All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace (2011, Adam Curtis)

The Trap and The Power of Nightmares felt like they presented central points (clearly expressed in the open of each episode), then assembled evidence in an orderly fashion, supporting their points in a complex, sometimes roundabout way. This one presents a number of points with related themes. Each episode opens with different titles and explores different events which don’t directly relate back to each other. During episode 2 I was wondering when the Ayn Rand story would come back, but during #3 I realized it had been there all along, that this time Curtis is drawing the connections without explicitly calling back to previous subjects all the time. The movies are starting to link together in interesting ways. At this point, you could fill an “art and world politics” course just by running all his movies and assigning his blog as the textbook.

Episode 1 “begins with a strange woman in the 1950’s in New York,” connects Ayn Rand with Alan Greenspan and Silicon Valley, tracing the failures of her personal life and lack of acceptance in her philosphies, comparing to their massive influence decades later among people in power over the global economy. Rand rejected altruism and supported rational egoism, so surprisingly there’s no relation to the RAND Corporation discussed in The Trap, which worked on game theory, positing human behavior as perfectly selfish.

Part 2 is about natural ecosystems, and the myth that they remain perfectly in balance – Curtis says more recent, complex models show them to be in constant flux. Loved the ecology discussions, the scientific project that attempted to precisely measure every detail of a particular field. This is shown alongside early communes (humans trying to live in perfect balance without power structures) and recent national revolts (glorious-looking uprisings by “the people” against authoritarian power, only to see it replaced by new authoritarian power a year later).

Part 3 discusses the social tendency to view people as individually unimportant parts of a large, self-balancing system. We get stories of a game-theory biologist and his colleagues who theorised that all behavior of living creatures is a result of the needs of their genes – more depowering thoughts. We close in Africa where another animal behaviorist, Dian Fossey, was working, showing how false theories on human behavior and evolution combined with the desires of technology companies led to disaster for the people of Congo/Zaire and Rwanda.

So the movie’s often-mentioned “rise of the machines” isn’t literal so much as a social-control concept, caused by simplifying models of natural behavior. It seems perfect that I finished watching this the day before seeing The World’s End, which is about the rise of actual machines that aim to simplify human behavior.

I also read a bunch of articles from Adam Curtis’s amazing blog – sadly without the video segments since I was sitting at the airport sans wifi. Essay called “You think you are a consumer but maybe you have been consumed” about Texas oilman HL Hunt, caricatured in Ken Russell’s Billion Dollar Brain. “The roots of so much of the distrust of the media today lie back with him and his ideas.” One called “Paradiabolical” on Somalia and Algeria, one on England’s history of bumbling spies, and one on animal shows before the rise of David Attenberg Attenborough.

Screening Room: John & Faith Hubley (1973)

I got a collection of the Screening Room series, in which Robert Gardner (a great filmmaker himself) interviews creators of avant-garde, animated and short films and shows their work. The plan is to watch some of these and supplement them with other shorts by the filmmakers. In the Hubleys’ case I’ve got plenty, since I bought all their DVDs when they were in print – probably watched most of the films a decade ago but now I can’t remember one from the other, so need to see again. Since I already had all these movies (except possibly Children of the Sun) I would’ve appreciated more time spent in conversation with Gardner, but when this aired I’m sure it was more important to show the work itself.

Eggs (1970)

Birth and Death share a car, drive through civilization debating (over)population. Then Quetzalcoatl shows up and sends them both to a new planet, announcing that the old one is on its own. The dialogue recording is a little too beatnik, but it’s a nice film, good one to start the program. John mentions to Garner that an advantage of animation is being able to tackle huge social issues in the abstract.

The Hat (1964)

One of my favorites, with Dizzy Gillespie and Dudley Moore as two border guards riffing on the idea of war and artificial boundaries after one drops his hat onto the wrong side of the line.

I also flipped through their book adaptation of The Hat, an attempt to turn the rambling dialogue into written form (with illustrations)… doesn’t seem to have worked as well.

Children of the Sun (1960)

Child play and fantasies (accurate to a fault), ending with a weird string-music motion child collage.

Zuckerkandl (1968)

Opening narrator sounds like WC Fields. An illustrated speech given by Robert Maynard Hutchins about Freud student Dr. Zuckerkandl, who is animated as a tiny man with an amusing accent. Mostly I distracted myself watching him and thinking about animation and missed the part where he’s supposed to be the father of modern times. Oh nevermind, internet says it’s a fiction/parody of psychology, which I suppose accounts for all the laughter during Hutchins’ speech. Regardless, another weird choice for an animated film.

Moonbird (1959)

The cutest of their children-voices movies that I’ve seen – Mark and Hampy dig a hole, lay bait (candy) and set a trap to catch the elusive moonbird. Won the oscar over a Speedy Gonzalez, a biblical Disney and an Ernest Pintoff musical short.

The Adventures of * (1957)

Fun, visually exciting short about how aging crushes your imagination and sense of fun – but with a happy ending.

Urbanissimo (1967)

Another favorite. A farmer is startled by a giant, resource-scarfing mobile city that steals his fruits and spits out canned fruit. Entranced by the music of the city (a nice jazz score by Benny Carter) he drops everything and runs after it. Presented by the National Housing Agency of Canada.

Dig (1972)

Educational short about geology. Adam is going to the store for milk when he falls deep into the earth’s crust. Guided by a talking rock (Jack Warden, the president in Being There) he learns about quakes, salt, stalactites, different kinds of rock, fossils, volcanoes. Songs ensue, including “So Sedimentary,” which Dump has covered. Blacklisted actor Morris Carnovsky protects “the tomb of the earth,” through which they go back through prehistoric eras. Finally Jack returns to his mom (Maureen Stapleton, Emma Goldman in Reds) with his new pet rock (and no milk).

This is Not a Film (2011, Jafar Panahi & Mojtaba Mirtahmasb)

Set up to be a doc of house-arrested filmmaker Panahi by his documentarian friend Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, with Panahi explaining and roughly staging the next film he would have made if the authorities had let him (coincidentally[?] to be filmed inside a house, concerning a girl who is not allowed to leave). But Panahi cuts off the play-acting and gets philosophical, showing scenes from his work and telling us that if films could be explained, they wouldn’t have to be made. He then takes over the not-film, finally picking up the camera, following a maintenance man outside to a small-scale replay of Offside‘s finale. Throughout, there are definite signs that either this movie was much more cleverly planned than it’s meant to appear, or that Panahi’s life is full of happy coincidences and unplanned art. Either way, I’d been afraid that this would be a movie solely acclaimed because of its subversion, its very existence as political protest, which would’ve been enough, but was delighted than the entire work justifies its Cannes-acclaimed reputation.

Panahi’s daughter’s pet iguana provides the special effects, an unseen neighbor who needs a dog-sitter so she can participate in the celebratory new-year fireworks provides humor, and Jafar’s phone conversations with his attorney provide context on the project.

Panahi attempts to use the internet inside Iran. “Wherever you go, it’s blocked. Most websites are filtered. The rest don’t say anything.”

Mirtahmasb: “Take a shot of me, so in case I’m arrested there will be some images left.”

Panahi’s next film was going to be made with Mohammad Rasoulof, who now suffers the same political fate as Panahi and filmed his own response while out on appeal, Goodbye, which hasn’t made it to video yet.

M. Peranson in Cinema Scope:

Of special note… is Panahi’s bootleg DVD collection, which features the Ryan Reynolds-in-a-coffin film Buried facing us, clearly placed there to make a point.

The work feels completely effortless but my money says it’s an elaborate sound and image construction: though it claims to be a day in the life of Panahi, Mirtahmasb explained in interviews that the film was shot over four days.

Century of the Self (2002, Adam Curtis)

Quoth a banker: “We must shift America from a needs- to a desires-culture. People must be trained to desire, to want new things, even before the old have been entirely consumed.”

Another Adam Curtis miracle. Katy and I are pleased as punch by the film’s research, structure and presentation, while being terrified by its content.

Curtis tells how Freud’s theories were pitched in the States by his nephew Edward Bernays, who thought to use his uncle’s psychological techniques in advertising and public relations, a field he effectively started. Freud’s theories are thought to explain the rise of naziism, so the American power elite looks to his daughter Anna for ideas on how to control the peoples’ minds. Former Freud student Wilhelm Reich who became a sex hippie (see also W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism), is the godfather of the opposite side: freeing your mind from conformity, and while Reich himself is imprisoned, his work destroyed by the U.S. government, his ideas inspire industry to promote self-identity through spending. Still later, Tony Blair and Bill Clinton (so apparently well-meaning, yet so deflated by the Adam Curtis docs) use focus groups to turn government and politics into a kind of marketing. And Curtis uses the same language that he’d return to in The Trap: what our leaders and big business presented as a new form of freedom became instead a form of control.

Some Television in 2011

The Mighty Boosh season 3

The one in which they work for Naboo at his shop. I liked this and season one better than S2 – it helps to keep the nonsense somewhat grounded with the workplace location. But it’s a minor quibble, and altogether quite a great show. Except for the moon.

Apparently the Boosh did some specials and a live show I’ve gotta find. Also, I keep thinking getting confused by this Richard Ayoade fellow – he played Saboo, not Naboo. Who was Saboo? Anyway, he stars in The IT Crowd, directed the movies Submarine and AD/BC: A Rock Opera and made the shows Man to Man with Dean Lerner, Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace and Nathan Barley, all of which sound good, and some of which co-star Howard Moon and/or Vince Noir. Howard also starred in Edgar Wright’s Asylum – and what’s this: Mid Morning Matters with Alan Partridge! Must find.

The Thick of It season 1

Even if the rest of the show had been useless, this would be worth watching for Malcolm’s daily, creatively profane insult spree. His first line in the series is “He’s as useless as a marzipan dildo.” But it’s a brutally good show all around, as I’d suspected, having seen the film version In the Loop a couple times. Hugh Abbott, minister of social affairs (his predecessor got sacked in the first episode) bumbles into various minor media scandals with help from his staff Glenn, Terry and Ollie, while trying not to be yelled at by Malcolm. It’s exactly how I assume government actually works. Hugh (Chris Langham, a writer on The Muppet Show) didn’t return, but the other main actors made it into the movie. Peter Capaldi (Malcolm) wrote/directed the short Franz Kafka’s It’s a Wonderful Life, has appeared in a couple other things I’ve seen (like Neverwhere) but I wouldn’t recognize him from this unless he was swearing up a storm.

Arrested Development season 1

I can’t believe all that was only one season. Seems like four or five years’ worth of plot twists crammed into one. I mean, if they’ve already followed at least two incest plot lines, produced a long-lost identical twin brother, resolved a number of love affairs and hangups and family members moving in and out, sunk the family yacht, burned down the banana stand, broken out of jail a couple times and adopted a Korean kid, what’s left for the next two seasons? Creator Mitch Hurwitz also wrote Running Wilde with Will Arnett, an animated show full of Arrested Development alum called Sit Down Shut Up, and coincidentally, an unaired American remake of The Thick of It, with Oliver Platt as Malcolm. Iannucci says that was awful. Series directors included the Russo brothers (You, Me and Dupree), Paul Feig (Bridesmaids) and Jay Chandrasekhar (Super Troopers).

Mr. Show season 1

Obviously I’ve seen this all before, but I was hurting for some comedy to half-pay-attention-to whilst sorting receipts and other junk on my floor and realized I’ve never played the DVD commentaries all the way through. And now that my floor is half clean and I’m only four episodes into the series’s 30-episode run, it’s clear that I never will.

Still super funny: Ronnie Dobbs, all appearances by Jack Black and Brian Posehn, incubation pants, the hated milking machine, limberlegs, bag hutch, “dear globochem, somebody is trying to kill me.” I know they think it didn’t work, but I love that the early episodes each had interwoven sketches with thematic connections. It was really ambitious for a cheap sketch show shot in a restaurant.

Semi-related shows I still need to watch – there are so many – Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret, Tim and Eric, more Aqua Teen, Ben Stiller Show, Running Wilde (again), Freak Show, Tom Goes to the Mayor, Breaking Bad, Funny or Die, Pity Card/Derek and Simon, more Sarah Silverman Program, Bob’s Burgers, Jon Benjamin Has a Van, Moral Orel, State of the Union and Bored to Death.

It Felt Like a Kiss (2009, Adam Curtis)

Different from the other Curtis docs I’ve seen in that it’s not assembling semi-obscure facts to analyze human/political behavior, but assembling well-known facts to create a mood, and lead to an understanding through experience. Of course I’m missing part of this experience, since the film was part of a multimedia show inside a deserted office building set to music by Damon Albarn and the Kronos Quartet.

Traces a semi-chronological historical path through key events (chimps in space), tragedies (kennedy assassinations, manson family) and future tragedies (WTC construction) but mostly uses pop songs as history, letting artist bios (tina turner, lou reed) and the lyrics themselves tell the stories of disenchantment.

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What results has Lynchian overtones with its dark seeds beneath 1950’s suburban pop, and shades of Craig Baldwin, using newsreel montages to create new stories, to confuse and not inform. But it’s still got Curtis written all over it, in the pacing and clip selection, that old familiar typeface, and the sense that the film makes your brain understand things in ways not explicitly told by the narration, making covert connections. Most importantly, when it was over I had the same urge to immediately watch it again that I got after The Power of Nightmares and The Trap.

C. Brooker:

Where his preceding works have occasionally been a touch eccentric, this one takes the piss. It is completely and utterly demented – in a positive way. I’m not saying it doesn’t make sense; if anything, it forges its own new brand of coherence whether you like it or not. This is a documentary running on alien software. I’m at a loss to describe it. For starters, the trademark Curtis voiceover has gone completely, replaced instead by occasional, simple captions. Music is at the forefront. Ominous soundscapes and bubblegum pop weave their way around the images: archive news, Hollywood movies. It’s hypnotic.

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Brooker also gets us some Curtis quotes. I’ve brutally edited so as not to copy his entire article:

I wanted to do a film about what it actually felt like to live through that time … Where you could see the roots of the uncertainties we feel today, the things they did out on the dark fringes of the world that they didn’t really notice at the time, which would then come back to haunt us. … The politics of our time are deeply embedded in this idea of individualism, which is far wider than … consumerism or anything like that. It’s how you feel. … But it’s not the be-all and end-all. It’s not an absolute. It’s a way of feeling and thinking which is a product of a particular time and power. The notion that you only achieve your true self if your desires, your dreams, are satisfied … It’s a political idea. … What you desire is the most important thing. But a great paradox of our time is that what you desire may not be coming from within you. … The iPhone is a good example. People really feel they want one – to express themselves. But they all want one, at the same time. Where does that come from? From within or without? Because we live in an age where the individual is paramount and everything is seen from the perspective of ‘you’, we’ve lost sight of the bigger forces at work. Which has limited us. Not only in our understanding of the world; it’s made us very powerless. I think that’s what I’m really trying to get at in this.

Curtis keeps a blog, which I need to start reading, and I’ve been watching Mr. Brooker’s own TV series, to which Curtis has recently contributed.

Collapse (2009, Chris Smith)

“In the new human paradigm everything will be local.”

L.A. policeman starts by talking about the CIA smuggling drugs into the country, moves on to the recent/current financial crises, explains the concept of peak oil (we’re running out) then leads us down the Road to global devastation, huge drops in population, suburbanites starving in their homes.

I need to start growing vegetables in our back yard this spring. Quitting my job, opening a bicycle repair shop. Can rain barrels be used for drinking water?

In The Loop (2009, Armando Iannucci)

This is a spinoff movie from a series called The Thick of It, which also starred Peter Capaldi as the terribly insulting PR guy, and which I must watch soon. Tom Hollander as the wishy-washy but morally secure minister and his head staffer Gina McKee (of MirrorMask) are new to the movie, but Tom’s assistant Chris Addison was in the show playing a different character. Kinda surprising, that, since in the movie he’s the new guy (and kinda our main character).

One lucky break: the new guy/main character isn’t a bland, naive kid who leads us insultingly through the situation, a conceit used by so many crappy movies. Everyone sorta knows what they’re doing here, and even though our guy is a fuckup (misses a major meeting, his girlfriend leaves him for cheating), he knows his way around his job. Anyway, movie follows these government guys as they trade secrets and rumors, fiddle with their publicity, and ultimately start an international war for the stupidest reasons possible – and it’s damned hilarious, and I’ve forgotten every joke so I must watch it again after catching up with the show.

Of course it’s not a british comedy without a Steve Coogan cameo (The Boat That Rocked, therefore, was not a british comedy). Here he plays Tom’s neighbor who starts a PR stink over a crumbling garden wall. I wouldn’t say it’s a non-comic role, but he has less funny dialogue than anyone else in the film, which seems odd.

Being There (1979, Hal Ashby)

I don’t know much about Ashby – I’m sure he’s wonderful, but it’s Sellers and the writing that make this one of my favorite comedies. It’s not Ashby’s last movie (he made 5-7 more) but it’s the last one I’ve heard of. He lets scenes linger longer than most comedy directors would, stretching the movie out over two hours, but not to its detriment (like Avanti!). Since most of the fun is in Sellers’ delayed reactions to the world around him, slowly taking everything in, the pacing works. Besides, the movie is called Being There, not Getting There.

Sellers vs. MacLaine:
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Round 2:
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Jack Warden was a good choice to play the president, and 80-year-old Macon native Melvyn Douglas (of The Old Dark House) brings essential humor to the role of the dying rich “kingmaker” with whom Chance the Gardener accidentally finds himself after getting hit by Melvyn’s wife Shirley MacLaine. MST3K punchlines Richard Dysart and Richard Basehart play the old man’s doctor and the Russian ambassador whom Chance talks up at a party, respectively.

Melvyn & Sellers:
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More Melvyn, More Sellers:
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Peter & Jack:
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Katy might’ve liked this, but the day I rented it she was mad at me for not wanting to watch a girl movie with her, and I figured suggesting we watch a male-centric political satire wouldn’t help anything. Actually I think I did suggest and it and she got madder, oops.

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