Watched: Christmas day edition

posted: 25 December, 2008

It's Christmas time, and I've been spending it staring at the TV. I'm currently locked into a weird existence where I've been staying up past 4 AM, and then sleeping through any small bits of daylight we might be granted here. It's an easy pattern to fall into when you don't have windows anyway. And now that I'm on Christmas holiday from the day job, there's little chance of breaking out of it since there's no reason to get up for anything.

I'm a huge fan of Adam Curtis's documentary films - specifically The Trap and Pandora's Box. I've been looking for his 1992 series The Living Dead for some time, so when it turned up on Google video I was way too excited.

Curtis's documentaries are often hard to summarise; The Living Dead, I guess, looks at how people reinterpret their own pasts. The first episode discusses the German role in World War II and how "history" remembers it. The Nuremberg trials are portrayed as an opportunity for the Allies to write the official record; Himmler's testimony is shown as one vision versus another, and it's chilling footage. Germany's own repression after the war is discussed - apparently the Baeder-Meinhof uprisings were inspired by the realisation that their parents had been complicit in Nazi activity, but had been living in denial.

The Living Dead, episode 1: "On the Desperate Edge of Now"

The second episode, wonderfully titled "You Have Used Me As A Fish Long Enough", examines cold war attempts to manipulate human memory. Experiments by the CIA (in league with some cutting edge psychologists and neuroscientists) led to some vaguely Manchurian Candidate territory; the goal was to find some sort of machine-like behavioral patterns in the human brain. The development of the "cognitive science" field grew out of these practices (to say nothing of MK-Ultra and other covert trajectories). There's a few amusing moments - KGB operatives who say that the Soviets didn't bother with trying to unlock the secrets of the brain because they could just read Dostoevsky and learn everything they need about the human psyche - and a DARPA official who talks about how the military "tricked" liberal/leftie scientists into using their findings for military aims. Eventually the reverse path is followed -- to teach machines to behave "intelligently" -- and the Artificial Intelligence movement is born. This episode, made just after the first Gulf War, also includes an interview with an American soldier who is incredulous at how different his memory of the actual war was from what was presented on TV.

"The Attic", the final part of The Living Dead, is the story of Margaret Thatcher's rise to power in the 1980's. This time, it's told through Thatcher's historical ideology instead of her economic beliefs; according to Curtis, her idolisation of Churchhill and the "Colditz spirit" motivated her attempts to reshape Britain according to a romantic vision of the past. Whether this past really existed (or was worth striving for in the late 1970's) remains debateable. Curtis only includes talking heads from the Conservative side of the story, which is a great technique that allows them to be their own biggest critics without any explicit commentary from the left.

The mind control idea in episode 2 is something generally relegated to fantasy and horror literature, but I've always believed that Sirhan Sirhan killed Robert Kennedy while under the influence of some sort of mind-controlling drugs. RFK Must Die is a lengthy documentary by an Irish conspiracy theorist that attempts to uncover a CIA plot, 40 years later. I'm a great fan of conspiracy literature/film/etc. (though I am usually very critical of it); this was extremely well-done, and fairly "grounded", at least compared to other works in the genre. The film is strongest when presenting its evidence and weakest when trying to ascertain "why", which is the general weakness in the conspiracy genre.

Ex Drummer


I watched Ex Drummer, a Belgian film that is among the blackest of black comedies. It portrays the extreme lowlife side of Flemish society, but exaggerated (I hope) and it's middle-class anti-hero is actually far more disgusting. At first it reminded me of The Idiots, but as it progressed it really took on a unique vision of its own -- one that finds humour in misogyny, gay-bashing, genital mutilation, alcoholism, drug addiction, the handicapped, rape, and any other social problem you can think of. I personally enjoy some really extreme humour, but it's obvious that this isn't for everyone. I'm not sure if it added up to anything besides bawdy entertainment, but that's okay.

Another Belgian film that I watched the night of Festivus is Calvaire, a horror film that a professor actually lent me a few years ago but I never watched because the DVD wouldn't play right. The magic of DivX has given me another crack at it, and it was fun. It wasn't a supernatural/scary kind of horror, which is good because the film actually beings on December 23rd which of course is Festivus, so I might have been freaked out if there were ghosts in it. Instead we get crazed backwoods Wallonians who enjoy a bit of torture and humiliation. It's probably compared the most to Deliverance but I never saw that.

(Aside: When I was about 13 my mother got me the novelisation of Deliverance one day - she found it at a thrift store for 25 cents and thought I might enjoy it. What the fuck???)


After Calvaire I was still awake so I put on Naboer, a Norwegian horror film that also deals with psychosis brought on by the loss of a woman. This is much more of a "psychological" horror film (though I don't like that term), and it explores the violent side of sexuality. It's incredibly effective, leaving you a bit confused inside -- and it has the best sex scene in a film since Don't Look Now. Almost the entire film is set in a flat that is confusing and evil - like the ever-changing house in House of Leaves, you can never get a proper spatial sense as things aren't where you expect them to be. It reminds me of the interiors of Suspiria in that disorientating way, though all in bleak Scandinavian whites instead of Argento's hand-painted lushness.

(Note: Calvaire, Naboer, and Ex Drummer were all recommended on the WFMU blog so I thank William Berger for the heads-up.)

The Vice Guide to North Korea

The Vice Guide to North Korea is a 14-part Internet series that interested me as all things North Korean do - even enough to get past the Vice magazine sponsorship and give it a shot. It's so rare to see actual video footage from the North Korean tourist experience, and it's entertaining in an awkward, Curb Your Enthusiasm way. The host is a likeable, normal guy, and his experiences are pretty similar to what Guy DeLisle chronicles in his fantastic graphic novel Pyongyang. It's about as good as we're likely to get, given the limitations of being able to actually get into the country and do anything; I welcomed the footage of the empty hotel restaurants and the Arirang performance, which does seem truly insane.

The Ascent of Money, episode 1

More Channel 4 documentaries: The Ascent of Money sounded good when I read about it, purporting to be a history of economics that comes at an interesting moment in Western financial history. I half-watched the first episode while cooking dinner yesterday and found it to be that distinctly "middlebrow" British documentary style that I really dislike. The presented, an economics professor, manages to work in a good bit of history with excursions to present-day Britain (including Shettleston, Glasgow, which was cool). I did learn things, particularly about the Medici and renaissance financial laws, so maybe I'll continue with it during other dinner preparations.

And finally, I started Mad Men - after hearing about it so much, my partner and i put on the first episode last night. I don't know if there's anything I really need to say since so much is written about it elsewhere, but I did enjoy it. In particular, the visual design was fantastic and I'll probably continue watching it, as long as I can keep my expectations low. (The Wire has forever ruined other American television for me, I fear).