Monday, December 11, 2006

Scaredy-cats and soft death balls

On Saturday I attended a glittering soiree on the occasion of a very first birthday. Gorged on fizz and finger food, which included a New Zealish delicacy.

“Fairy bread” is buttered white bread cut into animal shapes, then sprinkled o’er with hundreds and thousands. It’s sickly sweet, has no redeeming or nutritional features whatever, but earned hearty cheers from my inner eight year-old.

S. handed me a copy of Wholphin 2, which Nimbos and I then watched that evening. It seems largely an excuse to release the first part of “The Power of Nightmares”, Adam Curtis’s contentious BBC documentary linking the rise of both the American neo-conservatives and radical Islamic groups, arguing that both are against liberal society and the Soviet Union, and both like to start people fighting...

Not surprisingly, this thesis has met with a certain amount of heckling. The BBC boasts highlights from more than 3,000 comments, “reflecting the balance and range of views we have received”.

Terror is an emotive subject (well, d’uh) and a lot of the reaction seems along the lines of “But terrorists exist!” This is rather missing the point of a documentary about how our fears have been encouraged and manipulated by both terrorists and members of our own governments.

There have been terrorists before, the argument goes, so why is al-Qaeda so different?

The documentary has not been shown in the USA, and Wholphin proclaims it “the film US TV networks dare not show” (as according to the Grauniad). On Wikipedia, Curtis claims a network head told him “We would get slaughtered if we put this out”.

The film is available as a free, legal download and has been shown at film festivals and in Canada. The Australian showing was postponed for five months, following the London bombings.

So why has it not been released on DVD before? On Wholphin, it’s provided as a bonus disc, and the sleeve notes add to the dark whiff of conspiracy by suggesting it might still be excised:
“If there is no Power of Nightmares in your package, it means that something went horribly wrong and the retailer was asked to remove the film.”
Which implies some terrible censorship, whether voluntary (on the part of suppliers or distributors) or enforced by the Powers That Are. However, Curtis’s own comments from last year offer another explanation:
“The films are full of archive film and music from a multitude of sources. The reason my series are normally not released on DVD is that it is prohibitively costly and a nightmare - no pun intended - to clear the rights.”

Adam Curtis, “Power of Nightmares re-awakened”,
BBC News, 26 April 2005.

And this is my real problem with the documentary: you're not always sure what is verifiable fact and what is brave supposition.

Curtis uses archive footage to make his points, rather than giving those he critiques any right to reply. His targets' arguments are undercut by fast cutting between contradictory statements – like a headline on a news programme that’s the opposite of what some authority has said. So Curtis gets to make his claims pretty much unchallenged.

I’ve heard it argued that this is okay because his film is a “personal essay”, an invitation to debate the issues that he raises. And though I appreciate that he’s taking arms against a whopping great ocean of struggles, it still feels a little one-sided. Like kids shooting peas at policemen, it’s a challenge to authority, yes, but not exactly going to change the system.

The problem with the essay is that Curtis does what he accuses his targets of, and tells us what to think. If he wants a debate, why not have a debate? Or what is he afraid of?

The rest of the DVD was much more satisfying. I’ve never been quite won over by McSweeney’s (responsible for the DVD), whose beautifully packaged publications are often more pretentious than profound. That’s true of the Auster-lite “Home, James, and Don’t Spare the Horses”, about an artist being groomed to be shocking, and of Soderbergh’s ponderous “Building No. 7”, and of Donald Trump discussing Citizen Kane in “The Movie Movie”.

But there are jems, too. We loved “Okusama wa Majo” – the Japanese version of Bewitched, only subtitled by the jokers from The Daily Show. The animated “More” and “The Mysterious Geographic Explorations of Jasper Morello” were strange and Goth and moving. “The Mesmerist” is a haunting retelling of the warped and broken footage from an anti-Semitic film from the 1920s starring Boris Karloff, and – best of all – “Sour Death Balls” shows different people struggling to chew on a not very pleasant sweet.

No, it wasn’t more of the fairy bread.

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