Tag Archives: BBC

Cinema Corner #315: “Dear Zachary” & “Bitter Lake”

Standard

I was doing a bit of Wiki-hopping. You know, where you look at one Wikipedia page, then follow a link to a different page and so on. I bought a used copy of Spiritualized‘s Songs In A&E last week. Running through the other tunes are short tracks all named “Harmony” (with slight variations on the title). I thought I’d check the Wiki page for “Songs…” and discovered that the tunes are named that after Harmony Korine, the actor/screenwriter (most famous for writing the screenplay to the 1995 film “Kids“, a bleak look at da yoof in 1990s New York City). I then looked at the page for Korine and remembered reading about his film “Gummo” a while back. Apparently, it’s quite a difficult film to watch. That led me to one of those list-articles on Buzzfeed, about the “25 Films That Will Destroy Your Faith In Humanity“. Now, it is Buzzfeed, so expect a lot of hype – but some of those films seem to be really draining on the psyche, just from the descriptions. Amongst the violent revenge flicks like “Oldboy” and “I Spit On Your Grave“, is a documentary called “Dear Zachary“. Unlike a lot of the films on the list, it’s available to watch on YouTube. I was curious as to how it ended up on the list, so I gave it a go.

Essentially, it’s the story of Andrew Bagby’s murder in 2001, carried out (or so the evidence seems to show) by his ex-girlfriend, Shirley Turner. Bagby had a relationship with Turner while they were both in medical school. Bagby broke it off and Turner, unable to take being jilted, drove from Iowa to Pennsylvania and (again, as the evidence seems to show) killed him in cold blood after he agreed to meet her one last time. Kurt Kuenne (which he pronounces “Kenny”) was a childhood friend of Bagby’s and Bagby acted in a lot of Kuenne’s amateur films when they were students. There are several talking-head interviews with Andrew’s school friends and work colleagues and even his relatives in England, describing his personality in glowing terms.

Bagby’s parents, Kate (an ex-pat English nurse) and David, are given special focus, as they were the main campaigners to get Turner brought to trial in the States (Turner was a Canadian citizen and fled to her native Newfoundland after Bagby was murdered). Turner then revealed she was pregnant with Bagby’s child (she also had three other children from previous relationships). Bagby’s parents moved to Newfoundland to work on Turner’s extradition and then to get custody of ‘Zachary’, as the baby was eventually named. The Bagbys are awarded (very tenuously) joint custody of Zachary and Kuenne drives up to Canada to meet and film The Bagbys and the child.

Tragedy then happens a second time when, realising that her extradition may be imminent and that another episode involving a man jilting her caused Turner to become unstable – she strapped Zachary to herself and jumped into the Atlantic Ocean. Both drowned within minutes. It’s made obvious that the film, while being a tribute to Andrew and Zachary, is more of a tribute to The Bagbys and their resilience in coping with the loss of a grandson and a son and taking on the caprices of the Canadian justice system.

The film, despite it’s depressing content, is well-made. Kuenne probably could have relied less on the musical score for emotional cues (such as the Bernard Hermann “Psycho”-like music for the parts where Turner is shown). Turner is never really investigated, either – her family aren’t interviewed, her background isn’t researched or presented at all. She becomes mainly a cypher and a villain for viewers to project all sorts of ‘evil’ onto. Now, she was more than likely guilty of murdering a man in cold blood and she took the life of a child in a ghastly selfish way. Still, we never know what motivated her to behave that way. She clearly had mental health problems and was quite unstable. Also, the Canadian justice system seems quite flawed – but was this a case of a small community protecting one of its own? Particularly in the wake of 9/11, was there a broader link between the foot-dragging of the extradition trial and the central Canadian government (vis-a-vis: distancing itself from the U.S. government)? I suppose that may be veering into conspiracy theory, but it could be an interesting avenue to explore.

Adam Curtis, the UK documentary film-maker, announced on his blog a short while ago, that he was producing a doc to be shown strictly on the BBC iPlayer. It was to be about Afghanistan and its relationship to Russia, Saudi Arabia and The West.

It finally arrived (called “Bitter Lake”) on the iPlayer in January and I watched it as soon as I had a couple of hours to really absorb the film. It starts with Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s meeting with King Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia, on an American warship in 1945. The U.S. needed oil to run it’s growing industrial complexes and fuel it’s new-found military might. Abdulaziz agreed to produce the oil, but his condition was that the U.S. not interfere in the Saudi faith. That faith is Wah’habbism, a very conservative branch of Islam. F.D.R. also agreed to a massive dam project in Afghanistan, that would help work to ‘modernise’ that country and create a Western-style democracy in the Middle East.

The film then presents a dizzying lesson in Afghan history since 1945, using archival footage, interspersed with unedited BBC news footage shot after the 2001 invasion by U.S. and UK forces. The West, seeking to create a Middle East idyll in Afghanistan, runs afoul of the Saudis after the U.S. overtly supports Israel in the 1950s. The democratic Afghanistan does well in the the 1960s, but then Western student visitors bring leftist ideas with them in the early 1970s. A few years later, after the 1973/1974 oil crisis, which gave the Saudis even more leverage in world affairs, due to ‘petrodollars’ flowing into their coffers – Communism (with a capital ‘C’) started to flourish in Afghanistan. This didn’t sit too well with the Saudis.

Russian citizens, encouraged by this development, started to move into the country. There was a backlash, however, and soon things started to get ugly. The Soviet army invaded Afghanistan in 1979 to back the failing Communist regime. Groups of disparate tribal fighters (with Wah’habbists among their ranks) rebelled against the Soviets. The U.S., seizing an opportunity to fight a proxy war, trained and armed (via the C.I.A.) these groups, who came to be known as the ‘mujahedeen’. The roots of what then morphed into the the Taliban were formed in the mujahedeen.

Some of the uncut footage is extraordinary, unsettling and shocking, sometimes all at once. Footage of then-President Karzai’s motorcade wends it’s way through Kabul. Three men sidle up to Karzai’s SUV to greet him – suddenly automatic gunfire rings out and seconds later, the men are laying heaped in the street. U.S. soldiers are shown boasting about being ‘born killers’ and ‘off command’ kills (presumably that means civilians or people the soldiers themselves suspected being Taliban combatants, but weren’t confirmed as such). In one really lovely bit, a British soldier holds a small bird that has landed on his rifle, while a Middle Eastern pop song plays as a soundtrack.

The British presence in Afghanistan, particularly Helmand Province, after 2001 is shown to be largely an exercise in futility, as the soldiers couldn’t tell who were the ‘real Taliban’. Curtis argues that many of the locals were fed up with Karzai’s corrupt police forces and saw the British as backing the police. The locals decided to attack the British, which emboldened the Taliban to return from Pakistan – so essentially, the British were fighting on two fronts at once.

Things changed yet again after the 2008 financial crash, when the ‘bankers and techno-crats’, trusted by the leaders in The West to work out the complexities of the markets, failed to do so. Money was flooded into the U.S., UK and Afghanistan economies in an effort to prop up the system. A lot of the money injected into the Afghan economy was siphoned out to Dubai, further frustrating the Afghan people.

In the end, Curtis argues, despite many different leaders trying to imprint their version of Islam on radical groups, Wah’habbism was still the driving force behind even the newest group of fighters, ISIL (the Islamic State of Syria and Levant), or ISIS. The original strain of Islam that the king of Saudi Arabia tried to wipe out in the 1940s is alive and very much kicking. Curtis also states that The West had to confront the notion that all of its efforts to transform Afghanistan amounted to nothing, but like the lake on the planet in the 1972 film “Solaris”, Afghanistan has left an effect on the Western psyche.

You can watch “Dear Zachary” online here

You can watch “Bitter Lake” here (UK only) and here (rest of the world)

 

Advertisements

One Of *Those* Posts – Things I Enjoyed

Standard

I usually avoid doing those “year end” kinda things – ‘cos really, it’s only the year-end in the Gregorian calendar, not in loads of other calendars. Anyway, here’s a list of some things I liked this past spin around the sun. In no particular order or category:

The Summer: Even though I left my job at the beginning of June, I had quite a good summer this year. I visited my family back in the U.S.A. for two weeks – I hadn’t seen them in nine years, so it was a treat to see all the nieces and nephews and my cousins and their little’uns. I also met a friend and did a bit of record shopping, too. Back in the UK, it proved to be a decent time, as the weather (mostly) brought sunshine and warmth. Compared to last year, this year was a model season.

Unknown Mortal Orchestra – II: I first heard this band through Marc Riley‘s 6Music show a couple of years ago. I kinda liked their strange, psychedelic R&B-influenced sound, but not enough to pick up the first record. Riley started playing the first single off of the new album, “Swim And Sleep (Like A Shark)” and it became a near-instant earworm. The album was released in February of this year and I bought it shortly after. I find there’s not a bum track on it – though for those with short attention spans, “Monki” can probably overdo it a bit.

A Field In England/Kill List: Pixie and I watched “Sightseers” early in the year and I really enjoyed it, particularly for the performances of Steve Oram and Alice Lowe, as the main protagonists. “Sightseers” was released in 2012, but we missed it in the cinema. Director Ben Wheatley was finishing up “A Field In England” even as were sending the rental DVD of “Sightseers” back. I was back in the UK in time to watch A.F.I.E. on BBC Four in early July and it blew my mind. Set in Civil War-era England, it involves some deserters who are tricked into helping a necromancer into searching for a ‘treasure’ hidden in a deserted field. There’s madness, psychedelic mushrooms and magick thrown into the mix. I thought it was brilliant and I’m definitely buying the DVD. I watched “Kill List” shortly after and while it wasn’t quite as visually arresting as A.F.I.E., the story, in places, seems far more intense. A soldier-turned-hitman gets lured back into the business by his friend and ‘associate’. At first, it seems like a routine mission, but things get progressively weirder as the film goes on. The ending scene is a shocker and it’s wonderfully played and is a genuine “Holy shit!” moment when you realise what has happened. Superb.

Fuck Buttons: I’d heard about them a couple of years ago, but I wasn’t quite sure I’d like their music. I checked out a couple of clips on You Tube, but I filed them in the “kinda interesting, maybe check them out later” dept. This year, they released their third full-length album, Slow Focus. I listened to a few of the new tracks and really liked them – so I bought up the back catalogue (not tough, as it’s only two records so far). At the moment, “Tarot Sport” is my fave, though “Street Horrrsing” has it’s ace tracks, too. I also found out that Blanck Mass is Benjamin John Powers‘s (of F.B.) ambient side project. Blanck Mass’s track Chernobyl was used to excellent effect in “A Field In England”.

The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time (the stage version at the Apollo Theatre, London): You can read my longer review in the last post. Excellent staging and cast – highly recommended. You won’t be able to see it until the beginning of January, as part of the ceiling in the theatre collapsed during a performance – luckily there were no fatalities.

Leonard Shlain – The Alphabet Vs. The Goddess: I didn’t get to read quite as many books this year as I wanted to – but “The Alphabet…” was quite entertaining and enlightening. I read it while on holiday in the States. Shlain’s theory posits that while worldwide literacy has been very beneficial on the whole, it has also brought subjugation of women in almost every culture in which it’s been introduced. You may not agree with it, and find his research lacking – but I find it quite compelling and very possible. Copies are still available – I bought mine quite cheap off of eBay.

Horrible Histories/The Wrong Mans: H.H. finally finished this year, after it’s fifth series and it’s a shame, because it got better and better as it went along. The song/band parodies were ace and their send-up of “Masterchef”, ‘Historical Masterchef‘, was seriously funnier than most adult sketch shows, to me, anyway. “The Wrong Mans” is a series on BBC Two, that was shown in the early autumn. It stars Matthew Baynton, who was part of the H.H. cast and James Corden. I’m not really a fan of Corden’s, so I thought it could go either way. Luckily, Baynton held his own and Corden’s usual antics were limited to just a few scenes. I thought it was good, for a modern Hitchcock pastiche. There’s not much wiggle-room for a second series – but then, teevee writers can come up with some convoluted shit in order to keep a franchise going. We’ll see…

The World’s End: The final film of Edgar Wright‘s “Cornetto Trilogy” (featuring Simon Pegg and Nick Frost) was released this past year. To me, it didn’t have quite the gut-bust laugh quotient of “Shaun Of The Dead” or “Hot Fuzz“, but it’s still a quality flick. Part 90s nostalgia, part sci-fi and part “you can never go home again” story – it makes a fitting end to the trilogy. I won’t go into plot specifics, in case you’ve not seen it, but I will say that “Fuck off back to Legoland, cunts!” is one of my fave film lines of the last ten years.

Matt Berry – Witchazel: I’d been meaning to pick this up for a loooong while and was given the CD as an X-Mas gift this year. It’s as good as I’d anticipated and for anyone who digs early 1970s psychedelic/progressive folk and English whimsy, this is a must-have. Berry is a comedic actor who’s appeared in some of the funniest shows of the past five-to-ten years: The Mighty Boosh, Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace…and (the somewhat patchy) The IT Crowd. The guy’s also a solid musician and I’ve got his second album “Opium” as well (his first album, “Jackpot“, is waaaaaay out-of-print and you most certainly won’t find it on the interwebtubes or eBay – trust me, I’ve looked). Berry’s newest series, “Toast Of London” was broadcast in the autumn and it looks like a second series has been commissioned. “T.O.L.” uses “Take My Hand“, from ‘Witchazel” as it’s theme tune.

There’s loads more music, some teevee and books I enjoyed – but then this post would be mammoth and would stretch your reading patience to it’s limit. Hope your year was near what you wanted it to be and roll on Gregorian calendar year 2014!

Like a school on a holiday….

Standard

Pretty old news by now (‘specially after events in Boston and China), but those ever-busy sociologist types have been busy coming up with a new class system for the UK. You may have been wondering where you ‘fit-in’ now – well, wonder no more. The BBC website has this handy ‘class calculator’ ready for your input.

Honestly, I would’ve thought that we’d be all beyond this whole class malarkey by now – but no, humans still seem to need some way of feeling superior to their peers. Whether it’s money, what sort of music you like, how many books you’ve read – there’s always some schlub who’s not quite made the grade. I’m including myself in this because I’ve been known to make judgement calls of that sort.

My only plea is that, while differing with others on music/books/films taste seems far less divisive than hoarding money and snubbimg those with less wealth. I suppose it’s too much to ask at this point in history for a classless society, but I don’t think adding four new classes will diminish the haves/have nots scenario. Even in the U.S., where the class divide is far less apparent than in the UK – the sense of disparity seems to be growing and ‘class’ is more apparent than ever.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m no Marxist, but the idea of separate classes rankles me, which is why I don’t really enjoy shows like Downton Abbey, with their glorification of ‘know your place’ Britain. What to do, though…should we ‘tax the rich/feed the poor/’till there are no rich no more’, as Alvin Lee suggested in I’d Love To Change The World? I could never work out if he was genuine in that statement, or just mocking hippie idealism. Unfortunately, I’m not really in favour of taxes either, which are usually taken at the barrel of a gun.

Maybe someday we’ll all get it together and there won’t be a class divide. Wouldn’t that be nice? I’m a ‘new affluent worker’, by the way.

High On Mt. Vesuvius

Standard

I gather it’s supposed to be spring, but going by the temperature outside, it seems the UK, most of Europe and even parts of the U.S. are stuck in a continuing cycle of winter weather. I don’t want to get into a debate about global warming and that. I do think climate change is happening, but I suspect it’s a combination of things and partly caused by humans.

Anyway, here’s a topic that’ll keep you warm. While we were on holiday in coooooold Cornwall last week, we caught a programme on BBC 4 about the Pompeii catastrophe. I presume you all know the story: ancient Roman city near Mt. Vesuvius is completely engulfed in ash and lava when the volcano which is part of said mountain erupts. Population almost entirely wiped out, but some of the buildings are remarkably preserved under the avalanche of ash.

The programme is called Pompeii: The Mystery Of The People Frozen In Time. It’s presented by Margaret Mountford, who you may remember from the business ‘reality-show’, The Apprentice (the UK version). She was one of the sour-faced execs sitting next to Alan Sugar in the boardroom scenes. As an historical teevee show presenter, she doesn’t show as much acumen as in her alleged business skills.

She remarks when looking at one of the casts, “It’s almost human.” Er..it is human, Mags – unless the people of Pompeii were half-lizard or something. There were a few other gaffes in her style as well, but for her first gig, she wasn’t too bad. The really interesting bit, to me, was the theory that the people weren’t killed by asphixiating on ash, or being steamrolled by magma, but by a phenomenon called a pyroclastic flow. Essentially, it’s like a tsunami, in cloud-form, of super-hot gas and rock that flows down the side of a volcano and engulfs everything in it’s path. The new theory is that the people were killed by the flow, then preserved by the falling ash.

There was a comparison between Pompeii and another city, Herculaneum, also situated close to Vesuvius. Herculaneam was a bit closer, so it’s citizens never even had a chance to be preserved when the pyroclastic flow hit – their flesh was burned completely away. All in all, it’s thought there were four or five flows during the eruption. The other cool thing was a sculptor, who used digital scanning of one of the Pompeii casts and one of the Herculaneum skulls, to create life-like busts. The Pompeii cast was a working-class male and the Herculaneum skull was a wealthy woman.

Another docu centres on Herculaneum, which was just broadcast the other night. It delves more into the day-to-day existences of the citizens. I was impressed with the presenter’s fluent Italian, but I didn’t find the overall programme quite as interesting. You can judge for yourself, though, as it’s on the BBC iPlayer for another six days – you can watch it here.

In a weird synchro-mesh, but maybe also due to the bank holiday weekend, the Frankie Howerd 1971 historical, er..’farce’ Up Pompeii was shown amongst all the ‘Carry On’ films.

Well, that’s yer lot – warmed up now? I am…until I have to go back outside. To finish, here’s a bit of the Floyd boys, from their concert/documentary, Live At Pompeii, first released in 1972: