The Social Dilemma

Tristan Harris (left) checks his phone

 

Somewhere between the greenlighting of the 2013 Owen Wilson/Vince Vaughn comedy The Internship – about two washed-up Generation Xers trying to make a go of it at Google – the attitude towards the tech giants changed.

Intended as a genial comedy – and part financed by Google – it went into production skipping along on the trade winds of the zeitgeist but by the time it hit the screens the mood had shifted, the winds had veered. The end result looked propagandistic and borderline scary.

That shift is what The Social Dilemma is about, a talking-heads documentary bringing into the mainstream misgivings by former industry lynchpins about the ways in which the tech giants are changing our world. FAANG (Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, Google) might indeed have fangs.

The film runs briskly through the issues: how Facebook users are its product not its users – you (your data, or more precisely the plasticity of your mind) are what is being sold to advertisers; the vastness of these giants, the richest companies that ever stalked the planet; the deceitfulness of their business model (do you really understand what they are buying off you, and what they get in return for your “free” access?); how the human propensity to become addicted to stuff is being exploited by the “technologists of persuasion”; the relationship between social media and the dopamine hit – “you’ve just been tagged in a photo” or “so and so is typing…”; the massive rise in teenage self-harming since 2010 (2009 was when mobile tech was first able to really connect to social media); how the “digital pacifier” effect is draining human self-motivation; the giants’ role in the spread of hate speech (the co-ordination of the mass killing of the Rohingyas in Myanmar via Facebook); social media’s effect on politics, the benign face of which was Facebook’s “massive scale contagion” experiment to see if it could get people out to vote without them realising (it could); more precisely the manipulation of elections (Bolsonaro in Brazil). And so on.

Ranging over these topics (and others) are a well sourced, eloquent and passionate group of former tech employees – Facebook, Twitter, Google, Instagram, Pinterest, YouTube, Apple – all of whom were evangelists for the companies they used to work for but now all wonder if things haven’t run out of control.

None of them regrets drinking the Kool-Aid. Most echo the opinion of Tim Kendall, Facebook’s former director of monetisation –  it was awesome… until it wasn’t.

Most eloquent of them all is Tristan Harris, the former Google employee who founded the Center for Humane Technology and now gives talks on what’s going on and going wrong. Founding father of VR Jaron Lanier – dreadlocks rattling as he expatiates – advocates the deletion of social media accounts. Sandy Parakilas, former Facebook Operations Manager, makes the point that “truth is boring” and – updating Mark Twain’s “a lie is halfway around the world before the truth has got its pants on”* – opens the can of worms that is feed bubbles, the loss of standards of objective truth, increasing political polarisation, the destabilisation of societies and the growth of hate speech.

 

Sophia Hammons
Sophia Hammons as one member of a typical “connected” family. © Netflix

 

Which is how we ended up at Pizzagate, when a lone gunman arrived at a pizza restaurant to break up a paedophile ring operating out of the basement of a building that had no basement. Or the 5G coronavirus debacle. Fake news, we’re told, spreads six times faster than true news, according to one MIT study.

It’s a lot of ground, too much, perhaps. Personally I’d have preferred a focus on one aspect or the other, the personal or the political.

Director Jeff Orlowski and his team are also clearly worried about the number of talking heads, and so have mixed things up with dramatised breakaways to a fictional family’s daily slog through the social-media landscape. Meh.

The Social Dilemma is all a touch generic if you’re already familiar with notions like “the attention economy”, and it swerves policy solutions (such as breaking these mega companies up), the fact that it’s Netflix financed possibly playing a role here. But as a primer on our new world order this is undeniably a useful and absorbing documentary – I only checked my Facebook once while watching it.

 

*Fake news alert! Ironically, Mark Twain didn’t actually say that and no one is entirely sure who did, though Jonathan Swift is a candidate.

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2020

 

 

 

 

Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man

Leonard Coen and U2

 

 

For decades Cohen’s music has been misrepresented as the soundtrack to suicide. In fact the old (now 73) groaner is something of a comedian, though his wit is so dry it’s taken non-aficionados decades to catch on. He’s also something of a master of self-mythology, the sort of performer who seems to back into the spotlight rather than seek it out. His albums have titles such as Songs of Leonard Cohen (1967), Songs from a Room (1969) and Recent Songs (2001), this austerity matched in real life by his decision to become a Buddhist and the subsequent five years he spent in seclusion from 1994 to 1999. In fact Cohen’s recent higher profile and workrate seems to be more down to necessity – his manager ran off with his pension – than a desire for the spotlight.

So much for the mythology. Lian Lunson’s documentary doesn’t mention Cohen’s financial woes, and is to some extent a missed opportunity to get an inside glimpse at the man himself. What we get instead is a lot of cool cats – Rufus and Martha Wainwright, Jarvis Cocker, Nick Cave, Teddy Thompson, Beth Orton – singing Cohen songs and eulogising him, interspersed with an interview with the hipster’s hipster that again doesn’t want to go too far beyond fanboy idolatry. However, Mr Cohen is a an old hand, and gives good interview, even when it’s not asked of him. So he tells a series of stories that are as dry and impish as his songs. Of the real Suzanne, immortalised in his song of the same name, how she was the wife of a friend and how she did indeed feed him tea and oranges but no, he didn’t touch her perfect body with his mind.

Lunson keeps the camera discreet as various Wainwrights, Thompsons and McGarrigles line up to perform, and offers the visual equivalent of their interpretations. Nick Cave gets the lion’s share – his balladeering growl a good match for Cohen’s laments – while surprises include Rufus Wainwright and Antony (of the Johnsons fame), whose more operatic swoops you wouldn’t naturally expect to be a match at all.

It’s left to U2 to close the show, duetting Tower of Song with Mr C himself – who effortlessly outcools them – before he brings the curtain down with I’m Your Man.

All in all a respectful rather than revelatory tribute. Nothing wrong with that. Leonard Cohen wears it well.

 

I’m Your Man – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2006

 

 

 

Co/Ma

Mike Figgis and the "steering wheel" camera he drove for Co/Ma

 

In 2004 director Mike Figgis led a “master class”, a five day workshop in Ljubljana, Slovenia, for some of Europe’s hot, upcoming talent. Co/Ma is the result of the collaboration, a film made by the members of the course and shown to them, and a few paying members of the public, at the end of the week. Co/Ma stands for Cooperative Marxists/Collaborative Masterclass, a name that seems designed to aggravate as much as the finished product. Which is… a dog’s breakfast, if we’re being brutal. Or a deliberately tricksy film playing with postmodern tropes, if we’re not.

In form it’s a documentary about a mockumentary about the making of a soap, and perhaps the best thing you can say about it is that Figgis has seized hold of the possibilities opened up by digital technology and laptop editing and gone for broke with his form-within-a-form-within-a-form format. Twenty participants, scant direction, barely a script. What do we learn from such a set-up, designed to take everyone involved out of their comfort zone? That actors need strong direction, that a film set can easily degenerate into a battlefield without it, that actors have fragile egos and are given to screaming and shouting when they don’t get their way. We also learn of the importance of narrative – by far the film’s most interesting element is the deliberately third-rate soap that the documentary-about-the-mockumentary is meant to be about, because it’s got a plot. And it’s precisely this soap element that most people involved are the sneeriest about. You have to applaud Figgis for this at least, that he’s showing what a boring, fractious, messy business film-making is. And it has to be acknowledged that Figgis himself, in early footage, makes no great claims for what they’re all about to do – the whole thing about experiments, he says, is that very often they’re abject failures. What someone does point out early on, albeit as an aside, as the various actors struggle to assert themselves but largely flail about, is that what we’re watching looks perilously close to one of those segments in a reality TV show where various housemates are forced to collaborate on some task dreamed up by the production team. In other words, “experimental” does not necessarily mean “new”. So is Co/Ma worth watching? Only if the sight of actors being goaded beyond endurance gets you going.

 

Co/Ma – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2006

 

 

 

The U.S. vs. John Lennon

John Lennon and Yoko Ono in front of a version of the Stars and Stripes

 

 

Professional musician and amateur situationist John Lennon has always been an easy target for anyone wanting to level a charge of hypocrisy. “Imagine no possessions,” he sang, and the fingers started pointing at his lavish lifestyle – insert your own version of the story about the fur coats kept in a refrigerated room in the Dakota Building. David Leaf and John Scheinfeld’s documentary will provide fuel for both the haters and the idolisers, it being the story of how the US authorities revoked the chippiest man in rock’s Green Card in the 1970s, in an attempt to get this dangerous dissident out of the country.

Well, that’s ostensibly what it’s about. In fact for a good while the film acts as a primer on Lennon’s pre- and post-Beatles life. Though gradually the pattern of political, media-focused “eventism” starts to take shape. More than most, Lennon understood how the media operated – that if they don’t get something they’ll just make it up. And so he gave them something. Often it was pranks, this being Lennon’s lifelong default – saying, while still in the Beatles, that the band was “more popular than Jesus” being one of the occasions when he couldn’t resist giving the dog a bone. So, in The US Vs John Lennon, we get the bed-ins, the bagism and the politically motivated concerts, notably the one for marijuana activist John Sinclair, who had been jailed for ten years for the possession of two joints. The concert was instantly successful in getting Sinclair’s conviction overturned but it made Lennon a target for FBI phone-taps and street surveillance, and encouraged the White House to ready plans to deport him. At this point Lennon did what all rich men do – he put a lawyer on the case and stonewalled until the political climate changed (which it did once Gerald Ford replaced Richard Nixon as President).

Made for VH1, and with the co-operation of Yoko Ono, the film goes no further than it has to in terms of revelation and analysis, though there is some interesting stuff in here for the Beatles completist. Not just the music. For instance, the footage from Lennon and Yoko Ono’s famous bed-in (a jokey perversion of the hippie “be in”) at the Amsterdam Hilton is more complete than we’re used to, and includes Lennon’s defence of what the pair were doing as a protest against the Vietnam War. For once, seen in full and in their own words, the couple seem rational, earnest and politically engaged rather than sensation-seeking, dilettantish and rich to the point of foolishness. And it clearly details the moment when Lennon was later invited to put his money where his mouth was and take part in an anti-Nixon, anti-War concert outside the Republican convention in 1972. He declined. This marked the end of John Lennon’s political moment. Had his pranksterism burnt out, or self-preservation kicked in? Or was he just sick of being co-opted? The film has nothing to offer.

 

 

 

The US Vs John Lennon – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2006

 

Message to Love: The Isle of Wight Festival

The Isle of Wight Festival, 1970

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

17 August

 

Woodstock ends, 1969

On this day in 1969, the Woodstock Music & Art Fair ended. Billed as “An Aquarian Exposition: 3 Days of Peace and Music” it was held at a dairy farm near White Lake, New York. 32 acts had played to 400,000 people who had paid $18 in advance ($24 at the gate). Richie Havens had been the first act on and Jimi Hendrix was the last act, playing a two hour set that included his version of the Star Spangled Banner – shocking both to those who didn’t want to hear it desecrated and to those who didn’t want to hear anything so patriotic played. In fact Hendrix was playing from 9am to 11am on the morning of 18 August – overruns and flexible scheduling being at least partly what the festival was about. The entire event had originally grown from the notion that Woodstock might be a festival mostly featuring musicians who lived or worked in area, the promoters particularly keen to get Bob Dylan and The Band on board. This was not to be. On the day the festival started Dylan had embarked on the Queen Elizabeth 2 to sail for the UK and the Isle of Wight festival. Woodstock did OK without him.

 

 

 

Message to Love: The Isle of Wight Festival (1997, dir: Murray Lerner)

Murray Lerner’s film was a long time coming. Thanks a to a legal wrangle over who owed what money to whom, the film didn’t see the light of day until 1997. And how fitting that it was money that caused the delay. Because in among the performances by Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, Hendrix, the Who and the Doors, are moments that catch the irony at the heart of the hippie ideal – it’s the straights who make hippiedom possible. But first some details: held a year after Woodstock on a small island off the coast of the United Kingdom, it was the biggest countercultural/music event of its time, with estimates of attendance ranging from 600,000 to 700,000. Along with those already mentioned, Sly and the Family Stone, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Free, Jethro Tull and Miles Davis took part. Not a bad bunch of headliners.
If the Woodstock film catches a festival full of optimism and some complacency, Message to Love catches rock culture just as it moves from being a fun ad hoc arrangement into the new establishment. There is tension everywhere, between those outside who want the fences torn down so the festival can be free, and those inside who want everyone involved to get paid. Breadheads versus dopeheads. While performers are talking about peace and love on stage, their managers are engaged in full-bore argument backstage trying to make sure their man (or woman, in Joan Baez’s notable case) gets his/her due.
Lerner had already made a film about the Newport Folk Festival, so he knew what he was doing and what’s notable about Message to Love is how well shot and put together it is. For sure, Lerner plays up the tension – the locals, the police, the crowd, the performers are all shown at their worst (Joni Mitchell calling the crowd “tourists”; she means “peasants”), and funniest. He has an eye for a performance too. Not that Hendrix or the Doors were that incendiary – and both Hendrix and Jim Morrison would be dead within a year so it’s a shame – but Lerner’s beady eye catches exactly what it’s like to be watching an iconic performer at the wrong time of day (the Doors were on at something like 3am), with inadequate sound, bad weather and a grumpy lead singer. Actually, considering, the Doors are not at all bad.
So, the walls do eventually come down and the paying ticket holders (60,000 or so) are joined by the other 500,000 or so who haven’t paid. Making the best of a bad thing, the organisers decide to declare the Isle of Wight a “free festival”. It’s clear a lot of musicians aren’t going to get their money and that the organisers are heading for bankruptcy. Lerner catches it all in painful detail.
The festival has gone down in history as a desperate financial failure, but the film is a resounding success. Murray has it all as it goes rotten in front of his lens. It’s a good story, a great one in fact. And it’s a great film about the death of the 1960s ideal – funny how many of those there are. And it’s Hendrix, king of the era, whose song provides the film’s ironic title.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • A brilliant story, well told
  • Iconic footage
  • Great music
  • Big artistic egos losing their temper

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Message to Love: The Isle of Wight Festival – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Our Daily Bread

On the pig production line in Our Daily Bread

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

10 August

 

Henri Nestlé born, 1814

On this day in 1814, Henri Nestlé was born, as Heinrich Nestle, in Frankfurt am Rhein, Germany. His father was a glazier and the business had been passed down the family line for five generations at least. Heinrich trained and qualified as a pharmacist, changing his name to Henri Nestlé on the way, because he was now living in a French-speaking part of Switzerland and wanted to fit in. In 1843, he bought his way into a company involved in the synthesis of oil from rape seed. It also produced alcoholic drinks, vinegar, mineral waters and soda. By 1857, he had switched his attention to fertiliser and gas for lighting. Nestlé was by now wealthy, but the foundation of his fortune was the baby milk formula he came up with in the mid 1860s, aimed at women who weren’t able to breast feed, in towns where a supply of fresh milk was difficult and infant mortality rates were high. His formula consisted of cow’s milk mixed with sugar and flour. It was an immediate success at home and all over Europe, eventually the world. Though Nestlé sold his company in 1875 and devoted his life to philanthropy, the company that bore his name went on to become the biggest food conglomerate in the world. He and his wife had no children.

 

 

 

Our Daily Bread (2005, dir: Nikolaus Geyrhalter)

Some films have universal relevance. We all eat, and so Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s documentary about the way our food is produced on a mass scale should stir at least the beginnings of an interest in anyone who watches it. One thing is certain: the dehumanised production lines and the sight of mechanised modern food production is unlikely to pique the appetite. Geyrhalter shows us vast polytunnels, abattoirs of robotic mass slaughter, football fields of salad, all shot without voiceover, usually with a static camera, with no identifiers as to which company is involved. It’s a tableau of the way we live now – we’re all implicated in this ugly/impressive agri-business.
There are lines of dead pigs being ripped open by a machine that deguts them, cows entering another machine that kills them and then neatly flips them over, salmon being pumped through a vast hose to yet another machine that whips out their innards, just like that.
As I said, no names are named, and no fingers are pointed. This is not a film designed to stir righteous anger but to document, and possibly to inspire awe, as its unblinking eye ranges from field to factory, its images precisely framed, shot on hi-def so we catch the details. The odd bit of human interaction is telling: the woman whose job is to catch the chickens who have somehow survived their appointment with the slaughter room and despatches them with a quick cut to the neck. This, of course, is how it used to be done before the machines moved in. Was it worse? More humane? Hardly.
The soundtrack is all clanks and hums, the odd snatch of dialogue in the background from whichever migrant worker is doing whatever unspeakable job, echoes from the sterile, bloody places. And then a “pillow shot”, of a worker quietly enjoying a sandwich in a break, filling undoubtedly the product of some food factory too. And then on to the production of sunflower oil, from vast fields of beauty, with a yellow plane lazily droning over the top, spraying away. And then back to the animal slaughter, a baby calf being cut from its mother, vast acreages of broccoli, the production of steaks, all of it the reason why food prices in the western world have been falling for most of our lifetimes.
Geyrhalter has an eye for the picturesque, that’s the irony, and one for framing and focus, constantly drawing our eye to the telling detail, or making a more general point that the telling detail is that there is no telling detail.
Do we need 90 minutes of this? Probably not. But the power of it is undeniable, and the lack of a polemicizing voiceover leaves us to come to our own conclusion. This is either remarkable evidence of human ingenuity, or a sign that we’ve lost the plot entirely. Food for thought.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Remarkable sights
  • It’s beautiful, amazingly
  • The access
  • Some scenes will probably stay with you for ever

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Our Daily Bread – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Into Eternity: A Film for the Future

Onkalo Spent Nuclear Fuel Depository

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

5 August

 

Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, 1963

On this day in 1963, the “treaty banning nuclear weapon tests in the atmosphere, outer space and under water” was signed by the governments of the USSR, the United Kingdom and the USA in Moscow. Though there was general unease about the increase in radiation on planet Earth, the ban had been proposed first by the USSR in the early 1950s, though in its version of the treaty, no rigorous procedures would have been included to verify whether signatories were keeping their end of the bargain. The USSR finally yielded to the US and UK’s positions and full discussions were opened in 1963. After the initial signing, the treaty was thrown open to all countries to sign. To date only three countries – China, North Korea and France – have not signed.

 

 

 

Into Eternity (2010, dir: Michael Madsen)

Can you responsibly create something incredibly toxic and then ask not just your children but generations stretching 100,000 years into the future to look after it? There isn’t a civilisation on Earth that has lasted even a tenth of that time, not even the Chinese, and yet that’s exactly what we’re doing with our nuclear waste, between 200 to 300,000 tonnes of which will be hanging around, needing somewhere safe to sit out eternity.

This brilliantly researched, urgent film tells the story of the best solution humanity has come up with so far: bury the stuff deep underground in a place called Onkalo in Finland, where the bedrock is supposedly stable enough to withstand anything that people or nature can throw at it. Excavation began in 2004 and the project goes live, if that’s the word for deadly nuclear waste, in 2020. One scientist goes on record to state that it’s his “personal belief that no human intrusion will happen at any time scale, ever.” Fair enough. A belief. In a world where no belief system is older than the low thousands of years.

In among the awesome images of this vast “underground city”, as one worker there describes it, being excavated deep in the earth’s bowels, writer/director Michael Madsen (no, not that one) gives ample space for the scientists involved in the project to explain themselves. And to give them credit they have really thought about how to prevent the radiation to escape from its boron steel canister (wrapped in copper surrounded by bentonite clay and then encased in a rocky tomb). One of their disaster scenarios imagines nuclear bombs, another a world where all human civilisation has been blown away by another ice age.

And the more they talk, the more conclusively these brilliant minds put the noose around their necks. In effect we’re all relying on the imagination of a bunch of fallible scientists. This is most starkly brought home as we eavesdrop on a meeting to discuss “markers”, the signs left around the area to warn the people of maybe 80,000 years hence (point of reference: Neanderthals flourished only 35,000 years ago), that they’re approaching something dangerous. One of the boffins suggests a picture of Edvard Munch’s Scream, reasoning that the image is so potent it must be “universal”. Fair enough, but if that’s the case, why didn’t some primitive Munch paint something like Scream 10,000 years ago?

As with the best documentaries, Madsen asks very simple questions and gets right to the heart of the matter. The Onkalo Spent Nuclear Fuel Repository is an ambitious and in many ways an elegant and brilliant project. But has anyone really thought through all the ramifications? Could anyone? Most tellingly, at key points where Madsen interrogates the bosses of the project about one failsafe system or another, we also get to see the look on an assistant’s face as his/her boss gives a big, bland reassurance that everything has been thought of and it’s all going to be ok, trust me. The look is saying something far less confident.

For sure, Into Eternity is making a political point. But even if you don’t agree with its approach, you still have to answer its questions. They’re good questions. And even if they weren’t, the images Madsen has collected of this vast civil engineering project will blow you away. If you’ll pardon the expression.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • The remarkable access
  • Madsen does not blind us with science; he is highly informative
  • Answers, such as they are, from the people who know
  • The remarkable underground footage

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Into Eternity – Watch it/buy it now at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff

Jack Cardiff with a still of Audrey Hepburn

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

27 July

 

Vincent Van Gogh shoots himself, 1890

What is it that everyone knows about the painter Vincent Van Gogh? That he cut off his ear. And perhaps a lot of people also know that he killed himself. But it seems to have been forgotten that he shot himself.

But he did, on this day in 1890. Having lived in a variety of places in his native Netherlands, London and Paris, Van Gogh had finally moved to Arles in 1888, where he was to have the artistic breakthrough and produce the work he is still remembered for.

He was also behaving erratically, psychotically, as he had done his whole life. Earlier in 1890 he had called at a local brothel and given his severed ear to a girl called Rachel: “Keep this object like a treasure,” he had implored. On recovering in hospital, Van Gogh had returned home, but had soon admitted himself to an asylum.

On his release he moved to Auvers-sur-Oise to be near his doctor and his brother, Theo. He seems to have switched between mania and deep hallucinatory depression at this time, either producing huge amounts of paintings or barely functioning at all.

On 27 July 1890 he shot himself in the chest while out in the countryside, but the bullet bounced off a rib and missed his major organs. In fact he walked back to the auberge where he was staying, was treated by doctors, then went to bed, smoking his pipe.

His brother arrived the next day and found Van Gogh in good shape, but infection soon set in and Vincent died later that day. His last words were “the sadness will last for ever.”

 

 

 

Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff (2010, dir: Craig McCall)

Jack Cardiff probably shot one of your favourite films. Having been the lighting cameraman who worked on everything from Black Narcissus and The African Queen to Conan the Barbarian and Rambo II, he covered a lot of the waterfront, bringing a distinctive eye and commitment to every project he worked on. This documentary about him is an unashamed homage to a man who was working until two years before he died, aged 95, in 2009, having joked to director Craig McCall four years earlier, aged 91, that he was finding it physically harder to do the work – “I’m going to have to scale it back in about ten years.”

It took 13 years for McCall to get this documentary finished, and along the way some of his interviewees – Charlton Heston, Richard Fleischer, Cardiff himself – died. But the 13 years weren’t wasted, as McCall managed to get Lauren Bacall, Kirk Douglas, DP Freddie Francis and a raft of other famous names and/or faces to testify to the Cardiff effect. Chief booster is Martin Scorsese, who owns his own print of Sons and Lovers, one of the few films Cardiff also directed, and whose enthusiasm for the cinematographer is infectious.

If there is one thing to take away from Cameraman, it’s that to be any good at anything, it’s vital to have input from somewhere else. In Cardiff’s case it is painting, with Cardiff effusive in his love of Van Gogh, Turner and the impressionists – “the National Gallery was my film school” says Britain’s first cameraman to be trained to shoot colour. And the film really soars as Cardiff explains how, for example, he referenced Vermeer to get the look of Black Narcissus, a film which, along with other Powell/Pressburger films The Red Shoes and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, are among the most beautiful Technicolor movies ever made.

But it’s only, mechanically, about moving lights about and getting huge cameras into position, all this cinematography lark. There isn’t, at bottom, much to say about one person’s artistic choices that the finished product hasn’t already said. It’s here that Cardiff comes into his own as a raconteur, telling stories about Henry Hathaway and Michael Powell, the prodigious drinking of Errol Flynn, how Bogart and Huston never got ill while shooting The African Queen in the Congo because they never drank anything but whisky.

And then there’s the archive – Dietrich and Monroe, Gina Lollobrigida and Ava Gardner. He knew how to light an icon. Even Cardiff’s home movie footage is pressed into service, and you realise that even with a Super 8 Cardiff was something else, one of those urbane, understated yet amazingly vital Englishmen of the old school. A gent.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • A fascinating documentary about a legend of the movies
  • The stars come out to pay tribute
  • Scorsese acknowledges his debt
  • Cardiff’s gossipy stories

 

 

 

 

Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff – Watch it now at Amazon

I am an Amazon affiliate

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

For All Mankind

The man in the moon in For All Mankind

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

21 July

 

Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walk on the Moon, 1969

Today in 1969, while schoolchildren the world over hugged their knees while watching, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first men to walk on the Moon. Armstrong and Aldrin had landed just after 8.00pm UTC (aka GMT) and, having completed the hardest part of the mission without major mishap, then decided to bring forward the planned moonwalk. Just over six hours later they were ready to go. The Eagle, the lunar module, was depressurised, the door was opened and Armstrong climbed down the ladder to become the first man on the Moon. Armstrong delivered his “that’s one giant step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind” speech, and 20 minutes later Buzz Aldrin joined him. They unveiled a plaque, erected the flag of the United States, collected a soil sample, took photos of the lunar module for the scientists back home, spoke to President Nixon, deployed instruments including a seismograph, took rock samples and went for exploratory walks. Armstrong and Aldrin’s moonwalk lasted around two and a half hours.

 

 

 

For All Mankind (1989, dir: Al Reinert)

A plaque left behind on one of the legs of the lunar module the Eagle reads “Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the moon. July 1969AD. We came in peace for all mankind.” So many aspects of that sentence now seem slightly off – the word “men” (too gendered), the use of “upon” (too formal), and “AD” (too Christian). But the sentiment is still thrilling and so is Al Reinert’s film, a composite “from the Earth to the Moon” flight cut together from Nasa footage of the missions Apollo 8-17. Over the images is a commentary, voiced by the various astronauts who manned (sorry) the flights – Jim Lovell, Eugene Cernan, Alan Bean, Jack Swigert and various others, all names familiar to anyone who grew up in the Apollo era. Alongside them Reinert dubs in some playback from Houston, adding vital atmosphere, plus a waft of music, not too intrusive, ambient stuff by Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois.
Against the enormity of what Nasa achieved is the humility of the men, who have the “aw shucks” quality you find in the nicest Americans – these are good natured, fun guys with enquiring minds and lively spirits. It’s the little touches that humanise it – scenes of astronauts shaving, talking about listening to Merle Haggard and Frank Sinatra in deep space. One of them liked the theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Meanwhile, back at base, is a cadre of guys who also became familiar, in short sleeved white shirts, with similar buzz cuts, black-framed spectacles, quite a few smoking – the men who made it happen.
Those familiar with the grainy “one small step” footage that gets served up on TV routinely will be astounded by the quality of the footage Reinert has unearthed. At one point an astronaut talks about being able to see from space the campfires lit by desert nomads. And there they are, pinpricks of light against an inky black. Against images such as these Reinert will drop in a thoughtful comment from one of the astronauts. And it’s somewhere around here that it becomes clear that Reinert’s skills don’t stop at research. He’s also a skilful editor; the unnecessary cut out, just enough left in for us to get an appreciation of what’s going on. The result is a punchy, lean narrative. And because Reinert credits us with knowing what a rocket stage is, there is no explanation of what is happening as one drops away, leaving us to watch as it goes. But at key moments – going into Moon orbit, landing – we are offered one, which only makes what’s happening more exciting. With all its acronyms and militaristic jargon – “You are Go for TLI” [Trans-Lunar Injection] – how brutish and technologically advanced it all looked back then. But how fragile and wondrous it all looks in Reinert’s film. And how brave those guys.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • A brilliant documentary
  • Superb quality footage of all aspects of space flight, take-off to splashdown
  • Last astronaut on the Moon Gene Cernan on the commentary track
  • A reminder of the achievement

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

For All Mankind – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

 

The Song Remains the Same

Robert Plant in The Song Remains the Same

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

 

 

13 July

 

 

 

Live Aid, 1985

On this day in 1985, some of the world’s most popular music acts got together at Wembley Stadium, London, UK, and John F Kennedy Stadium, Philadelphia, USA. Live Aid was a spin-off from the single Do They Know It’s Christmas, a song co-written by Bob Geldof and Midge Ure after Geldof had seen footage of the 1984 famine in Ethiopia. Expected to make around £70,000, the single in fact made around £8 million. The shows, in summer the following year, were designed to capitalise on what seemed to be the public’s happiness to dig deep if asked to by a large collection of their favourite pop artists. In London, the Coldstream Guards kicked off the day with God Save the Queen, and were followed by Status Quo. In Philadelphia Joan Baez opened, followed by the Hooters (“Who the fuck are the Hooters?” Geldof is reported to have asked). At Wembley proceedings were brought to a conclusion ten hours later by Paul McCartney, followed by an ensemble performance of Do They Know It’s Christmas, whereas in the USA the trio of Bob Dylan, Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood were followed by a massed-artiste rendition of We Are the World, rounding off a 14 hour show. No African musicians took part at either venue, unless you include Sade (born: Nigeria), Freddie Mercury (Zanzibar) and impromptu Led Zeppelin member Paul Martinez (Morocco).

 

 

 

 

 

The Song Remains the Same (1976, dir: Peter Clifton, Joe Massot)

Led Zeppelin were still the biggest rock band in the world when this film debuted. Made when rock bands amassed huge amounts of money from record sales, lived like modern medieval monarchs and existed pretty much below the publicity radar (computer game billionaires have a similar existence today), the film is the high point of rock before punk kicked its legs away, and the high point of a sort of lifestyle that welded a fey hippie dandyism to bohemian entitlement.
Don’t bother looking it up if you’re expecting to see definitive Zep performances. One half of the film is a slog through Zeppelin’s show at Madison Square Gardens, in support of their Houses of the Holy album. The rest, intercut, is a series of fantasy sequences intended to give us an insight into the lives of our heroes (bassist John Paul Jones reading to his kids, drummer John Bonham drag racing, guitarist Jimmy Page as a hermit on some fanciful quest, vocalist Robert Plant on horseback, manager Peter Grant as a gun-toting mobster) plus peeks backstage.
The fantasy stuff is the funniest, with band members frequently looking like bad-haired hobbits as they wander through a backlit Middle Earth. On the other hand the music stuff, the gig, is not funny at all – Page’s playing is frequently meaningless noodling and he looks raddled, Robert Plant’s voice is failing on the top notes, bass and drums are frequently struggling to drag Page back to the beat.
It’s a film inadvertently about that moment when a band or an entire scene goes bad, in other words.
Original director Joe Massot had shot more than enough raw footage of the gig, both out front and backstage, but he fell apart trying to edit it all together. So Zeppelin called in Peter Clifton to edit and finish the film. Clifton’s solution to the poor syncing of visual and sound – re-record the band at Shepperton.
So the film isn’t just a record of a bad gig and the band’s idiot fantasies played out for the camera, it’s also highly dishonest. And it still doesn’t sound good. There are exceptions – Since I Been Lovin’ You, Black Dog and The Rain Song all sound like the band mean it and can hear each other. But for all the many negatives, if you want a record of Zep in their pomp (and the word applies to them more than any other band), and an insight into a lost world of the rock squireocracy, before things went more democratic – and stayed that way – in 1976, then this is the historical document for you.

 

 

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • It’s Led Zeppelin, man
  • Play “spot the recreated live footage”
  • When they’re good, they’re very very good
  • Hippie nonsense at its most hilarious

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

 

 

The Song Remains the Same – Watch it now at Amazon