Tag Archives: History

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

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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)

 

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Daft Or Dastardly? The Laurel Canyon Conspiracy

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A short time ago, a FB friend posted a link to a site all about the supposed “Laurel Canyon Conspiracy”. I think the context was a post I shared about Aleister Crowley. I’m not a hard-core Thelemite – but I do enjoy Crowley’s books on magick and the bit of his fiction I’ve read so far.

In any case, the L.C. conspiracy seems to have been first posted online by a bloke called Dave McGowan in 2008. Since then, it’s been reproduced in sections or in it’s entirety on various sites. Usually, I dismiss that kind of thing outright as nonsense, thought up by paranoids who want to blame the shitness of their own lives on some over-arching group (The Bilderbergers, The Rothschilds, The Rockefellers, etc, etc.)

McGowan contends that the 1960s counter-culture began in the Laurel Canyon neighbourhood of Los Angeles. The main characters in the scenario, such as Jim Morrison and David Crosby, were the scions of upper-ranks military commanders and intelligence personnel. They were then indoctrinated into working for the CIA to….well, McGowan never really says. Was the aim to spread the gospel of non-violence and psychedelics, to create a pliable populace easy to manipulate? Was it to create a counter-culture to scare the god-fearing Joe and Jane Six-Packs into voting for a strong conservative government and perpetual warfare?

Maybe both, or neither. There seem to be a couple of glaring errors in his analysis, almost from the outset. He contends that Frank Zappa was ‘pro-war’ and that all of the bands hung out together and were all good pals. According to the testimony in other books, Arthur Lee, of the band Love, liked neither Frank Zappa nor Jim Morrison. David Crosby has gone on record several times about how much he loathed Jim Morrison. Frank Zappa lampooned the ‘hippie scene’ quite a few times on his early albums (especially “We’re Only In It For The Money“, released in 1968). The idea that these disparate personalities were all gelling together for the CIA seems ludicrous…add in Stephen Stills, Charles Manson, Dennis Wilson (of The Beach Boys) and Neil Young and things seem even further far-fetched.

McGowan has done quite a bit of research on the history of Laurel Canyon, especially during the 1920s and 1930, when it’s homes were bought up by some big-name Hollywood folk, as well as stage magician extraordinaire, Harry Houdini (yep, he did some work for the U.S. gubberment too, says McGowan). McGowan impressively does find connections between a lot of the key L.C. players in the 1960s and while it may look like something sinister was happening, I’m not convinced that because a lot of the musicians were ‘army brats’, they automatically were drafted into helping the military/industrial complex. The U.S. military was a big employer immediately after WWII, when a lot of them were born – it doesn’t seem like much of a coincidence to me.

To be fair, there was a lot of weird stuff happening – but it seems L.A. does attract it’s share of chancers and miscreants and has done since the film industry set up there a hundred years ago. Add in psychedelics and sexual liberation and well…you got yourself a freaky scene, man. McGowan does shed light on the infamous Manson murders of 1969, deviating a lot from the ‘official’ story given by prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi. Apparently, it was the result of a couple of drug deals gone very badly. Manson botched a drug deal with an African-American dealer, which left him (Manson) paranoid and looking for protection. Allegedly, he approached the “Straight Satans”, a biker gang, who were hanging around Manson’s place for the ‘free love’ and drugs. They thought Manson was a joke, but agreed to protect him if he could score some mescaline for a party they were throwing in a couple of weeks’ time.

Manson went to Bobby Beausoleil, who had formed short-lived psychedelic band The Orkustra (who later morphed into It’s A Beautiful Day) and knew a lot of the Laurel Canyon players. Beausoleil then contacted Gary Hinman, an acquaintence and fellow musician. Gary spoke with a couple of chemist friends who said they could get the amount of mescaline together. Money changed hands and that was that. Until, according to the bikers, the mescaline was bunk and they demanded their money back. Beausoleil went to Hinman, who said he’d already spent the money. Manson got involved and Hinman was killed, after being kept in his home by Beausoleil. Hinman was suffocated, still suffering from a wound Manson had given him. To make the murder appear as a political attack, they scrawled “Political Piggy” on Hinman’s wall.

Beausoleil was, of course, the prime suspect for the murder of Gary Hinman and trying to protect him, Manson hatched the idea of a few more murders to make it look like a political gang was on a rampage – hence the “Healter Skelter” (sic) and “Piggies” scrawled on the walls of the Sharon Tate home in blood. Bugliosi thought that Manson was serious with his “race war” talk and run with that story. It seems it’s a lot more mundane. It was all about money and paranoia.

Getting back to the original premise – why would the CIA create the counter-culture, only to destroy it (via Manson and Altamont) a few years later? The Laurel Canyon theory also ignores all the other contemporary scenes in San Francisco, New York, London, Paris and Amsterdam. The S.F. and London scenes were already in action as early as 1964, while Laurel Canyon didn’t really start until 1965 or ’66. While isolated examples like Vito Paulekas and Zappa seemed ahead of the game, most sorta drifted in after the fact.

Aside from the Hinman killing and the Tate-LaBianca murders, the other major tragedy of the era was Paulekas’s two-year-old son, Godot, falling to his death in his father’s studio. There’s also allegations that before he died, he was ‘introduced to sensuality’ by being passed around to adults open mouths. So, yes, there’s alleged child abuse as well. Still, I don’t believe that everything and everyone in the Canyon at that time were CIA agents and connected to the government. None of the conspiracy theorists have offered any sort of official proof – wouldn’t a Freedom Of Information request turn up hard evidence that Crosby et al. were on the payroll? Perhaps I’m naive in that respect.

As with anything – you can read the theory for yourself and make your own decision – it is twenty-one pages long and covers a five decades or so, so it does get meandering. It’s here, if you dare.

Also, as a bonus – McGowan references the film, Mondo Hollywood, several times in the article – you can watch the film in it’s entirety below:

High On Mt. Vesuvius

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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:

One Giant Leap: Neil Armstrong R.I.P.

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Sad news reached us today of the passing of Neil Armstrong, the first man to set foot on the Moon. Mr. Armstrong’s death makes it feel like the Apollo space program has been shunted even further back into history and 1969 seems ever longer ago (which, of course, it always is but you know what I mean). There seems to be an increasing number of people who no longer believe that humans have ever really reached our nearest space neighbour as the ‘Moon landings conspiracy’ gathers speed year by year: whilst I’m as open as the next freak to many a possible conspiracy in this strange world, I, for one, firmly believe that old Neil and Buzz did successfully make that journey, to be followed by further missions up until NASA called it a day after Apollo 17. I’ve read some of the conspiracy stuff, of course, but I don’t think much of it really makes a lot of sense, whereas, for the US to put a fellow on the Moon made a lot of sense at the height of the Cold War. It’s probably arguable that we didn’t learn a fantastic amount that we couldn’t have done by using unmanned probes but I’d have to leave that one to the experts. No, the main point was, at least that summer of 1969, to put a man on the Moon.

I have very vivid memories, as a wide eyed (shortsighted) eight year old, of watching those very hazy pictures beamed down to us from the Sea of Tranquility. It all seemed so incredible and of true significance in terms of human endeavour. Even as a young child, I somehow sensed that life would never be quite the same again and, for good or ill, I’d argue that it hasn’t been. It does seem a terrible shame that our taste for space adventure seems to have lessened considerably since those heady times but, with the massive economic and social problems that the world has faced in the intervening years, one can understand how space exploration has slipped down the ladder of priority somewhat. However, at some stage, mankind will quite probably have to get out there again and we can only hope that it will be for the benefit of us all that the next Neil Armstrong takes off for the stars. I salute you, sir.