Peirce’s remake held the promise of re-examining the Cinderella archetypes behind it all with more psycho-social savvy.

Indeed, Peirce does emphasize girl-power, go easier on Mom, and show that despite competition the possibility of female friendship still exists. And she tries pretty hard to eschew the ‘male gaze’ that colored De Palma’s version. Gone is the prurient opening credit sequence in the locker-room, during which De Palma’s camera watched beautiful young women dress themselves (or not dress at all) in slow motion. The lyrical music and the way the actresses playfully thwacked each other with towels rather than cover up with them was jokey, of course, but it was like De Palma trying to make a Benny Hill skit seem intellectual. In a couple of other scenes, De Palma went in for close-ups of be-gowned Carrie and naughty-girl Chris’ nipples under their clothes (braless thanks to the seventies) but Peirce makes adolescent sexuality a central factor in her film without being voyeuristic about it.

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Also gone: the prudish old-maid secretary glaring at Carrie disdainfully in the principal’s waiting room, Chris giving a parking-lot blow-job to her guy in order to get a favor in return, classmate Sue’s mental breakdown, and Sue’s mother drinking and watching soaps in the afternoons. Moreover, Sue is now a more central character, representing a kind of well-adjusted alternative to both Carrie’s fearful withdrawal and Chris’ defiant acting-out. (Peirce has stated that her aim was to adhere much more closely to King’s novel. Though Lawrence D. Cohen, who adapted King’s book for the original film, is also credited here for part of the screenplay, a new screenwriter, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, has been added to the mix.)

Peirce doesn’t laugh off the conflict between Chris and her boyfriend Billy like De Palma did. While in 1976 Nancy Allen and John Travolta played these scenes with great comic flair – revealing how petty and superficial their relationship was behind-the-scenes – De Palma also thought it was funny for Billy to slap Chris in the face, hard, on several occasions. Peirce, who took brutality against women very seriously indeed in her 1999 breakout debut Boys Don’t Cry, naturally sees it differently. So she presents Billy as egging Chris on, daring her — a dark character instead of a buffoon – and she implies that Billy is very capable of violence against Chris.

As a whole, the young men in the 2013 Carrie have more of an edge than the cut-ups in De Palma’s flick. This is a level not just in Billy (Alex Russell) but also in the star athlete and dream date Tommy (Ansel Elgort). His dialogue would make him seem to be upstanding and devoted, but he apparently doesn’t use protection with his girlfriend Sue (Gabriella Wilde), and he certainly doesn’t care much about romancing her first. There’s also a change in a minor character: the male English teacher is no longer an effeminate elf in a bow-tie, but a handsome hetero who makes eyes at a teenage girl in his class. Moreover, all Carrie’s female peers are now regularly, thoughtlessly, sexually active as a staple of high school culture. So though Carrie’s 1976 mom seemed to be spinning phantasmagorias of sexual danger out of thin air, it’s not that unrealistic for the 2013 parent to worry that Carrie might get impregnated in the back of someone’s car her first time out of the house. (The craziness lies in thinking that therefore Carrie must never have any kind of life whatsoever.)

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The biggest difference between the two movies revolves around how Carrie’s lunatic mother Margaret White is understood. The role Piper Laurie had to play in 1976 – and in which she gave an admirable, theatrical performance – was devout with a capital D, and a woman-hater. She held fast to every scriptural anti-female reference she could find, and she apparently didn’t even believe in sex after marriage. Her twisted, fundamentalist Christian ideology (as extreme as if she had been reared in a private cult in a remote cabin) seemed to have scarred her from a very early age, and to have driven Carrie’s father away.

This was interesting in that it oppressed Carrie terribly, and when she rebelled against her mom she was also defying patriarchy. But De Palma’s film also suggested that it was only when Margaret is skewered with kitchen utensils that she can be sexual – pinioned by weapons from the knife rack, she panted and moaned as if in ecstasy. Visually, her pose echoed a spooky Saint Sebastian statue in Carrie’s prayer closet: the famous martyr shot with arrows, able to commune better with God because of it. Granted, the iconography of the bound, almost-nude Sebastian – much like that of the crucified Christ — does speak to a thread of psychosexual fascination with agony and ecstasy that lurks under historic Christianity. But in the real world, there are a lot more women who have to worry about other people confusing those two poles in their treatment of them than there are men who do. De Palma isn’t exactly serving society by putting that kind of imagery out there, however masterfully photographed and edited. (And it is masterfully photographed and edited, with a powerful score as well. Like Sam Peckinpah before him, De Palma’s very talent is a frustrating part of the problem; it makes the misogyny all the more compelling.)

By contrast, though Julianne Moore does play Margaret in the 2013 remake as a mentally ill person steeped in bizarre, oppressive dogma, she also loves her daughter in her own way. She is a little more functional too: she drives, she comes to school when called in. Though still a seamstress, she works at a dry cleaner’s rather than in her living-room, and she doesn’t dress in such a puritanical serge uniform and cape. (Moore looks conservative and prim in the movie, but not like a Salem witch-hunter, as Laurie did.) The production design even makes Margaret’s home decorating skills seem normal this time around – it’s kind of inexplicable, but Peirce doesn’t seem to want the Whites’ house to look like it’s in a horror movie. So unlike the house De Palma made into an eerie character of its own, this house is attractive and roomy; its yard and street are verdant and well-kept; the plain, freshly-painted walls are light-colored; the furniture is pleasantly arranged and ready for company; and judgmental male religious icons don’t surround the female inhabitants and glare down at them as they did in De Palma’s version.

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The extent to which Margaret hates herself is now more pitiful – and less funny-scary, the frequent quality of De Palma’s films (as Pauline Kael perceptively pointed out). Peirce’s movie digs deeper into Margaret’s self-hatred, and makes it quite serious. Whereas Margaret’s self-punishment was a passing idea in the 1976 film – and even seemed a little like she was putting it on for show in front of Carrie — here the miserable single mom is constantly engaged in self-harm. Any time Margaret is on-screen in this remake seems to invoke her secret addiction to self-mutilation and scarification.

In Aguirre-Sacasa’s screenplay update, it is much clearer that Margaret’s rigid hatred of sex was caused by a past rape, and Margaret is less of a monster and more a victim of traumas. Peirce’s film begins with a gripping prelude: blood-curdling screams and a slowly creeping camera find Margaret in the midst of labor, utterly alone, and at the same time completely unaware of how babies are made. She thinks she’s dying, not giving birth. This indelible image ensures that Margaret’s pathology will arouse some sympathy, and that we will keep that feeling for a good while.

On paper, such feminist angles seem like workable ideas. But a movie is not made of paper. There may have been problems with the story De Palma was telling, but he sure told it well; he has been a superb craftsman throughout his career. His Carrie is a prime example of how he can drive you crazy with suspense, contrast moods from scene to scene to scene, and take total charge of your emotions. Somehow, Peirce does a poor job at all of these essential things here — though she did them very well in Boys Don’t Cry. In cheesier territory than she was in for that debut drama or for her sophomore film Stop-Loss, she doesn’t seem to know how to handle tone. De Palma was adept at the balancing act; he could make a joke just in the way he moved the camera, never let you forget that you were watching a movie, and still scare you. In her own Carrie, Peirce doesn’t seem to know when she should be realistic and when she should be ridiculous, or which one she’s being at any one time.

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FREEBIRDS
UP WITH TURKEYS! “Free Birds” and Animal Rights

“The only message in it is all the holidays are about pressing pause in your life and getting together with the people that you love and appreciating them.”

Jimmy Hayward, writer-director of Free Birds

BY JENNIFER EPPS

It may be true that Jimmy Hayward had no political or social agenda when he co-wrote the animated adventure-comedy Free Birds, a time travel romp which sends a pair of turkeys back to 1621 to interfere with the pilgrims’ first Thanksgiving feast and try to “take turkeys off the menu.” Filmmakers frequently disavow any ulterior motive when they make films that could be controversial, but maybe he really thought it was just a good story. Frankly, his intentions are his own business. We vegetarians don’t get much entertainment of our own, and a Thanksgiving fantasy in which a turkey pardoned by the President and a commando from the Turkey Freedom Front go on a mission “not just to save 10 turkeys or 100 turkeys, but all turkeys for all time” is pretty mind-blowing. Of course we’re likely to be reminded almost as soon as we leave the cinema that the slaughter continues, but you can’t change the future if you can’t imagine how different it could be. Free Birds works the way The Yes Men’s fantasy newspaper headlines did in their prank New York Times issues,  or the way John Lennon’s lyrics in “Imagine” do. They affirm that you can, in fact, imagine a Thanksgiving tradition in which the pilgrims ate boxed pizza. It’s easy if you try.

The movie doesn’t advocate a totally plant-based diet, so I’m afraid vegans might not be fully satisfied. And in one shot a pizza even has anchovies! But Rome wasn’t built in a day, and the stacks of pizzas delivered via time machine do seem to be just cheese pizzas with tomato sauce — no meat is in evidence. Moreover, the fact that Woody Harrelson’s voice is in this movie is a significant part of its delights. Not only does his deft vocal performance have beautiful comic timing as a self-important, barrel-chested turkey warrior for the cause, but the presence of this premier vegan in a growing list of celebrity herbivores (which includes not only Bill Clinton but now Al Gore), speaks to the positive spirit of the film. To have Harrelson playing Jake, the most motivated, most activist turkey of them all, is a clever in-joke.

Like Chicken Run, irrepressible Aardman Animations’ take on another species of fowl who would rather live than be eaten, the plight of the characters in Free Birds is grim, but much less in a PETA spy-cam kind of way than in a boisterous, storybook adventure way. The Thanksgiving tradition may loom over the eponymous turkeys, but the specific villain is a scowling, Cockney military officer determined to hunt down the wild turkeys in the woods near the Puritans’ settlement, and most of the movie is about the wild birds’ attempts to stay safe in a vast underground colony while also carrying out guerrilla ambushes.

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There’s just enough context to provoke thought – should the viewer so choose. The movie launches off with a powerful contrast between the Norman Rockwell glow that Thanksgiving brings to humans feasting on a succulent golden-brown bird and the horror felt in the breast of a member of that species – realizing for the first time the truth behind his kind’s coexistence with humans. The president’s public pardoning of one turkey also shows some of the hypocritical tension that lurks behind our eating habits: he makes a speech (voiced by Hayward himself) as he proudly rescues the lone turkey, excoriating the “terrible, but delicious” fate this one fortunate fowl has escaped.

Amusingly, when the turkey hero Reggie (Owen Wilson) warns his peers on the farm of the vast plot against them, none of them will believe him. They’re blissfully oblivious of the danger  – and that’s because, Reggie’s voice-over tells us, turkeys are stupid. I like the implicit argument (which let me repeat is completely implicit) that even an unintelligent life form might want and deserve better than becoming our dinner. (A hierarchical Chain of Being is usually part of carnivores’ defenses of meat eating, even though it is a very vulnerable argument.) The complacency of the unsuspecting turkeys works as social satire as well: when the flock finally realizes that the intellectual Reggie, who they’ve been ostracizing, is right about why the farmer’s been fattening them up, they turn against him even more: because “he’s anti-corn.”

However, when Reggie ends up, through convoluted steps (and a time machine that’s an experiment of the U.S. military!), back in 1621, the wild turkeys he meets turn out to be completely different. They’re self-sufficient, alert, and much more pro-active; it’s apparently the domestication and dependency that dumbed the turkeys down. In case we might think this is only true for farm animals, there are also scenes of Reggie enjoying life as a remote-flipping, pizza-munching, couch potato addicted to Telenovelas. And when he’s in that mode, he doesn’t think as clearly as the more active turkeys. Sounds familiar.

The 17th century wild American turkeys have been forced further and further back off their land by the white Europeans – and since this mimics what happened to the Native Americans, it’s fitting that many of these turkeys paint their faces with war paint like in some indigeneous tribes. The head of the wild flock is also presented very much like an Indian chief, and finds himself a victim of a similar march of progress. In the climax, the turkeys face off against the Europeans on the battlefield: the turkeys have only wooden spears and flaming pumpkins and are vastly outmatched by the settlers’ arsenal. It’s too bad that when a couple of real Native Americans do finally show up, there isn’t more thought given to their characters.

But for those who care about animal rights, it should be very significant that the movie has a scene set in a factory farm. “I didn’t grow up on a nice free-range farm,” Jake tells Reggie, jealous of the pastoral life the more passive turkey has led. Instead, Jake explains in a flashback to a severe, black, industrial, prison-like CAFO, he grew up “in a cold factory.” The spirits of all these turkeys imprisoned in a sunless grey wasteland are clearly broken. Rows upon rows of glum turkeys in shadowy metal cages set their hopes on Jake breaking out and starting a new, freer flock, but he is no match for the humans in lab coats and their oppressive technology. And this original trauma works even better as political commentary because it is woven into the core of Jake’s character development – and into the time travel plot.

Now, factory farms are actually much worse than how they are depicted in the movie – since in real life factory farmed fowl are crowded into these cages and often unable to turn around or stretch – but the fact that an escapist piece of mainstream entertainment intended for family viewing is painting one as dungeon-like is damn amazing, and credit should be given where due.

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The main flaw of the picture, like that of so many movies but particularly animated ones, is that the ratio of male characters to female characters is about 90 to 1. These movies seem to think they’re feminist because they have a gutsy heroine – the chief’s daughter, voiced very well by Amy Poehler, has plenty of dialogue and is smart, resourceful, confident, a good leader, and all the rest of the attributes common these days among princessly heroines – but she’s the only female character in an entire turkey civilization who speaks more than a single sentence. In this respect the turkeys echo the humans in the settlement, where only the males are individualized. As per usual, the male characters cover a wide range of types – old, young, plump, wiry, brave, cowardly, brilliant, foolish, and so on – just as people do in real life. But the females are the Other, and since they are seen from the perspective of the male protagonists, they can only be  Love Interests. (This was particularly egregious in Barnyard, a 2006 animated feature about a herd of male cows.) In Free Birds, even when a nursery of turkey chicks becomes part of the narrative, there seem to be no significant female turkeys anywhere in sight besides Poehler. The boy turkeys get to hog not only the allegedly male functions of driving the plot, having adventures, and solving problems, but here they even try on the traditional female functions of parenting the chicks!

Hayward is co-writer, director, and also voice actor for a handful of roles in the picture – in other words, he is pulling a Brad Bird. Unfortunately, he hasn’t delivered a finished product that sparkles as much as it seems to want to do. The references cater more to the adults in the audience than to the kids, and the schtick gets in the way of the story sometimes because it goes on so long and is so tangential. Also, a fair number of the one-liners and gags don’t quite land, partly because the rhythm, as is so often the case in animated features, is relentlessly hyperactive.  Now, if it had been one of the inventive Aardman Animations films it probably would have gotten more and more richly entangled at the climax – as it is, there’s a build and build and then a  very quick and sudden resolution.  But all in all, the story works. The premise is not only an animal liberationist’s dream, it’s also clever and spirited.

Vegetarians and animal rights activists ought to embrace this movie. Society cannot be changed just by sharing polemical documentaries with your circle (as terrific as Forks Over Knives and Harrelson’s own, Go Further, are).  Some of the work of reform has to come about through sheer silliness. Like when the turkeys in Free Birds make imaginary binoculars with their feathered fingers, yet are convinced they really do see better with them. Or like the layers of jokey time travel loops which complicate the climax. Or like when Jake goes into a reverie about The Great Turkey in the sky, and each time, he stops and stares into space. Even though I had to look up what a Turducken was, it’s worth waiting for the end of the credits to hear Jake’s horrified outrage about it.

film-posterSecrecy and Surveillance in “Closed Circuit” – film review

by Jennifer Epps 

 

Every so often, British filmmakers come out with some pretty daring statements about their government. In 1990, the politically-committed movie director Ken Loach made Hidden Agenda, a pessimistic conspiracy thriller which speculated not only that state forces had themselves committed acts of terror in Northern Ireland, but that conservative politicians knowingly colluded with such tactics so as to usher in Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her iron fist. In 2010, joint British, French and German financing helped renegade auteur Roman Polanski  film English novelist Robert Harris’ book The Ghost Writer — another pessimistic conspiracy thriller, but this one timed to trail P.M. Tony Blair’s exit from Downing Street with a fictitious story of a British P.M. under scrutiny for war crimes and entanglements with the U.S. and C.I.A.

Now the Brits are at it again, with a new pessimistic conspiracy thriller, Closed Circuit, and it should appeal to a much more diverse base than just BBC America fans. The subject of this savvy and contemporary courtroom/espionage mystery is quite different from the Cold War spy vs. spy machinations of the producers’ elegant Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy of 2011. It takes on nothing less than the modern national security state, and its findings are as bleak as the 1974 classic The Parallax View, or Oliver Stone’s JFK.

Though Closed Circuit is now playing in U.S. multiplexes thanks to the visionary boldness of Focus Features and Working Title films (a London subsidiary of Universal), it is not scheduled to open in the U.K. until Nov. 1st. Reaction there may be heated, since to British viewers, the vicious terror attack at the center of Closed Circuit’s made-up story – an invented, highly lethal incident at a busy open-air market across from a subway (aka “Tube”) station – will almost certainly evoke the notorious suicide bombings of July 7, 2005. The real-life coordinated terrorist attack of 7/7 rocked London with three nearly simultaneous explosions on the Tube and, soon after, another on a double-decker bus — 52 people were killed and 700 injured. Two weeks later, an almost identical terrorist plot was attempted again on London’s public transport, though this time all the bombs failed to explode. Like 9/11 in the U.S., 7/7 provoked accusations and criticism in the U.K. and put the authorities, particularly Britain’s MI-5, on the defensive. Blair sure didn’t still the outrage by refusing to launch an inquiry — his claim was that to do so would undermine support for the security services.

Surveillance, secrecy, and the appropriation of great powers in the name of national security began to be put in place in Britain post- 9/11, and civil libertarians over there began to object within the first few months. But 7/7 revealed even scarier ramifications. Among the disturbing practices were ‘shoot-to-kill’ policies like that in evidence in the incident on July 22nd of that year, when plain-clothes police tailed a Brazilian man, chased him into the Tube, tussled him to the ground, and shot him 7 times, point-blank, in the head. They believed the man, Jean Charles de Menezes, to be a terror suspect. He was, however, unarmed and completely innocent.

It is this atmosphere which seems to have been the genesis  for the Orwellian world of Closed Circuit, a compelling counter-narrative about lack of transparency and an antidote to the lowest-common-denominator exploitation of ‘the war on terror’ by far-right entertainment like 24. The detective drama Closed Circuit engages in the debate on a similar playing field, with a slick, entertaining, twisty thriller that follows several standard tropes of the genre and immerses in-demand romantic leads Eric Bana and Rebecca Hall into huge life-or-death stakes. But instead of identifying terrorist plots by enemies of the state as the only serious threat to democracy, Closed Circuit is a movie that would be on Edward Snowden’s side. MI-5, the British intelligence agency which handles counter-terrorism, becomes the devouring behemoth that the hero and heroine – a pair of defense attorneys – must flee. Unlike the way sister agency MI-6 has been presented in endless James Bond movies – with any ethical transgressions excused by their excellent judgment and patriotic motivations — MI-5’s conduct in Closed Circuit is unambiguously wrong. The movie makes a convincing case that things in Britain may have already crossed the line into a combination of security surveillance and government secrecy, a combo so unhealthy the door is left wide open to abuse, cover-up, and the endangerment of the very citizenry these institutions are allegedly protecting.

 

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Footage from security cameras is interspersed throughout the film, subtly reminding us of the eyes of Big Brother upon our protagonists, a Big Brother who is anonymous but seemingly omnipresent. As the tension mounts, the protagonists can’t seem to walk across a courtyard or into a lobby without some guard observing them on a monitor. The technique begins in the very first sequence, during the quiet before the storm at Borough Market; the shoppers and commuters passing through are seen via an array of monitors, the movie screen subdividing into smaller and smaller screens as the tension mounts. It’s an effective suspense-builder, but it also illustrates the movie’s themes. These Londoners go about their business unaware of being watched, yet they can barely make a move in private. The multiplicity of angles on the same event also hints that what we think we know might shift, that recording the ‘facts’ of a case may not in themselves bring the truth into focus.  And furthermore, the watching doesn’t bring safety. On the contrary, surveillance and vulnerability to attack actually merge visually in that opening.

Screenwriter Steven Knight and director John Crowley go about this project very cleverly. It is not about an actual historic incident, nor is a real Prime Minister named. It feels current, but no date is supplied. This frees the filmmakers to write a speculative scenario rather than be tied to a factual record – and it may help them avoid quarrels with those who might take offense at the movie’s point-of-view. Nor does  Knight’s script go into real-life examples of MI-5’s overreach. The British audience may remember numerous instances which came to light over the decades: MI5’s secret file on a Labour Party Member of Parliament, Harold Wilson, before he became Prime Minister; the file on another Labour MP, Jack Straw, before he was Home Secretary; the surveillance of Liberal Democrat MP Norman Baker, when he was an environmental activist; and as recently as 2006, the revelation that the MI-5 was at that very moment holding secret dossiers on 272,000 individual Brits as well as 53,000 files on British organizations. (Like its American cousins, the agency has a history of finding the left suspicious – it spied on trade unions, and a senior MI-5 officer even labeled the Archbishop of Canterbury a subversive because he campaigned against Thatcher’s devastating policies.) Knight doesn’t bring up the historical fact of the MI-5’s collusion in the 1989 death of Irish attorney Patrick Finucane, nor the 2006 report which found that state agencies had colluded widely with Loyalists during the Irish ‘Troubles’ – a report accepted by David Cameron, the current, Conservative party Prime Minister, when he made an official apology on behalf of the British government. Knight and Crowley are right to leave all this out, not just for the sake of dramatic economy, but because it gives viewers some responsibility: to do their own research to determine whether the MI-5’s behavior in the film is credible or not. It gives the film an after-life.

Though the fictitious characters who commit grievous wrongs in Closed Circuit are very highly placed, and though our protagonists must go up against an overarching, all-powerful system which extends its tentacles far and wide, the conspiracy at the story’s core is ultimately perpetrated by a few very bad apples. The film thus targets human nature as much, or even more, than it targets an institution. But in doing so, it allows viewers to infer that since an institution like Britain’s spy agency MI-5, featured so prominently in the film, is run by people whose human nature means they can be and often are fallible, corruptible, vain, and self-deluding, safeguards are very much needed — that because of their flawed human nature, there is no rationale that justifies trusting them to operate in total darkness.

The title of Closed Circuit refers eloquently to both surveillance technology and the secrecy of a closed loop of a legislative, judiciary, and national security apparatus – a Star Chamber of mutually-supportive decision-makers who hold the power of life and death over everyone outside their circle. In the movie, darkly inscrutable Attorney General (Jim Broadbent) warns Martin (Eric Bana) off of digging too deeply, hinting at the un-scalable walls of the closed system when he describes “powers at play that neither you nor I nor the Prime Minister can control.”

At the very center of the story is the notion of secret evidence in post-9/11 prosecutions: the evidence against terrorists that is supposed to be so vital to the nation’s safety that neither the accused nor his personal defense attorney can see it; only a third party ‘special advocate’ can peruse it and decide. In the particular case that is presented, that security argument is clearly and unequivocally bogus, and the institutionalized secrecy merely a convenient way to cover up complicity, yet the deception is so effective we see it could easily bypass the checks and balances set up to prevent it.

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Closed Circuit implies that the very act of keeping the security apparatus outside the bounds of accountability invites those inside the circle to view themselves differently, to believe that normal ethical standards do not apply to them. Claudia (Rebecca Hall) is able to identify an undercover MI-5 agent the moment she meets him, in fact, simply because his level of hubris gives him away. Power corrupts. And as we shall see later, absolute power corrupts absolutely.

At the same time, the movie is about more than spying. (Without nearly as labyrinthine a plot as Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, it can manage it.) For one thing, Closed Circuit plays around with expectations and prejudices about its Middle Eastern characters, about what it means to be Westernized, about good guys and bad guys. This is sometimes achieved quite concisely: the accused terrorist’s teenage son Amir plays the all-American military videogame “Medal of Honor” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Medal_of_Honor_%28series%29) with great devotion and skill. And the opening sequence captures on security cams a Muslim woman walking through Borough Market, the monitors zooming in on her suspiciously as soon as her ethnicity is recognized. Yet in a few moments she’ll be one of the victims. Knight and Crowley already have politically-left highlights on their filmography — Knight penned the period drama about Britain’s abolition of slavery, Amazing Grace; Crowley directed the truthful, humanitarian, character study Boy A – so it may be consistent with long-held principles that they are scrupulous here in making sure they do not equate Muslims with terrorism, nor equate terrorism with Muslims. And after all, principles and ethics are part of this film’s subject.

Jurisprudence becomes another key focus the moment Claudia and Martin are assigned to the case of the man accused of terrorist conspiracy for the fictitious market bombing that kills 120 Londoners. The judge and legal team wear those ancient grey wigs and walk around in black robes under the impressive high ceilings of the Old Bailey — solemnly observing centuries of rituals from the world of criminal law — but it seems likely that the filmmakers  find the layers of custom and ceremony ironic.

Unlike cookie-cutter Hollywood fare where active protagonists can defeat fire-breathing villains through resourcefulness and perseverance, the stakes in Closed Circuit are too huge and the hydra too multi-headed for a simple fix. The protagonists are active, but even with their diligence and self-sacrifice, even with a news media following what is billed as “the trial of the century”, the film poses the serious question: is justice even possible in the system that’s been created to fight the ‘war on terror’? If the film holds out any hope, it seems to reside with the ordinary individual: the pre-pubescent kid who refuses to obey, the journalist (Julia Stiles) who doesn’t laugh when a woman at a party jokes that she’s happy to be “searched by a handsome policeman.” And especially with the movie’s central duo, the lovebird lawyers whose affair has compromised them but who still worry about legal ethics and protecting their undeserving client’s interests despite the overwhelming odds.

 

OlympusHasFallen2(America remains powerless in the face of maniacal North Korean terrorism.)

 

The North Koreans Are Coming! The North Koreans Are Coming!

by Jennifer Epps

 

The action-thriller Olympus Has Fallen is now out on DVD, and just in time for the August exercises the U.S. and South Korea are conducting against North Korea. To clarify, Olympus Has Fallen is the besieged-White House flick that sold a lot of tickets this year. That it scored at the box office should be of grave concern to thinking people, for action pic director Antoine Fuqua has delivered the kind of movie whose main purpose seems to be to stir the country up to support war against the people it depicts as the enemy. It does for North Korea what 300 did for Iran. In other words, it’s a propagandistic, bloodthirsty, button-pushing, racist, fascist, ultra-macho, oppressively violent, self-serving, and simplistic piece of patriotism porn.

Just like in regular porn, the dialogue in Olympus‘ patriotism porn is cliched, and the married screenwriting couple Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt apparently deemed no line too brazenly manipulative or Fox News-cheesy for inclusion. (This is their first produced feature film, though Rothenberger previously won the Nicholl Fellowship for a script about the Korean War.) The basic plot of Olympus Has Fallen is that the President of the United States is taken hostage by rogue North Koreans who have infiltrated 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.   Of course he declares courageously that he will not negotiate with terrorists. Of course we’re told that the reason they hate us is for our freedoms. Of course both the President (Aaron Eckhart) and, after he becomes incapacitated, the acting president (Morgan Freeman), make speeches about how the American way of life will not be compromised, and about how Americans never rise to the occasion more than when we are tested. The patriotism porn reaches a fever pitch when the female Secretary of Defense (Melissa Leo), after being brutalized by thugs, is dragged off to be raped, tortured, and/or murdered. As she goes, she defiantly spits out a guttural, disdainful mantra: “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States.” (It’s a moment of sexism in disguise: whatever achievement the promotion of someone of her gender to this lofty portfolio might bring is undermined by the tacit message that a female Defense Secretary is vulnerable.)

In Olympus Has Fallen‘s scenario, we’re supposed to believe that North Koreans can take over the White House by attacks from the air with a handful of fighter planes which look like they’re from WWII — and that somehow NORAD, the FAA, the Pentagon, the Secret Service, the National Guard, the Coast Guard, the Washington police, and Washingtonians themselves will all either fail in resisting them or cower in hiding. The principal initial battlefield of the invasion is the front lawn of the White House, where a gun fight takes place between the Secret Service and young-punk Koreans. (The motley group of hostile Koreans look like tourists and students before breaking through the iron gates — the unspoken lesson of this sequence being: don’t trust Koreans. Even if they resemble everyday assimilated Korean-Americans, they might be a threat from within!) Once the terrorists have snuck into 1600 Pennsylvania, they bypass all of the Secret Service’s precautions and gain access to the Commander-in-Chief’s military and communication consoles — they don’t have to take over the whole country, just its hub.

Like any classic work of fascist propaganda, the movie requires us to believe that we, the pure and principled ones, are small, helpless, beleaguered, and abused, and oh so brave to resist, while the enemy is gargantuan, venal, ruthless, and inhumanly powerful — and oh so barbaric when they take up arms. (This is also the exact scenario in 300.) There’s a recurring double-standard throughout the film which reveals North Koreans committing horrifying atrocities as signs of their savagery, yet when the film’s American hero does almost exactly the same things, it’s supposed to be because of his high principles.

Also revealing is the inclusion of Forbes, a well-educated, urbane peacemaker with White House access. He’s up to no good, of course, because he argues that the North Koreans might have a point.   (Message: you’re either unbudgingly intolerant, or you’re with the terrorists!) Forbes throws terms around meaninglessly; his objections to President Asher, who he feels has sold out to “globalization” and “Wall Street,” are so fleeting they’re like brand names rather than concepts. He’s critical of the President for catering to the rich, but we are shown little by which to gage this complaint. And much like his copy in 300 — a politician who tries to hold his fellow Spartans back from war with Persia — Forbes turns out to be a traitor without a conscience.   His veneer of reason masks a vicious heart. How lovely that the faithless turncoat isn’t just in favor of foreign diplomacy, but also urges support for social justice at home! That’s exactly the kind of guy we want on our side.

And there’s President Asher, a basically good guy, a sensitive widower who has no more color or backbone than his plain name. He couldn’t save his wife during a car accident in the prologue, and later when terrorists start torturing people in front of him, he breaks, too tender-hearted to watch others suffer. If the fate of the country were left in his hands, the film would end in Armageddon.

By contrast, Olympus elevates the brave he-man who sees things in black and white. Of course: he doesn’t engage in “endless palaver,” as Ann Coulter would say, but actually gets things done! Mike Banning, a buff, gruff, once top-level Secret Service agent defends the White House single-handedly against the foreign attack, and director Fuqua casts the same beefcake swaggerer as 300 did to spearhead its cult of machismo: Gerard Butler. Though Butler was effective in a feature directed by Ralph Fiennes which had striking anti-militaristic tones (the 2011 film of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus), I take it that this Scottish actor has no speaking engagements at   “Win Without War” rallies in his future: he was one of the producers of Olympus and spoke admiringly about how relevant the movie was — it hit theatres this past spring, just when North Korea was using particularly bellicose rhetoric. (The fact that the U.S. and its South Korean ally were also waging mock-military exercises against it at the time is not supposed to matter at all. The U.S. government and the compliant mainstream media always manage to put the onus on North Korea regardless of America’s actions — just witness the first line of The Washington Post‘s Aug. 19th story on the current drills: “North Korea on Tuesday criticized South Korea-U.S. military drills with milder-than-usual language that is being seen as a sign of its interest in keeping up diplomacy.”)

Olympus is Agent Banning’s movie, though he’s not witty like James Bond or even John McClane in Die Hard. Butler has little in the way of the dry one-liners we expect from big action movies — this film is a bleak, humorless affair overall. But he has a few. Perhaps most indelibly, when Banning overpowers and captures a couple of armed North Koreans inside the White House, he questions them at knifepoint. One of them, terrified, starts to answer in Korean, so Banning stabs him in the leg and yells “In English!” This got a big laugh in the theater. If the CIA and the Pentagon were not already heavily investing in gaining access to Hollywood (they are) this moment alone would convince them to do so. It’s a primer of bigotry-in-the-making; it’s a paradigm of how brainwashing works under the guise of entertainment.

Of course a crucial part of the equation is that the Koreans in the film are inscrutable — both the good ones and the bad ones. In the North Korean surprise attack on the seat of U.S. government, the fighter pilots wear helmets that are almost like masks, their mouths firmly set and their impassive faces robotic. The North Korean terrorist thugs who capture the President and some of his Cabinet mostly just brood, looking tough and mean; their main characteristic is their hatred of America. The only Korean character with any significant dialogue at all is the terrorist mastermind Kang (Rick Yune), the fiend who plots the whole assault and who wishes for nothing less than America’s complete destruction. (And who seems unaware that nuclear radiation travels, that the scale he’s arranging for would reach Korea.)

We don’t even get a chance to absorb any characteristics of the South Korean Prime Minister. Screenwriters Benedikt and Rothenberger might argue that this is just efficient storytelling, but somehow there’s plenty of time for backstories about Agent Banning’s feelings of guilt for the death of the First Lady, for conversations between him and his lady love, and for scenes between the president and his son. Perhaps a substantive conversation with the South Korean Prime Minister might have led us to ponder too many things like: One group of Koreans are our friends but one group are our enemies. One is human and the other is inhuman… and yet they look so alike… Is it possible that even the inhuman ones are human?

Fortunately for Fuqua, the script provides him instead with scenes of Kang ranting incoherently about his grievances, all of which sound meritless. (A core belief of the movie is that the U.S. couldn’t possibly have done anything, ever in its history, that could have harmed another country. It’s the kind of America that is attacked for its goodness.) Kang’s actions speak far louder than his words anyway. He talks about unifying the two Koreas, but the fact he shoots the South Korean Prime Minister in the head, live on TV, makes it clear he doesn’t mean unify in a good way.

The film comes up with its own speculative scenario about how North Koreans could nab POTUS and ultimately try to get access to our nuclear arsenal, and it’s cleverer and more realistic than the Red Dawn remake last year in which North Korean commandos just suddenly parachute into a remote field outside a school in Middle America, with little explanation of how the U.S. could have been taken over by such a tiny, starving country. (Red Dawn was actually filmed, in 2010, with China as the enemy — till they remembered they’d be losing their Chinese market, and switched the villain in post-production.) But with a little more forethought, Olympus‘ writers Rothenberger and Benedikt realized they didn’t have to suggest that the North Korean government itself would launch the invasion. They came up with a way round it by having an outlaw, a long-time terrorist on the Peninsula, spearhead the whole operation.

In this way, Fuqua and his scribes can make use of a more inventive and supple villain than a national army, and I suppose they can even pretend they’re not beating the drums of war. But the subconscious effect is the planting of the idea that North Korea is even more solidly a part of the Axis of Evil than Bush Jr. thought they were: look! they have their own evil terrorists too! And it doesn’t even matter how many nukes they have: they can use ours!

Kang blames America for the famines back home and the destitution of his people, but doesn’t talk about immediate and rectifiable concerns like the regular South Korean/U.S. drills against North Korea — which look very much like real invasions, send fleets into the adjoining waters, involve tens of thousands troops , and fly Stealth B-2 and B-52 bombers which enact simulated nuclear bombing attacks on the edge of North Korean territory. By not mentioning this kind of provocation, Olympus, like the mainstream news media, can make everything the other guy’s fault, like the U.S. would be minding its own business if Pyongyang just wasn’t so aggressive.

Moreover, Kang’s ambition to unify the two Koreas is part of his dream of “one-world government.” However much the terminology might please Libertarians, it obviously vilifies the actual unification sentiments on the peninsula, a region which after all used to be one country before it was divided between the Soviets and Americans in 1945. “No one really asked any Koreans, do you want to be divided and stay like that for over 60 years?” The Guardian of Britain quotes a Seoul professor in an article this May. And the article’s author explains: “The peaceful pursuit of unification is inscribed in South Korea’s constitution. Questioning it would be political suicide for public figures, say analysts, because ethnic nationalism is a key element of political belief across the spectrum.” There’s nothing underground about dreams of re-unifying the two Koreas, the way Olympus implies. Both sides at least pay lip service to it: Pyongyang has an official Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea and Seoul has a Unification Ministry. The cost of reunifying would be most expensive for South Korea, and young South Koreans tell pollsters they’re not that keen on the idea, but the goal of reunification is far from a one-sided Communist plot to dominate the region as the movie suggests.

That MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell would participate in this movie (he has a brief cameo on a TV as a news anchor announcing the invasion) is especially galling because he was in Washington — as Chief of Staff of two key Senate committees — during the Clinton Administration, and ought to know full well that there was a time when Washington diplomacy was actually working with Pyongyang. In 1994 North Korea had only one nuke, and Clinton got them to sign an Agreed Framework, which was effective for 8 years. That’s right, the Clinton Administration actually got North Korea to cease producing plutonium. They began again because Bush Jr. cancelled the treaty in 2002. Thanks to Bush’s approach, North Korea’s arsenal grew to 8 — 10 nukes.

In Olympus Has Fallen, serious, professional, highly-trained men and women like Angela Bassett’s Secret Service Director and Robert Forster’s General Clegg discuss the crisis with Freeman’s acting president and paint North Korea as incomprehensible, with off-hand remarks like “assuming that the Koreans are rational, which isn’t at all certain…” They express bafflement about what North Korea could possibly want. But given the indelible illustration in Iraq of what the U.S. was willing to do to countries that didn’t have nuclear defenses, it’s not hard to fathom why Pyongyang pursued a nuclear arsenal, nor is it a mystery why they’ve responded negatively to negative stimuli, like the demonstrations of bad faith in the cancellation of treaties, or the massive displays of force in the threatening military drills. Noam Chomsky states in an article this summer: “North Korea may be the craziest country in the world.  It’s certainly a good competitor for that title.”  But he also adds that “it does make sense to try to figure out what’s in the minds of people when they’re acting in crazy ways. Why would they behave the way they do? ” And he notes a recognizable pattern in postures from Pyongyang: “You can read it in straight, mainstream American scholarship.  What they say is: it’s a pretty crazy regime, but it’s also following a kind of tit-for-tat policy. You make a hostile gesture and we’ll respond with some crazy gesture of our own. You make an accommodating gesture and we’ll reciprocate in some way.”

(more…)

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Blackfish: Putting the ‘Killer’ Back in ‘Killer Whale”

By Jennifer Epps

The non-fiction feature Blackfish currently in theaters is in many ways a sterling example of summer counterprogramming: a success at the Sundance Film Festival this past winter, it now provides a quiet voice of seriousness, an exposé on a serious subject, amidst the usual superheroes and monsters at the multiplex in the hot weather months. It begins, however, rather like a famous summer monster movie, with the mystery of a young woman’s gruesome, watery death, and like that blockbuster, proceeds to pile on clues of just how she died and how many others like her there might actually be. The template I’m referring to is the 1975 thriller Jaws, which together with Star Wars, launched the gargantuan juggernaut of costly, loud, franchise-heavy action pix which dominate the out-of-school season — so there is a poetic irony in a documentary cousin emerging from the depths to challenge that paradigm. The irony pales in comparison to the tragedy, however;  the genesis  for the making of Blackfish was an actual death, that of 20-something Dawn Brancheau, an accomplished swimmer and trainer at Sea World Orlando, who was mauled and dismembered in 2010.

The culprit in Blackfish is not a wild rogue shark but a tame orca or ‘killer whale’, a large male named Tilikum who Dawn knew very well. While much of the file footage in the documentary shows positive, intimate interactions between humans and these giant marine mammals, there is still a very ominous slow build of suspense and horror. Some of the segments feel (unintentionally, perhaps) like the July 4th beach scene in Spielberg’s movie — a sense of impending doom arises as documentarian Gabriela Cowperthwaite scrutinizes, in forensic detail, old footage of trainers’ key interactions with killer whales who’d been involved in violent incidents. We soon realize that it is not at all unusual for orcas to attack marine park staff, even with highly athletic trainers who follow protocol to the letter and who, in addition, adore the animals they train.

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Ultimately, Blackfish is about more than just one kind of monster. Like the resort-town business leaders in Jaws, there are irresponsible figures in Blackfish ignoring all the evidence of a serious problem   – and prioritizing profit over life itself. Only in this case, they’re not fictitious, but real, and not just a few bad apples, but an entire corporate structure with an institutionalized pattern of lying to their employees and to the public. The documentary shows that SeaWorld’s public statements after the death or injury of its trainers tended to blame the trainers themselves, while maintaining a culture of internal secrecy. For example, a former trainer complains that when she was hired, SeaWorld already knew there had been dozens of incidents of whales attacking trainers, yet this was not disclosed to her. Indeed, it would seem that if SeaWorld really believed their arguments of ‘trainer error’, then they’d go out of their way to show their staff the footage leading up to the ‘accidents’ — and to painstakingly review exactly what fatal errors their staff ought to take care to prevent. They did the opposite.

Much like the Robert Greenwald documentary Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price, this documentary accumulates its accusations of carelessness, corner-cutting, and duplicity on the part of a big corporation until the evidence seems overwhelming. Cowperthwaite builds the case incrementally, conservatively — she consults marine mammal experts as well as a large number of former trainers, but stays away from potentially incendiary advocates like animal rights leaders. She interviews one apologist  for  SeaWorld as well. And in publicity for the film, she maintains that she tried very hard to obtain interviews with spokespeople from the company — however, they weren’t willing to participate in the documentary. They waited instead until it was about to open, then sent a letter   to film critics calling the documentary dishonest, misleading, and scientifically inaccurate.)

It is clear that SeaWorld was not doing its employees any favors sending them into the water with its orcas, but the movie also examines the effect of captivity and training to perform what are essentially circus tricks on the killer whales themselves. The film does not want to make us fear killer whales as a species, the way Jaws made us afraid of sharks, and it points out that there are no reported incidents of orcas attacking humans in the wild. It is more about how they got to be this way, how their misery grew so intense that they felt the need to be violent.

Though other orcas are discussed, Blackfish focuses in particular on Tilikum’s story, as the most complete and the most horrific. Cowperthwaite has been able to unearth a fairly rich biography about Tilikum: from his childhood abduction on the ocean, through his apparent interest in learning and his joy at interacting with people, to his series of fatal assaults on humans. Blackfish becomes a study in the creation of orca psychopathology.

The grief that comes from orca families being ripped apart, the sensory deprivation they endure when shut up at night, and many other stresses are eloquently expressed. Experts weigh in on orcas’ advanced intelligence, complex social needs, and how different their normal behavior is in the wild from that seen in a tank; trainer testimony is provided attesting that in these marine parks the animals have been deprived of food or collectively punished if just one among them got a trick wrong; and visual evidence is supplied that whale-on-whale violence, a rare occurrence in the wild, is commonplace when these mammoth beasts are confined together in close quarters.  (One element of captivity that is overlooked, however, is how sonar bouncing back from the tank walls is a form of aural torture.)

Very intriguing scientific information is interwoven into the narrative. The discovery that orcas have an extra part of the brain that we don’t, a part that processes emotion, is fascinating. So is the description of killer whale cultures in the wild and how distinct they are from each other, even down to having completely different languages. Throwing animals from disparate families together, as is the norm in marine parks, is likened to throwing people from different nations together without interpreters. (You could also add that it’s like throwing them together in jail.)

Part of the documentary re-enacts  SeaWorld’s hearing at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) over violations of safety law. A federal judge rejected Sea World’s position that it should be exempt, and ruled that SeaWorld must separate its trainers from the animals at all times in order to protect its workers.

This would, however, put an end to a major component of SeaWorld’s activities and the entertainment that they’ve been marketing for years so they have fought against it strenuously. If the ban holds despite SeaWorld’s attempts to circumvent it,  perhaps fewer trainers will be injured. That in itself is hugely important. Unfortunately, it won’t mean that life for the many orcas SeaWorld owns around the world will improve. Blackfish doesn’t forget that.

One particularly striking revelation of the film is how SeaWorld spreads blatant disinformation about the animals it houses — despite the company’s pretences at fulfilling an educational function.  In order to make what they are doing look less terrible, SeaWorld lies to its staff about orca biology and sends them out in turn to lie to the public. This pertains to the most basic facts about orcas’ life expectancy (SeaWorld won’t admit that it’s less than half the length in captivity than it is in the wild) and about persistent signs of ill-health (because drooping dorsal fins are so common at the marine parks, the corporation promulgates the idea that it’s normal for dorsals to droop in the wild — though others interviewed in the film state categorically this is untrue.)

In short, Blackfish depicts how SeaWorld betrays orca whales by kidnapping them, holding them captive, and mistreating them in the name of entertainment; how they betray their staff by endangering and misleading them, while abjuring accountability; and how they even betray the public, systematically deceiving them about the animals for whom they are supposed to be ambassadors.

The young swimming champs the corporation hires are seen in Blackfish starting out full of energy and enthusiasm, genuinely excited to be working at what they believe to be a fun and noble job where they will get to bond with special creatures. The trainers Cowperthwaite interviewed believed what SeaWorld told them in the early days, believed that killer whales actually enjoyed being in the tanks and performing, believed that this work elevated the stature of the species in the public eye. Many of these trainers now sound as if they are heartbroken — and as if they came to that opinion in part by watching the orcas’ own broken hearts.

One of the saddest takeaways from a documentary full of lingering sadnesses is how SeaWorld exploits and abuses the positive feelings that many people have towards these impressive, mysterious leviathans. When I saw the film, a toddler sitting next to me had come to see it with his family and ecologist older sister. The little boy was obviously a fan of killer whales, clutching a stuffed orca toy in his arms the whole movie. His mother told me they had just been to SeaWorld two weeks before.  Obviously, it was hard for this small child to process all that cognitive dissonance. What he was a powerful symbol for, however, was another of SeaWorld’s offenses: that they take the fascination, awe and love for animals which children entrust them with and turn it all into dross.

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Special Report on ‘The Newsroom’

By Jennifer Epps

In June of 1998, CNN/Time premiered a new joint venture, a weekly program called ‘News Stand’. Their first segment had revelations about a ‘Valley of Death’ (as one of the veterans interviewed called it) during the Vietnam War. The news story of this 1970 U.S. military black operation known as Operation Tailwind aired nationally over two consecutive Sundays. It quoted members of the military who alleged that commandos from the U.S. Special Operations Group (SOG) had been dispatched to a village base camp in Laos with sarin gas, a toxic nerve agent that causes a painful death.  It’s the same gas that was used by a Japanese religious cult in the 1995 terror attack in the Tokyo subway.  One hundred people in the Laotian village reportedly died as a result of Operation Tailwind. Moreover, the story purported that U.S. military defectors living in the village were the primary target.

News of the secret attack, named ‘Operation Tailwind’, shocked the nation and also created a firestorm of protest directed at the news organization from the Pentagon, veterans, and high-placed figures like Henry Kissinger (who had been National Security Advisor at the time of the black op). It was not long before CNN was issuing apologies.

and firing the story’s producers, reassuring the nation that the story was untrue and the whole thing was a mistake. Consequently, ‘Tailwind’ has gone down in the annals of broadcast journalism as a cautionary tale about accuracy.

Fifteen years later, it is back in the public consciousness thanks to the award-winning scriptwriter Aaron Sorkin, who has spun his own creation off of the idea of the Tailwind journalistic scandal. In the current season of his HBO fiction series The Newsroom, the hour-long drama about a fictitious cable news program (‘News Night’) on a network known as the Atlantic Cable Network, Sorkin has been exploring leaks about an alleged war crime reminiscent of the Tailwind episode as CNN initially presented it. This time, the incident is more current than Tailwind was when CNN/Time ran its story; a military source reveals to Jerry, a News Night guest producer (played by Hamish Linklater), that U.S. forces used sarin gas on civilians in Pakistan during an ‘Operation Genoa.’ (Sorkin invented the story and the codename.) Through a multi-episode flashback structure, Sorkin makes clear from the outset that the big scoop is false, and that getting sucked in by it will prove disastrous for the characters. That’s certainly a rich plotline for a dramatist to mine. However, in seizing on it, Sorkin may be doing a disservice to the original producers of CNN’s ‘Tailwind’ expose, reporters who stood by their story throughout the ensuing fracas and who accused CNN of a cowardly retreat in the face of Pentagon opposition to it. And Sorkin may also be betraying the Quixotic principles the characters on his show so passionately espouse; in this case siding, not with the underdogs his dialogue so often champions, but with the powerful.

The Daily Show

Sorkin considered it no spoiler to tell the public before Season 2 premiered last month that the core of this season revolves around a Tailwind-inspired plotline: a News Night “mistake” in running a shocking story that ultimately turns out to be untrue. “Hopefully, the mistake is understandable,” Sorkin told John Oliver (who was filling in for Jon Stewart on The Daily Show) on July 15th.

 

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