Shinjuku Boys (1995) — Even When Words Fail

The Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once wrote that “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world”. What Wittgenstein actually meant remains a subject of philosophical debate but we can read his comment as a reflection upon the two-way relationship between our perception of the world and the ways in which we talk about it.

Intuitively, facts should always take precedence over language and whenever we encounter a fact that does not fit with our use of language, we should simply update our vocabulary to better reflect the facts on the ground. While there are certainly institutions and groups who try to educate people about ‘correct’ language use, the meaning of a word is always determined by the way it is most commonly used by a given population. What this means in practice is that while experts may be forever inventing language that is a better fit with current thinking about a particular phenomenon, having those new terms filter down into general usage is subject to the same structural biases as any other attempt at changing the way that people think.

The problem with the rigidity of our spoken language is that the vernacular often contains concepts and assumptions that are not only out of date but actively harmful. For example, if we define masculinity in terms of having a penis then someone who identifies as male despite not having a penis must simply be wrong about their gender. While there was a time when our culture was quite happy to make this type of judgement, our understanding of gender has now evolved to the point where terms like ‘male’ and ‘female’ are becoming increasingly hard to pin down.

The language of gender and sexuality has evolved with almost unprecedented speed over the last few decades and new conceptual iterations seems to generate more and more political heat as words are fought over by people with different needs and ideas. If the limits of our shared language mean the limits of our world then the battle to control the conceptual underpinnings of our language is also the battle to control our world.

Directed by Kim Longinotto and Jano Williams, Shinjuku Boys is a documentary about a group of people who were assigned female at birth but identify more closely with the male gender than the female. Made all the way back in 1995, I am sure that many of the terms used in this documentary are horrendously outdated but while Shinjuku Boys may struggle with its pronouns, it does show how people will continue to perform and negotiate their genders even when words fails them.

 

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REVIEW — Dreamcatcher (2015)

FilmJuice have my review of Kim Longinotto’s thoroughly excellent documentary Dreamcatcher.

As I say in my review, Kim Longinotto is one of the most criminally under-appreciated documentarians that Britain has ever produced. Her latest film follows the exploits of Brenda Myers-Powell, a former sex-worker who has set up an organisation designed to help people leave the sex trade. The activities of Dreamcatcher Foundation include handing out condoms on street corners and helping people to find beds in drug treatment programmes but also to reach out to people in schools and prisons who are at risk of falling into prostitution.

Aside from being incredibly moving and a really amazing documentary about the lives of America’s urban poor, Dreamcatcher does two really interesting and important things:

Firstly, it takes its cues from Brenda and talks about sex-work as a form of addiction. Brenda’s methods are not those of the politician, religious leader, or social worker but those of the recovering addict who talks about their experiences and encourages others to do the same:

Brenda’s attitude seems to be that she ‘was’ all of the women she encounters and so she can speak to them and help them to do whatever it is that they need to do in order to survive and live free. Brenda’s capacity for understanding is captured in a series of amazing interviews where she will ask a teenage girl or a sex worker whether they have done something and, despite the other person’s denial, she will talk about how it is okay to do what you need to do in order to survive. The power of these scenes lie in the facial expressions of the people Brenda talks to as while they are used to lying through their teeth to parents and authority figures, they cannot lie to Brenda because she knows exactly what they are going through. The most moving scene in the film is undoubtedly the moment in which Brenda gets a bunch of teenaged girls to talk openly about their histories of sexual violence for what seems to have been the first time ever. Longinotti captures not only the moment but also the sense of relief that comes from sharing and knowing that they are not alone.

I think there is probably an important book to be written about the language of addiction and how it has spread beyond the traditional confines of drink and drugs to encompass activities including sex and sex-work as well as food. Scarcely a month goes by without someone writing an article for the Guardian about the addictive nature of processed sugar and junk food.

 

Secondly, Dreamcatcher does for prostitution what The Wire did for the drugs trade. In other words, just as The Wire showed the drugs trade to be an amazingly complex social phenomenon whose tendrils had worked not only into local politics but also the school system, Dreamcatcher suggests that prostitution has its roots firmly embedded in the American family:

All the women in this film have stories about how they were abused as a child and how this abuse got them used to relationships with older men who would exploit their sexuality in increasingly aggressive and brutal ways. One of Brenda’s helpers is a former pimp named Homer and he explains how childhood abuse served to normalise not only under-age sex and the exchange of sex for money but also the use of violence to keep women under control. This vision of the sex trade as a system of exploitation is made particularly clear when Brenda talks to a young woman who grew up in California and got her start in the sex trade at the age of eight when she was picking up money and taking it back to the pimps.

The extent to which prostitution has perverted these women’s relationships is made particularly clear in a scene where a sex-worker takes a call from her baby’s father. Initially, the call seems a bit weird as she keeps calling him ‘baby-daddy’ but it then becomes clear that while the man is certainly her child’s father, he is also her pimp and so the role of ‘baby-daddy’ is reconfigured by the sex trade to include the sexual exploitation of women. This pattern plays itself out again and again throughout the film as women are never put onto the street by ‘pimps’ or ’employers’, it is always lovers and family members.

 

I simply cannot recommend this film enough, it’s an absolutely fantastic documentary that touches on many of the themes and ideas visited in David James’ The Interrupters and Werner Herzog’s Into the Abyss but I think it actually manages to do much better than either of those films. This is a great film and a great jumping-on point for anyone interested in discovering the work of one of Britain’s greatest living documentarians. Even the Q&A included on the DVD is amazing!

REVIEW — The Decent One (2014)

FilmJuice have my review of Vanessa Lapa’s documentary about Heinrich Himmler, The Decent One.

The Decent One draws on some private correspondence that was uncovered in Himmler’s house at the end of the war and sold into private hands by light-fingered American soldiers. Following the scandal surrounding the so-called Hitler diaries, the documents never made that much of a splash and were never made public until Lapa’s parents decided to buy them for her so that she could make a documentary about them. The result is a rather frustrating experience as while the film does give some fascinating glimpses into what life must have been like for the friends and family of prominent Nazis, Lapa chooses to focus most of her attentions on Himmler rather than the people around him.

This evidently put Lapa in something of a sticky situation as how do you produce a biographical documentary about a prominent Nazi without inviting unflattering comparisons to Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem or more psycho-sociological writing such as Adorno’s The Authoritarian Personality. Lapa tries to overcome this problem by unearthing scandalous biographical details such as Himmler’s penchant for sadomasochistic sex and his habitual drug use but the methods she uses to present these so-called biographical details are so manipulative that you can’t help but raise a sceptical eyebrow:

Lapa makes a great show of putting the documents in the foreground of the film and many shots of Himmler’s angular hand-writing give the impression that the documents are being allowed to speak for themselves. However, take a step back from the images of Himmler’s correspondence and you start to realise that Lapa’s editorialising is so aggressive that it smacks of desperation and frequently borders on the outright manipulative. For example, one of the earliest exchanges of letters between Himmler and his future wife finds Himmler referring to himself as a ‘naughty man’ for spending too much time away from his fiancé, to which the woman playfully responds that she will exact a terrible revenge for his absence. Now… in the context of hundreds of personal letters, this exchange would probably come across as the slightly awkward flirtations of a sexually active couple but Lapa isolates these sentence fragments and instructs her voice actors to deliver readings that encourage the audience to conclude that the future Mr. and Mrs. Himmler has a relationship that was a bit kinky if not actually sadomasochistic. Also suspect is the way that Lapa juxtaposes a document relating to stomach problems caused by prolonged opium use with Himmler’s passing assertion that he had experienced a touch of constipation while on the Eastern front. Again, when seen in the context of an on-going personal correspondence, such an admission might come across as little more than a comment on Himmler’s health but Lapa frames the information in a manner that encourages us to infer that Himmler was a habitual drug user. Aside from being dubious historical practice, such manipulative sensationalism only serves to highlight the extent to which Lapa struggles to find anything new to say about Himmler that hasn’t been said before: There are no private doubts to be found here, only the belief that he was doing the right thing and that history would prove him right.

Surveying some of the film’s other reviews, I notice that I am not the only one to dislike the heavy-handedness of Lapa’s editorialising. Setting aside the fact that films like Shoah set the tone for Holocaust documentaries by allowing people to speak for themselves, I am also struck by the fact that there is now a very fine line between a serious documentary about the Nazis and the type of sensationalist trash you get on cable TV. Massage the primary sources a bit too much and your careful documentary turns into Hitler’s Henchmen by way of Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe.

REVIEW – The Overnighters (2013)

FilmJuice have my review of Jesse Moss’s rather frustrating documentary The Overnighters.

The documentary is set against the backdrop of the North Dakota oil boom, which saw a massive expansion in the North Dakota oil industry at a time when many Americans were losing their jobs and their homes in the Great Recession. However, while North Dakota now has the lowest unemployment rate of any state in the Union, the job market expanded so quickly and generated so much money that the state’s rental sector simply could not keep up meaning that many Americans travelled thousands of miles to get a job in the oil industry only to realise that their new job didn’t pay enough to allow them to cover rent. The film revolves around a Lutheran pastor who set up a programme that would allow the working poor to sleep on the floor of his church.

The documentary is at its absolute best when it shows the inhumanity and indifference of American institutions:

The most striking thing about this documentary is how little support Reinke gets from… well… anyone. The oil industry in North Dakota is going through a period of historic expansion and yet despite record profits rolling in to corporate coffers, none of the oil companies seems to provide food or shelter for the thousands of people they employ. The oil boom has reportedly given the under-populated state of North Dakota a billion-dollar budget surplus and yet the state would rather shut down the church and ban people from living in caravans than find a way to house and feed the thousands of people who helped to create that surplus. Even more shocking is the way that Reinke is forced to battle his own church as parishioners file into his office and trumpet their Christian values in the same breath as they complain about poor people making the place look untidy.

However, rather than expanding this critique into something more systematic, Moss takes the disastrous decision to focus upon the human element and the experiences of the men who are running and relying on the Overnighters programme. This approach is quite traditional in American documentaries as human interest stories sell better than analytical pieces but you can only make that kind of film when the humans are interested in telling their stories and the men who feature in The Overnighters keep their emotional cards very close to their chests. As I point out in my review, Herzog’s Into the Abyss is a great example of how to use human stories to build a social critique but Herzog’s interviews help his subject to develop their own thoughts whereas Moss seemed reluctant to ask any questions whatsoever. For example, one of the subjects spends his time spouting vitriol after being asked to leave the church and Moss neither challenges his vitriolic remarks or tries to determine what actually happened. Similarly, the film seems to imply that one of the subjects might well have been sexually involved with a man staying in the church who then blackmailed him but Moss never bothers to ask questions that might have allowed him to share the real story of what happens at the end of the film. The Overnighters had the potential to be a great little documentary about the plight of America’s working poor but rather than making that film, Moss tried to make a film about people’s feelings when nobody wanted to discuss them.

Another issue the film brought to light is the role of charity in perpetuating systemic inequality. According to the film, the oil industry did not pay its workers a living wage in the sense that their salaries did not allow them to make rent and feed themselves, forcing hundreds of people to sleep in their cars. It does not seem unreasonable to suggest that, allowed to continue unchecked, these working practices would have resulted in hundreds of deaths and people fleeing the cold of North Dakota in order to return home. The resulting humanitarian disaster and shrinking of the labour pool would presumably have resulted in either the state stepping in or employers raising wages and building dormitories to arrest declining production. While charities like the Overnighters might prevent humanitarian disasters and save hundreds of lives, they do provide both the state and the public sector with an excuse for not changing their practices.  After all, why would an oil company build dormitories when a church down the road provides one at no cost to them? Watching The Overnighters, I was struck by the fact that the only way of addressing systemic inequality is at a systematic level: Workers can’t make rent? raise the minimum wage. Rents too high? Cap them. People forced to sleep in their cars because their wages are too low? raise corporate taxes and use the money to provide cheap social housing. There is something faintly obscene about the fact that the oil boom gave the state of North Dakota a seven-figure budget surplus and yet the only time we hear from the state in the film is when they are trying to shut down the church or ban people from sleeping in caravans.

 

 

 

 

REVIEW – Hockney (2014)

FilmJuice have my review of Randall Wright’s documentary Hockney.

I approached the film without knowing a huge amount about the work of David Hockney and I left in pretty much the exact same condition. Like a lot of documentaries produced these days, Hockney tries to convince us that its subject matter is worthy of our attention without engaging either with the subject matter itself or with the cultural context that allowed the creation of said subject matter. The result is a film content to display the work of David Hockney without really bothering to say anything about it. In lieu of commentary, the film provides a string of anecdotes that are intended to be amusing but actually come across as intensely patronising:

Wright tries to establish Hockney as someone who was considered eccentric even by the lofty standards of the 1960s London art scene. Allergic to anything that might resemble a broader context, the film draws on anecdotes that all seem to revolve around the fact that Hockney is a gay northerner who happens to dye his hair. Far from establishing Hockney as a rebellious artist, this suggests that the 1960s London art scene was full of patronising snobs who are still patting themselves on the back for giving house room to people from Bradford. Oh darlings… it was all so mad in the 1960s! We all had long hair and pretended to be friends with ghastly northern yobbos who dyed their hair!

On reflection, the film reminds me quite a bit of Sophie Fiennes’ film about Anselm Kiefer Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow as both films are content to let the art speak for itself. The problem is that whereas Kiefer’s art is a huge installation that has transformed an old silk factory into a mad alien landscape, Hockney’s art is a series of twee and colourful paintings of his friends. On a very basic level, Hockney’s art is not as well served by the cinematic medium as Kiefer’s and, on a more critical level, Fiennes’ wordless approach to Kiefer’s art emphasises its opaque and inscrutable nature whereas Wright’s attempt to juxtapose Hockney’s paintings with anecdotes about the artist only serves to make his work seem insubstantial and whimsical.

 

Into the Abyss (2011) – The Traumafare State

When has Werner Herzog ever made a film that couldn’t be summarised as a journey into the abyss? Early feature films such as Even Dwarfs Started Small and Aguirre, the Wrath of God seem to revel in the existential savagery of the world while more recent documentaries such as Grizzly Man and Happy People: A Year in the Taiga serve as reminders that the world has little time for the collection of bourgeois conceits that we dare to call a civilisation. The question is never whether Herzog will turn his film into a meditation on the savagery of the world, but which tone he will select as a means of approaching it:

Sometimes (as with Encounters at the End of the World and The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans) he is a whimsical fantasist who recognises that silliness is the only possible response to a world so cold and drenched with blood.

Sometimes (as with Fitzcarraldo and Little Dieter Needs to Fly) Herzog is a humanist who marvels at our human capacity to overcome the savage injustices of life.

Sometimes (as with Nosferatu the Vampyre and Aguirre) he is filled with bitterness and cynicism by nature’s ability to dissolve humanity’s finest dreams.

If becoming a cinematic auteur requires a director to develop a recognisable sensibility and carry it with them from project to project then Werner Herzog must be considered one of the most prolific and versatile auteurs in cinematic history. Regardless of whether he is producing documentaries or feature-length narrative films, Herzog is one of the brightest jewels in the crown of world cinema but he is also starting to get on.

Back in the early 2000s, a string of moderately successful films provided the veteran director with a level of visibility that had long since been denied him. Thrust into the spotlight and transformed into a celebrity, Herzog made the most of it by adopting the engagingly self-parodic persona of an austere German filmmaker who muses on the savagery of the world with his tongue planted squarely in his cheek. Long-time fans would not have been surprised by this development as Herzog has always had a fondness for deadpan satire and self-mythologising (the documentary My Best Fiend is at least as full of made up crap about Herzog as it is of stuff about Klaus Kinski). The problem with this moment of visibility is that while it evidently made it much easier for Herzog to secure funding on his next project, it also encouraged him to remain Herzog the whimsical fantasist who undercut his meditations on death and destruction with talk of depressed penguins and mutated crocodiles. Given that Herzog was now reaching 70 and more visible than ever, I was concerned that the whimsical Herzog might become a permanent fixture. Would the bitter and humane Herzogs ever return or would it be nothing but dancing souls and iguanas on the coffee table until the end? Clearly, I needn’t have worried as Into the Abyss is a documentary that shows us an entirely new Werner: Herzog the humane socialist.

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The Act of Killing (2013) – The Things We Choose To Live With

The colonial period of Indonesian history ended with Japanese occupation. Aside from a reported 4 Million deaths, Japan’s wartime occupation of the Indonesian archipelago also saw the growth of a national independence movement that was only too happy to take leadership of the country when Japan surrendered to allied forces in August 1945.

Two days after Japan’s surrender, a nationalist leader and one-time Japanese collaborator by the name of Sukarno declared Indonesian independence only to be made president the following day. However, this independence turned out to be short-lived as the Dutch were quick to reassert their colonial rights and to press them with the aid of the British military. Sukarno would go on to steer Indonesia in and out of independence as European colonial influence collapsed and various administrative structures were unsuccessfully tried. By the 1960s, Sukarno was seen as something of a puppet master, a politician who clung to power by playing the army and political Islam off against each other with the help of his allies in the air force and his true powerbase, a vast democratic communist party known as the PKI.

In 1965, Sukarno’s grip on power was beginning to fade. The country’s economy was in free fall and while the president’s anti-Western rhetoric had made him friends in Russia and China, an unnecessary military confrontation with Malaysia along with almost complete domination of the government by PKI members meant that those out of power had increasingly little to gain by remaining loyal. In fact, the CIA was fully aware of this fact and was happily providing support and encouragement to what would eventually emerge as the opposition to the so called 30 September Movement.

The official history of the 30 September Movement (or G30S) is that it was an abortive coup launched by members of the PKI in an effort to topple the Sukarno regime. While declassified documents suggest that this might well have been an invention of Western intelligence, the abortive coup provided the army with an opportunity and an excuse to seize power. In the years that followed the abortive coup, the Indonesian army along with allied paramilitary and Islamic groups undertook what can only be described as a wholesale purge of the Indonesian body-politic. While records from this period are understandably patchy, experts suggest that over 1.5 Million people wound up in prison as a result of their supposed communist sympathies. Even though countless thousands would wind up being held in prison for decades without trial, these political prisoners can almost count themselves lucky as experts suggest that the purges also included somewhere between 500,000 and 3 Million extra-judicial killings. Though history records these killings as being part of an anti-PKI purge, the reality is that the army and their allies also went after intellectuals, trade unionists, women’s rights advocates and the ethnic Chinese: Anyone who posed a potential threat, anyone who saw the world in a different way. By the time the killings ended, Sukarno’s leftist regime had been replaced by a pro-Western government headed by Suharto and backed by paramilitary organisations that continue to play an important role in Indonesian public life.

Most documentaries are content to remain small films that tackle small issues in small ways. The larger the issue, the smaller the film generally becomes as documentarians abandon the complexities of the real world in favour of simple moral fables that are easily packaged and easily sold to an audience trained to confuse complexity with confusion and ambiguity with dissemblance. Joshua Oppenheimer’s twelfth film The Act of Killing is something different… it is a big film that takes on a huge issue and provides answers so big and so complex that watching it means forcing oneself to see the world in an entirely new way.

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REVIEW – The Armstrong Lie (2013)

FilmJuice have my review of Alex Gibney’s sports documentary The Armstrong Lie.

I went into this film with quite a good impression of Gibney as a filmmaker. I loved his award-winning Taxi to the Dark Side about the use of torture in the Iraq war and his Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room about the myriad ways in which elements of American government, business and media made the collapse of Enron possible. I love those films because Gibney takes a couple of big, explosive news stories and proceeds to do precisely the kind of stuff that the media reporting the stories refused to do: Explain events by embedding them in a broader cultural and sociopolitical context. When The Armstrong Lie applies this methodology to the world of professional cycling, the film is fascinating… the problem is that Gibney keeps allowing Armstrong himself to get in the way:

The problem with this film is that Armstrong’s story is not interesting enough to sustain an entire film. At the end of the day, Armstrong was an ambitious and aggressive man who did everything in his power to win, including cheat. His history of testicular cancer along with his deprived childhood may well account for his will to victory but anyone who looks at the amount of money he made and the level of fame he reached should be able to work out why he cheated and why he continued lying about it until he was eventually caught. Like most sportsmen, Armstrong does not appear to be imbued with a profound inner life and so any attempt to tell his personal story will inevitably come across as being rather dull and predictable

Lance Armstrong’s story should by now be familiar to anyone who is not living in a cave on Mars with their fingers crammed in their ears. Gibney originally set out to make a film about Armstrong’s return to the sport in 2009 and his claims to be running the race ‘clean’ for the first time since his return after testicular cancer. Mercifully, this film collapsed when it became obvious that Armstrong was still cheating and planning on using Gibney to help repair his reputation. The collapse of this earlier project forced Gibney to make a more interesting film as his desire to understand Armstrong’s motivations forced him to look into the culture of a sport that had effectively been sanctioning secret doping for decades. At its best, The Armstrong Lie really connects with the idea that Armstrong succeeded simply because he was a more talented and organised cheat than anyone else in cycling at the time. The problem is that, rather than focusing upon what made Armstrong such an effective cheat, Gibney keeps getting distracted by questions about Armstrong’s motivations and mental state. This proves incredibly frustrating as the whole point of the film is that Armstrong was always a wheel in a much bigger machine who managed to protect the machine by attracting all the attention to a single cog.

The film is filled with footage of journalists and sporting officials trying to hold Armstrong to account but they never get close to him. Every time someone asks about doping, Armstrong puts on a sad face, mentions his cancer as well as the work he did for cancer charities and moves the debate away from whether or not he cheated to the more tricky question of whether or not a journalist or a sporting official have the right to persecute a cancer survivor who raises millions of dollars for other cancer survivors. Indeed, Gibney completely misses the fact that Armstrong’s 2009 Tour de France saw him refusing to answer questions from anyone other than a  disgrace former team-mate who had reinvented himself as a sports presenter. Even if such a man did manage to hold Armstrong to account with an awkward question, Armstrong could simply paint the journalist as a bitter hypocrite and thereby shift the discussion away from whether or not he cheated and towards the far more comfortable question of whether or not it was appropriate to even discuss that possibility.

Armstrong was a brilliant cheat because he managed to protect not only himself but his entire sport from serious scrutiny. He did this by magically transforming all questions about drugs in cycling into questions about whether or not it was appropriate to question the honesty of a cancer survivor and charity worker.

The question of how Armstrong managed this trick is actually very similar to the question of how a vicious paedophile like Jimmy Saville could not only escape prosecution but also enjoy a successful career in show-business. The trick that both Saville and Armstrong pulled is that they managed to position themselves so close to a series of institutions that it effectively became impossible to challenge the individual without also challenging the institutions they stood next to. If this wasn’t bad enough, the relationship between the criminals and the institutions was so close that the institutions wound up with a vested interest in defending the criminal who was using them as cover. How could the BBC, the Royal Family or the various charities he supported distance themselves from Jimmy Saville without admitting their close ties to a paedophile? How could the Tour de France distance itself from Lance Armstrong without admitting that it was their culture of rules-bending that allowed him to rise to prominence in the first place?

 

 

 

 

REVIEW – Fire in the Blood (2013)

FitBFilmJuice have my review of Dylan Mohan Gray’s documentary about the pharmaceuticals industry Fire in the Blood.

Since Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine demonstrated the existence of a large potential audience for documentary film, many have tried to use film as a means of raising awareness about particular injustices and so bringing pressure to bear on people with the power to make a difference. The problem with this approach to documentary filmmaking is that if the film becomes merely a means to an end then there is little incentive to put anything in the film other than what is strictly necessary to change minds and win support. As a result, films like Louie Psihoyos’s The Cove and Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me are often little more than rhetorical exercises that manipulate audiences into agreeing with their point of view rather than seeking to educate them about the nature of the world at large.

One of the challenges of documentary filmmaking lies in striking a balance between moral simplicity and emotional accessibility on the one hand and accuracy and educational potential on the other. Often, learning more about the world means losing touch with simple moral principles and realising that even the most hideous atrocities happen as a result of people acting in good faith. In the real world, people do not wear black hats and even if they did, it would probably mean that they were goths.

Dylan Mohan Gray’s documentary opens with a very simple moral equation: Millions of people in the developing world are dying of AIDS but while humanity has the technology to prevent those deaths by using retro-viral drugs to prevent HIV from turning into AIDS, these drugs are under the control of multinational corporations who would rather allow millions to die of preventable diseases than see their profit margins slip. Obviously this is a morally intolerable situation but humanity lacks the political will to nationalise the corporations and bring their resources under the control of institutions with the desire to resolve morally intolerable situations. As a result, the film follows a group of activists as they work to broker a compromise that will allow the morally intolerable situation to be resolved without embracing #fullcommunism. The great thing about this film is that, in seeking to explain why this situation came about, the filmmakers manage to educate their audience while never losing sight of principle. It turns out that the real problem with AIDS in the developing world is not patent law but the obvious corruption and cowardice of Western governments.

Turns out some complex truths are morally simple after all…

REVIEW – The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology (2013)

PGTI_home2FilmJuice have my review of Sophie Fiennes and Slavoj Žižek’s lecture/documentary film The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology.

This film was a real disappointment for me. I remember discovering The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema when it screened on BBC4 and buying the DVD directly from the production company as it hadn’t quite managed to land a mainstream distribution deal. I love the visual style, I loved the choice of films it discussed and I loved the way in which Žižek took incredibly complex readings and compressed them down into diamonds of insight. I didn’t necessarily buy all of Žižek’s interpretations but criticism is a creative endeavour in which being boring is a far greater crime than being wrong. In that series, Žižek was never boring and so the series remains a fantastic piece of TV. Unfortunately The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology is a far less attractive prospect for a number of reasons.

The first major problem with this film is that Fiennes has failed to reign in Žižek. Pervert’s Guide to Cinema worked by providing its resident critic with a very clear framework: He could talk about whatever the fuck it was that sprang to mind but each of his flights of fancy had to begin and end with the text of a particular film. This not only forced Žižek to be concise in his opinions, it also meant that if the audience ever fell of the train of thought, they could re-orient themselves by using their knowledge of a particular cinematic text. Sadly, The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology suffers from the same problem that many of Žižek’s lectures (and now books) suffer from: a complete lack of intellectual discipline and a woeful tendency towards self-indulgence. As I explain in my review:

it is never entirely clear how Žižek’s opinions about the 2011 London riots relate to his opinions about Stalin’s efforts to position himself at the centre of not just Russian politics but Russian private lives as well. The more Fiennes indulges Žižek’s wandering attention span, the more insubstantial and hollow his ideas come to seem, something that is particularly evident in the slightly embarrassing attempt to conclude the film with something resembling a plan of action or a unified worldview.

In other words, this film is full of entertaining ideas… but none of those ideas ever amount to anything like a sustained intellectual critique. By failing to impose any limits on what Žižek couldn’t say, Fiennes has insured that he says nothing at all. In addition to these structural problems, the film also suffers from the decision to chase a cinematic release rather than the much longer TV-friendly running time enjoyed by the original series. The result is a lecture that tackles a much larger topic in much less time and with much less intellectual coherence. To paraphase Woody Allen: So much intellectual incoherence… and in such a small portion too!