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Life and Death on Mount Everest

“…the highest of mountains is capable of severity, a severity so awful sand so fatal that the wiser sort of men do well to think and tremble even on the threshhold of their high endeavor.”

— George Mallory

Life and Death on Mount Everest

The path to Everest in 1921 and 2006

No matter how immovable the many mountains may seem, the recent earthquakes in Nepal have illuminated to the world how fragile the ground beneath our feet truly is. Epicentered between Pokhara and Kathmandu in central Nepal, the 7.8-magnitude earthquake has killed and wounded thousands, left homeless many hundreds of thousands more, and decimated the infrastructure of the mountainous country. Many more casualties are expected as aftershocks continue to set life on edge. And while officials slowly respond to the isolated communities of villages dotting the Nepali countryside, locals do what they can to help on their own. Climbers in the Himalayan mountains have felt firsthand a small portion of what the creation of the globe’s youngest mountain range may have felt like when the Indian Plate collided with the Eurasian plate. That collision is still happening. The earthquake triggered several avalanches, one of which poured through Everest Base Camp like a 20-story tall tidal wave of snow, killing 18 in the process.

Apart from the tragic loss of life, the damage of cultural capital is devastating. Irreplaceable sites of archaeological significance have been obliterated. It will take years and billions to recover from the disaster (unless we forgive their debt). Unqualified aid workers streaming into the country (ala the 2010 Haiti earthquake) are not what the Nepali need. Claire Bennett suggests handouts in the short term and rebuilding sustainably in the long term. Perhaps it is too early to comment, but this horrible event may provide an opportunity for just that kind of change. The Nepali disaster seems similar to many other Asian countries that have suffered earthquakes in that an abnormally high number of deaths occur where poor infrastructure and high poverty are the norm. The average Nepali salary is roughly equivalent to $750. The most lucrative job belong to the Sherpa who are the designated guide to the Himalaya, earning several thousands of dollars per climbing season. With the advent of adventure mountaineering, climbing Mt. Everest has become a reality for people whose only qualification is the thousands of dollars for a permit, especially since the government slashed the permit price in order to attract more climbers, most of whom have no business climbing the Santa Monica Mountains let alone the most dangerous mountain range in the world.

But to what end? Merely to be the first western men to stand atop a mountain that the Nepalese and Tibetans hold sacred? Click To Tweet

The Siege on Everest

While it seems idiotic to say that karma has anything to do with the recent tragedies on Everest, there are surely some who have thought about it. Many believe that Miyolangsangma, a Tibetan Buddhist “Goddess of Inexhaustible Giving”, once lived at the top of what the Nepali call Sagarmāthā, Mt. Everest. According to Broughton Coburn in his article on Sherpas for National Geographic “to Sherpa Buddhist monks, Mt. Everest is Miyolangsangma’s palace and playground, and all climbers are only partially welcome guests, having arrived without invitation.” The mountain may be a playground for the gods, but it remains a dangerous and dirty reality for all parties involved in the new economy coming to Nepal.

In his book Into The Silence – The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest, Wade Davis reveals the reticence of the Tibetans and the outright denial of the Nepalese to allow the British into their country. Decades of failed attempts involving stealth, subterfuge, and the cold-blooded slaughter of monks by the British finally saw the door to Everest open. But to what end? Merely to be the first western men to stand atop a mountain that the Nepalese and Tibetans hold sacred? Perhaps that ultimate quest, so nobly started, has since been taken too far. Our World, the UN University’s online magazine published a story in 2013 concerning Vanity, Pollution and Death on Mt. Everest and National Geographic offers 6 ways to repair Everest. But more than the pollution that the western world brings with it, recently the mountain has been taking tribute back. Outside Online looks at 2014, Everest’s Darkest Year, in which 16 Sherpa died when a 31 million pound serac broke off of the western shoulder and plummeted onto the Popcorn Field of the Khumbu Icefall. Little did the author know that just one season later, in 2015, would his title need to be revised to Everest’s 2nd Darkest Year.

Alongside being an award-winning anthropologist, the author of fifteen books, Wade Davis, is National Geographic’s Explorer In Residence. In Into The Silence, he shows the British expeditions of the Himalayan Range—and much of the conquest of the third world—are characterized by the dualism of Britain: the manifest destiny of a deserving upper class to deliver the world from savagery and the romantic notions of misanthropic lower-middle class dreamers to be useful. The rest are just more cannon fodder for the colonies. Somewhere in the quagmire of imperialistic desires and day-to-day reality there is argument that despite the massive culling of the “savages” in the process, that there is a kind of noble sentiment, much as the Japanese continue to argue about their erstwhile Asian colonies, in the British mapping, modernizing and laying the framework for much of the modern world. In the decades leading up to the first world war, the British Empire was continuing very much in a business as usual manner in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Singapore, New Guinea, much of Africa, and of course, India.

Mercantile zeal, severe military reprisals and the subversion of the local elites all played a role in the maintenance of the Raj. But what really held it together was the audacity of the venture, the sheer gall of a small island nation that had never set out to rule the world but did so with such flair.

–Wade Davis

As George Mallory and the Everest Reconnaissance Expedition searched for a route to the summit from the North Col of Mt. Everest late in 1921, T.S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land, was waiting for publication. Central to The Waste Land is the medieval Grail adventure of Parsifal, and the Fisher King, “he who is too ill to live but not ill enough to die”. The tale of the knight who seeks his own path on the pilgrimmage for wholeness mirrors on a minor scale Mallory’s own Himalayan quest, and on a major scale the search of a continent for meaning in a post-war world. Eliot was able to synthesize the hopes and fears of the western world—a world of people living inauthentic lives—in a beautiful and esoteric 64 page poem. Mallory was able to do this by pulling himself and a team of ragtag amateurs, so close to the top of the world, he became what the world needed most, a new Arthurian legend.

Life & Death on Mount Everest

Wade Davis – Into The Silence The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest

A part of this subconscious desire to conquer and yet be the benevolent rulers, for the British, was to discover the unknown. For more than one hundred years the cartographers of the Survey of India had triangulated and established every measurement of the subcontinent, save the youngest and tallest set of mountains in the world, the Himalaya. The biggest difference between the initial forays into the Himalaya frontier with those of today were that they began in Darjeeling rather than Nepal, a country that remained closed off to the British until after the second world war. In fact, the largest initial obstacles, other than getting to the remote northeast corner of India and acclimatizing to the severe altitude of the mountains themselves, were political considerations. Tibet wanted nothing to do with the British, and Nepal, a more established state at this time, was completely unwilling to to allow a survey team carte blanche to roam its valleys and peaks. Still, somehow the British made inroads into Tibet, with Brigadier-General Cecil Rawling, the Brit that had first explored the Himalaya and the foothills of Everest in 1903, who along with more than 500,000 others died at the Battle of Paschendaelle in 1917. There is the infamous Lieutenant Colonel Sir Francis Younghusband, who led a de facto invasion of the country and massacred hundreds of the monk militia at Guru. Despite this unspeakable act (which helped lead to Chinese control), Younghusband had become mystically entranced by the beauty of the country and wrote eloquently about it for the rest of his life. He became the president of the Royal Geographical Society in 1919 and, together with the Alpine Club, championed the reconnaissance of the Himalaya as the Chairman of the newly created Mount Everest Committee. When permission was finally granted by the 13th Dalai Lama for the 1921 expedition, it was an extremely unpopular decision with the other highly placed monks, who thought the British partly crazy for uselessly seeking to climb into such a dangerous scenario, and partly believed them to be a gang of spies. This paranoid belief eventually barred any member of the Survey of India from future inclusion on the climbing team, which with their surfeit of expert mountaineers became one of the reasons why the first campaigns resulted in at least some kind of failure.

Just having emerged from World War I, the career militarists who led the expeditions favored a militaristic siege style of expedition. This was to be an assault on the mountain and they needed a plan of attack. Almost the entirety of the team involved had miraculously survived the hell of the Great War and as such most were searching for some kind of meaning to make out of all the death. Davis calls conquering the tallest mountain in the world (and mapping yet another the unknown frontier to boot), a “gesture of imperial redemption” for a country that, despite it leading to no tangible result, except as Mallory famously put it when asked while on tour in the U.S., “because it is there,” could be what both the men involved and the British public at large very much needed to revive the old English pluck.

Yet ignorant of the impending danger lurking at every cruelly beautiful rise and somehow flailing through the journey without completely destroying themselves, the first campaigns led by General Bruce could be likened to infants toddling about in a minefield. The naïveté of the ingenue Brits, who didn’t know that they should all be failing horribly and so actually merited a measure of success, even as the bureaucracy of the Everest Committee committed mistake after mistake, turns out to be something of an asset, and is exemplified by the absent-minded dreamer George Mallory, an idiot-savant of a mountain climber who almost single-handedly pioneered the northern route to the summit. It was only the lack of understanding the nature of the Himalaya connection with the subcontinent’s summer monsoon season, and the onset of winter, that prevented a serious attempt. So blinded by their own westernized hubris the team thought merely missing the winter snows would be sufficient and so didn’t depart for Darjeeling from England by steamer until early April 1921, and didn’t begin the arduous trek through the Chumbi Valley until May, spent June and July stumbling around the Rongbuk valley and its glaciers, were stalled by the monsoon in August and September, finally reaching the path to Everest, deranged and bedraggled, sometime in October.

Life and Death on Mount Everest

Everest Panoramas by Howard-Bury, C.K. The Mount Everest Expedition.

Yet it was not Mallory who found that path, but Edward Oliver Wheeler, Canadian surveyor, who in stealing away on his own to photograph found passage through the East Rongbuk glacier below the Lhakpa La pass. It wasn’t until September that Mallory, Bullock & Wheeler used the Lhakpa La pass to become the first westerners to reach the North Col of Everest and set the modern route to the mountain. Though considered a mere surveyor by many, Wheeler was an accomplished climber, having grown up ascending the Canadian Rockies, as well the chief photographer of that first expedition. Apart from the capturing the minds of subsequent climbers and the British public, his photographic efforts may have more rapidly brought about the development of the modern portable camera:

He carried the camera, a supply of eleven glass plates, as well as notebooks and pencils in a stout leather case in a knapsack that weighed some thirty pounds. The theolodite broke down into to parts, each stored in a protective wooden box. Together with the tripod, this added another twenty-seven pounds. The leveling base for the camera, spare plate holders, measuring tapes, three-cornered canvas bags to fill with dirt or stones to steady the tripod, and other miscellaneous items brought the total field kit to nearly 100 pounds. In addition, there was the supply of glass negatives, which Wheeler had packed himself, wrapping each plate in dry botanical paper, then placing them individually in one-inch protective sleeves in tin-lined boxes, which he personally sealed with solder. Each of these boxes weighed thirty-two pounds. He would secure and develop 240 images.

Having reached the North Col and been turned away, yet still miraculously alive (save for Keller) the team, defeated but not dismayed, through the Everest Committee, quickly geared up for a second expedition in the spring of 1922. Though they were much earlier than in 1921 the group were still disadvantaged by several key factors:

Life and Death on Mount Everest

Self portrait of John Noel, filming the ascent from Chang La, the North Col in 1922

E.O. Wheeler, the Canadian surveyor who found the path to the North Col, was discluded due to politics rather than talent. The team would miss his variety of skill. The 48-year-old Colonel Strutt, was made new “climbing leader” by General Bruce largely due to him being a highly decorated military commander. The team still had little idea of the true route to the North Face and wasted precious time between the end of winter and the oncoming Monsoon Season searching various paths. Though they had the use of oxygen tanks, this was the first time a human had climbed above 8,000 m (26,247 ft), and all involved had little idea how lack of oxygen affected humans at high altitude. Many preferred to go without, to their detriment. The attitude of “real men don’t use bottle air” likely still holds some kind sway to this day. All this in addition to insufficient equipment (clothing, tents, food) and equipment failure (those damn oxygen tanks), as well as the lack of any decent idea about how the monsoon rains affect weather at the top of the world. They would not make the peak. The wishy-washy method of finding a route in time plus the unpredictability of the monsoon made ascent impossible and put the climbing team in more unpredictable and dangerous situations where making life and death decisions too casually caused the death of seven porters in an avalanche on the descent from the North col.

Despite the unrealistic pressures of the militarists for success at all cost versus the mountaineers more realistic view yet equally deranged undertaking, the addition of the photographer John Noel was crucial to the future of the mythical Mount Everest in the eyes of the western world. He would go on to make two documentaries about his experiences in the Himalaya and be key in fundraising to get the team back to the mountain in 1924.

There is a way to remove the perversion from our once honorable acts of exploration--to cease the destruction of the natural world to our financial profit and physical and spiritual deficit. Click To Tweet

Life and Death on Mount Everest

Life & Death on Mount Everest

Mallory’s Route up the North Face

While the remainder of 1922 was reserved for soul-searching the Everest Committee was committed to another shot at Everest. Despite bankruptcy that delayed them an entire year and a continued military style leadership that was more political than practical, it had become abundantly clear that Mallory was the only one who could attempt and truly have a shot at the peak, but he needed more than just an adequate team, he needed to believe. The mountain had changed Mallory in ways he had never suspected possible. Despite all of his newfound fame at home he was almost destitute, still away from his family for the most part, having to work as a teacher for disagreeable men, yet enjoying no sense of the exhilaration of exploring such a place as the Himalaya, where men dared not go. After having been so close to the top, one can only imagine the solitude he felt at the bottom, where he was just another regular joe amongst the rest of the lowly rabble of society. It was for his wife that the decision cost him any sleep, for soon enough he was neck deep in preparations for the 1924 British Mount Everest expedition.

The elderly head of the expedition Charles Bruce was soon struck down with malaria and succeeded by Edward Norton, an officer and a capable climber. On finding the route and establishing camps higher and higher along the way to the North Col, Captain Geoffrey Bruce (the brother of the General) along with Mallory made the first summit attempt. Abandoned by their porters and having to set up camp themselves in torrents of icy wind without the use of oxygen, they soon descended to a lower camp and met Norton and Dr. T. Howard Somervell on their way up. It was here that Norton set the confirmed world record climbing altitude of 8570 m which was not surpassed for another 28 years until the 1952 Swiss Mount Everest Expedition. But he too was turned away due to climbing difficulty and lack of oxygen, while his partner Somervell nearly died on top. On the way down, he passed Mallory and the engineering student Andrew Irvine, who had decided to give it one last attempt, this time with oxygen.

Mallory and Irvine disappeared from the visibility of John Noel’s cameras a mere 800 feet from the summit. A sudden storm rolled in and they were never seen alive again. Could they have made summit—exhausted and with little oxygen left—in the whipping wind and stinging snow? Separating them from the peak at a height of 8,610 meters (28,250 ft) was the Second Step, a prominent upwelling of rock jutting 40 meters into the air–a very difficult, if not impossible free climb. Since a Chinese climbing team attached a ladder in 1975 this step has not had the significance it would have had to a team climbing without modern technology in the midst of a sudden storm, such as Mallory could have faced.

Mallory’s wife Ruth was waiting patiently in England for her husband to conquer the mountain and come home to her. That never happened. What did happen is up for supposition. The central question to The Wildest Dream (Anthony Geffen, 2010), the story of Conrad Anker going back to Everest 8 years after discovering George Mallory’s body in 1999, to revisit the 1924 expedition undertaken by Mallory and his climbing partner Sandy Irvine: was George Mallory the first to summit Mt. Everest? Anker is a compelling protagonist and an expert mountaineer, who drags a youthful and adept climber Leo Houlding along with him to retrace the steps of the infamous pair—often employing the same clothing, shoes and equipment—in their trailblazing ascent. We learn that when Anker found Mallory’s body he did not find the picture of his wife Mallory had promised to place atop the summit should he make it. It was also not among his papers in his breast pocket, yet a recently penned letter to Ruth was. So where did the photo go? Did Mallory achieve summit and place the photo where he reported he would, or did the well-known absent-minded mountaineer merely lose it while shuffling last-minute through his papers?

It is an understandable passion, to see a mountain and want to scale it, for good or ill, we will never stop the quest to explore our world. Whether it be the honorable act of mountain climbing corrupted or one of profitable oil drilling gone bad, the world will not wait for permission. Come what may, we act now and beg for forgiveness later. In the rush to outpace death we often invite it to our own–and those less advantaged’s–doorstep. But what is the alternative? To wait for life to snuff itself out, whittling away at a lump of wood on the porch, or to seek it out, even to the extremes and damned be the costs, for the glory of humankind? There is a way to remove the perversion from our once honorable acts of exploration–to cease the destruction of the natural world to our financial profit and physical and spiritual deficit. Beyond whether man’s desire to attain the peak of Everest (or any other absurd activity) at any cost merely “because it is there” is right or wrong, should we not rather look toward the plight of the many and spend our precious time and limited energy on fixing our homes and neighborhoods? Or as Sogyal Rinpoche says:

All too often people come to meditation in the hope of extraordinary results, like visions, lights, or some supernatural miracle. When no such thing occurs, they feel extremely disappointed. But the real miracle of meditation is more ordinary and much more useful.


Mount Everest the Reconnaissance, 1921, by Charles Kenneth Howard-Bury and George H. Leigh-Mallory and A. F. R. Wollaston
Climbing Mount Everest, 1922, The Epic of Everest, 1924, by John Noel
Into The Silence – The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest, 2011, by Wade Davis, Knopf Doubleday Publishing
Mount Everest Fight Raises Questions About Sherpas Broughton Coburn, National Geographic (magazine).

Under The Skin - Jonathan Glazer

You Won’t Believe What Sensationalist Best Of Bullshit End Of The Year List Lose Twenty Pounds Now

Under The Skin - Jonathan Glazer

The Stars In Her Eyes – Under The Skin – Jonathan Glazer

Hi Folks,

Sick of the End-of-the-Year hype? Over the Best-Of List? Done with being told how to feel about what is the interneteratti insiders say is Good and what is Bad? Exhausted by the feeling that you need to validate your interests by “liking” a thing? Tired of the need to feel that pinning a bunch of lists to the passage of December 31st into January 1st means anything more than March 31st to April Fools Day? Blame it on Amazon. Or the (sigh) NSA. Or better yet, God (who had so many bad movies put out about him that even L. Ron Hubbard is turning in his grave on Xenu), so why not click here and learn how to lose twenty pounds now!

The truth is that despite my own pretense to the contrary, this is a Best of the End of the Year List of Things That I Learned About on the Internet. How else does anyone learn about anything these days otherwise? TV is so last century. As the Buddha said, “Accept your fate, asshole.” or as another wise man once put it, “Don’t worry, be happy.” I will try not to repeat what Metacritic or Rotten Tomatoes say with a whole lot better web design (sorry folks, my intern coders just quit!) and will attempt to be sincere about what 2014 threw in front of my cow eyes before the year spun so quickly past it resembled a Tornado in L.A. (yes that happened).

Read any other Year In Review pieces and you become instantly depressed at all of the shootings, beheadings, superstorms, diseases, institutionalized racists, police violence, poor voter turnout for U.S. elections, congressional gridlocks, bipartisanship, anything celebrity-oriented, and other entertainment-related “news”. Which is probably a large contributor to why gaming is the biggest global industry ever – escapism is justifiable when the world goes to shit. Look at the film industry, no top ten grossing film, except Maleficent or Interstellar, is not a sequel, part of a series based on a comic book, and all of them are easily Science Fiction, and most of them absurdly Freak Hero driven narratives (the eccentric in the room knows how to save us all from ourselves). Tolstoy apocryphally said, “All great literature is one of two stories; a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town.” And while these may more or less hold true to that axiom in wobbly general terms, there are stronger issues at play here – escaping from a reality which inundates you with mindless crap by escaping to more mindless crap.

  1. Transformers: Age of Extinction – Paramount Pictures $1,087,404,499
  2. Guardians of the Galaxy – Marvel Studios $772,152,345
  3. Maleficent – Walt Disney Pictures $757,752,378
  4. X-Men: Days of Future Past – 20th Century Fox $746,045,700
  5. Captain America: The Winter Soldier – Marvel Studios $714,083,572
  6. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 – Columbia Pictures $708,982,323
  7. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes – 20th Century Fox $708,279,489
  8. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 – Lionsgate Films $639,727,000
  9. Interstellar – Paramount Pictures / Warner Bros. $635,433,000
  10. How to Train Your Dragon 2 – 20th Century Fox / DreamWorks Animation $618,909,935

Interstellar - Christopher Nolan

Interstellar – Christopher Nolan

Let me be clear, I have seen many of these films (and others like them, but not as financially “good” as these), for two reasons: 1) because I feel the need to be up to date in modern day lexicon of non-stop references, i.e. I want to get the joke, and 2) In a weird way, I kind of like them (except the Transformers series which is just absolute shit). Which does not mean that they are actual great films. It means that I am a monkey in terms of the very Kubrickian-based Doug Liman form of Bourne Identity editing–hand held camera, quick cut, disjunctive, point of view, with a very large (albeit somewhat fogged) window for self-interpretation (“What just happened?” “He killed him with the Sears Catalog.”). Which has two effects: 1) to desensitize viewers to the unwieldy and awkward feel that comes with long takes in well-thought out character-driven storylines (like Birdman) and 2) makes everything that came before unwatchable due to our collective digital-ADHD. These films are a bare minimum of on location shoots with most of the work in studio in front of a green screen and lots of post production.

Singular to this list is Interstellar which is a taut cerebral thriller set in space (a la Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris) that takes advantage of modern day viewers addiction to dis-reality in order to propagate very real issues at the heart of next generation global dilemmas. Christopher Nolan’s ability to maintain the suspension of disbelief in terms of the reality of his special effects (using as little CGI as possible) is paramount to the storytelling. And paramount to me believing that all character-driven drama has not been totally Michael Bay-ed into crap wannabe sentimental robot-based bullshit. But at this point Bay himself must be so robotic in his technique as to at least be able to transform into some sort of auto-felatio infinite machine…

Frank - Lenny Abrahamson

Frank – Lenny Abrahamson

I digress…into films that I actually liked. Here are 11 films from this year worth spending your time and money on that combined made way less than the last movie on the top-ten grossing list (recognize any of the production companies that made them?). And many of the are Science Fiction! I know, what a hypocrite, right, but at least we are seeing major Hollywood stars step out of the Cut & Paste Superhero money-machine for the sake of making movies that actually move you.

Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer, Film4 / BFI) – More than a decade since its inception, Glazer pairs reality television with haunting images of Scarlett Johansson as naïve and devastating alien being in search of a (human) meal, and perhaps a soul. Multiple breathtaking shots (both with and without nude Johansson), but the scene on the beach is particularly devastating in its reality.

Snowpiercer (Bong Joon-ho, Moho Films) Writer / Director of The Host and the excellent Memories of Murder, it is refreshing to see this French Graphic novel get billed as an international release rather than for the South Korean domestic market (and then remade into a shitty thing no one remembers). Bong delivers his very unique stylized production, and creates a gory comment on society / touching tale of redemption all in one big weird Sci-fi thriller package.

Frank (Lenny Abrahamson, Film4 / Irish Film Board) Jon Ronson wrote about his experience playing with Michael Fassbender’s Frank in the fictionalized version of one small part of the life of Christopher Mark Sievey (1955 – 2010) the English musician and comedian who fronted The Freshies in the 70s and early 80s as Frank Sidebottom.

A Most Wanted Man (Anton Corbijn, Demarest Films) – The director of Control segued from music video to espionage with The American and continues down the muted noir path with Philip Seymour Hoffman as a German Intelligence Agent in John le Carré’s spy novel of the same name. Following the opposite fork of the Bourne Universe sacrifices dollars for realistic portrayal of the small choices people in the middle of modern problems face maintaining and manufacturing war and peace.

Force Majeure (Ruben Östlund, Plattform Produktion) – This film puts Swedish director Ruben Östlund in his comfort zone: directing a ski film about societal mores. Taking on big topics like nuclear family, gender roles, and avalanches makes for a comedy of errors reminiscent of Woody Allen & Roman Polanksi.

The Grand Budapest Hotel - Wes Anderson

The Grand Budapest Hotel – Wes Anderson

The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson, American Empirical Pictures) – Perhaps Anderson’s finest collection of story-telling with the usual brightly colored diorama mise-en-scene surrounding a closet community’s private war against Fascism. Great acting by an ensemble cast of beautiful misfits.

Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch, Recorded Picture Company / Pandora Film) – Jim Jarmusch’s droll sense of humor is only matched by his ability to so slowly stoke the fire of narrative as to make the viewer think about his films for weeks after first watching them. So it goes in Lovers, a vampire story for literary vampires.

Venus In Fur (Roman Polanski, R.P. Productions / Monolith Films) – A retelling of David Ives’ revision of the novella by the infamous Leopold von Sacher-Masoch updated to modern day Paris, this film epitomizes Polanski’s recent obsession with cinematizing interesting bits of his own life–and everyone else’s– within the scope of popular Broadway plays. His wife, Emmanuelle Seigner, aptly stars.

The Rover (David Michôd, Porchlight Films / Lava Bear Films / Screen Australia) – David Michôd’s follow up to Animal Kingdom, The Rover spins a futuristic tale of Guy Pearce’s Eric, a man set on a path of death and destruction, but for what? Some purpose that is unclear, perhaps even to himself. Balanced and encumbered by Robert Pattinson’s simple Reynolds, this is a post-apocalyptic Of Mice and Men.

Coherence- James Byrkit

Coherence- James Byrkit

Coherence (James Ward Byrkit, Bellanova Films / Ugly Duckling Films) – Better known for Rango, James Byrkit has created a wonderfully nasty dinner party film for the dinner party gone to hell…in another dimension. It raises more questions than time allows to answer, so it’s best to sit back and relax with your wine while pondering who–or rather which–protagonist you’re following now.

Boyhood (Richard Linklater, IFC Films) – If you haven’t seen it, or at least heard of it, Richard Linklater’s epic work, that spanned more than a decade, charts the course of a boy’s winding journey through adolescence into young adulthood. It is spectacularly mundane in only the way Linklater ear for dialogue can deliver. Great performances make it more than watchable, but memorable and more importantly, relatable.

While the Hollywood media machine would have you believe that only superheroes (or God) can rescue humanity from the mounting problems we persist to whine about yet actively leave largely unsolved, the truth of these 11 films prove that the answers to all of life’s problems lie in interpersonal relationships–in talking it out. While the world may seem like Nicolas Cage’s acting in Left Behind, but, according to Our World In Data, the world is actually getting safer: Since 1950, Murder is down, Health and Education is up, Economic well-being (other than in the U.S.) is more widespread, and Political Freedom is gaining traction all over the world. There is reason to be optimistic and no better reason to believe that humanity–and film–can be rescued from the brink of destruction, or death by fascist film industry.

The Wildest Dream – Beautiful Documentary Of Death On Everest

The Wildest Dream – Beautiful Documentary Of Death On Everest

The central question to The Wildest Dream (Anthony Geffen, 2010), the story of Conrad Anker going back to Everest 8 years after discovering George Mallory’s body in 1999, to revisit the 1924 expedition undertaken by Mallory and his climbing partner Sandy Irvine: was George Mallory the first to summit Mt. Everest? Anker is a compelling protagonist and an expert mountaineer, who drags a youthful and adept climber Leo Houlding along with him to retrace the steps of the infamous pair—often employing the same clothing, shoes and equipment—in their trailblazing ascent.

The Wildest Dream – Beautiful Documentary Of Death On Everest

The Wildest Dream - Film Cover

The Wildest Dream (Anthony Geffen, 2010)

Much like anyone who has realized aspirations as high and as dangerous as Everest, both Anker and his wife have known tragedy. In his mountaineering career, he has lost close friends who were experts of their craft. Which begs the question – why do it? The infamous answer by the film’s phantom protagonist, George Mallory—Because it’s there—seems less likely than, because NatGeo’s backing it. Despite gorgeous visuals and good editing, the film lacks the gravitas necessary to get the weight of the issue across, and too lightly attempts to portray the decision-making difficulty of daring the potential death of the Sherpa team as well as himself, between Anker and his wife waiting at base camp.

Mallory’s wife Ruth was waiting patiently in England for her husband to conquer the mountain and come home to her. That never happened. What did happen is up for supposition. We learn that when Anker found Mallory’s body he did not find the picture of his wife Mallory had promised to place atop the summit should he make it. It was also not among his papers in his breast pocket, yet a recently penned letter to Ruth was. So where did it go? Did Mallory achieve summit and place the photo where he reported he would, or did the well-known absent-minded mountaineer merely lose it while shuffling last-minute through his papers?

Using voiceover narration of well-known Liam Neeson to guide the viewer through Anker’s attempt and the story of Mallory and the 1924 expedition, Geffen interweaves archival footage amid the correspondence of Mallory and his wife Ruth (read excellently by Ralph Fiennes and Natasha Richardson) with stunning footage from cinematographers Ken Sauls and Chris Openshaw of the approach to Everest from Tibet, the approach that Mallory picked out from sight in 1919. Adding CG maps and illustrations fashion the film into the tech-savvy docu-drama so coveted by modern day couch potato adrenaline junkies.

The Wildest Dream - Mallory & Irvine Redux

The Wildest Dream – Mallory & Irvine Redux

Mallory and Irvine disappeared from the visibility of John Noel’s cameras a mere 800 feet from the summit. A sudden storm rolled in and they were never seen alive again. Could they have made summit—exhausted and with little oxygen left—in the whipping wind and stinging snow? Separating them from the peak at a height of 8,610 meters (28,250 ft) was the Second Step, a prominent upwelling of rock jutting 40 meters into the air. Since a Chinese climbing team attached a ladder in 1975 this step has not had the significance it would have had to a team climbing without modern technology in the midst of a sudden storm, such as Mallory would have faced. When Anker climbed it on the expedition where Mallory’s body was found in 1999, he did not judge that a climber without modern technology could have free climbed it. After having the ladder removed in 2007 and successfully mounting the great step, would he change his mind?

If mostly left unanswered, these questions are at least all brought to the table. A more detailed account of all of the British expeditions can be found in Wade Davis’ Into The Silence – The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest reviewed here. If the stunning visuals of Everest alone aren’t sufficient, the reemergence of Mallory from the ashes of obscurity should be more than enough to prod any arm chair mountaineer to procure the blu-ray for a video session before the next big climb.

Head-On Collision with Desensitized Narcissism

Head-On Collision with Desensitized Narcissism

The intimate time and space of a single human being had been fossilized forever in this web of chromium knives and frosted glass.

                                                                                          –Crash, J.G. Ballard

I should, I mean, I really, really should like British writer, J.G. Ballard. His stories are based on fascinating premises, narrative hypotheses that tackle the underlying savagery of modern society, particularly, the bourgeois everyman. Nevertheless, I find the dramatization of his dystopian ideas farfetched and silly, wholly unbelievable, and generally perverse without the cold satisfaction of having engaged with something genuinely cathartic. Moreover, his signature prose, celebrated by so many, is clinically detached to a fault, a pallid language bled pale of color or dazzle (all his sentences are competent, occasionally good, but none of them are wonderful). Then there is the trouble with his narrators: careless, diffident, self-absorbed professionals who bed down with numerous attractive women, more than they deserve, considering their absence of beguiling qualities. His most famous novel, Crash, regarding the sexual fetishism of car crash victims, is the ne plus ultra of stylized unpleasant Ballardian narcissism, not very enjoyable but readable as a psychopathic, amateur armchair Freudian excursion.

The main problem with fetishism (besides its inscrutable provenance) is it's very much a one-note tune Click To Tweet

Head-On Collision with Desensitized Narcissism

Crash by J.G. Ballard

Crash by J.G. Ballard

Crash concerns a certain James Ballard (I’ll leave it to the Freudians to handle the author using his real name for his narrator), a successful TV commercial producer living near London’s airport in Shepperton (yet another real life connection to Ballard) who suffers a head-on collision, injuring a woman, Helen Remington, and killing her husband. Recovering in the hospital he meets Vaughan, an uber-creepy pathological psycho in a white lab coat and dark sunglasses with a sinewy body and bad complexion. Vaughan introduces Ballard to the underground world of car accident fetishism. Together they steal decent model makes, go joyriding, hire hookers for backseat fellatio, smash fenders while dropping on acid, and fantasize about some ultimate car accident in which Vaughan collides his Lincoln Towncar with Elizabeth Taylor, marrying their flesh with the catastrophic debris of the crash, to wit, “a mysterious eroticism of wounds: the perverse logic of blood-soaked instrument panels, seat-belts smeared with excrement, sun-visors lined with brain tissue.” It might sound a bit much, but hey don’t you know these are “the keys to a new sexuality born from a perverse technology.”

The somewhat unholy trifecta of sex, violence, and technology is hardly a frontier; rather it is an arrangement long explored by artists, philosophers, and sophists, either intuitively or intellectually, for a long time. Ballard’s vision is just an extraordinarily extreme and narrow echo of others’ and he can be quite literal about it: “Television newsreels of wars and student riots, natural disasters and police brutality which we vaguely watched on the color TV set in our bedroom as we masturbated each other.” Since Ballard has no heart to wear on his sleeve, the outcome of his explorations is a technocratic orifice to be twaddled by numbed phallic instruments. In other words, there is no meaning, no satori, in all this masturbating over the steering column, or in his words: “a marriage of my penis with all the possibilities of a benevolent technology.”

Head-On Collision with Desensitized Narcissism

James Spader as Ballard– about to be rear-ended and turned on

Our narrator, not a very decent human being, is absolutely prolific in describing his titillations. A peripheral character, Gabrielle, car crash victim-turned-pervert “held the chromium treadles in her strong fingers as if they were extensions of her clitoris.” (have I mentioned that Ballard never met a metaphor he didn’t like?) Ballard, our reliable fiend, discovered that “her crippled things and wasted calf muscles were models for fascinating perversities.” But why, Ballard, why? And all right, you might get a hard-on from her crippled thighs, but why should she get off on her mutilated body, a body that can never run, swim, or dance again? Not all your readers are freudian know-it-alls. Is she making lemonade out of lemons or does paraphilia (intense excitement or affection for atypical objects) not need an explanation, existing inexplicably in a vacuum all its own? But it doesn’t seem so since for all the actors in this pitiful drama it is the trauma of the automobile accident that activates their bizarre peccadilloes.

The main problem with fetishism (besides its inscrutable provenance) is it’s very much a one-note tune (the same is patently true of David Cronenberg’s adaptation of the book in 1996, set in Toronto and starring James Spader as Ballard). It’s the same carnal obsession, repeated ad infinitium: “The deformed body of the crippled young woman, like the deformed bodies of the crashed automobiles, revealed the possibilities of an entirely new sexuality.” (Does that sentence sound familiar, just slightly reworked and tinkered?) Occasionally, the prose gets out of hand to a level of extreme nuttery (“her swollen breasts spurting liquid feces”) but Crash for all its shocking material and complete lack of morality is actually a boring book, just as fetishism, lacking dynamics, is often just a tool’s way of ejaculating his weird energy. The most fascinating aspect of Crash, in fact, is James Ballard’s decision to name his doppelganger, James Ballard. Is the novel then some sort of confession (not just of fetishism but what of the story’s tremendous homoerotic energy)? It takes tremendous effort to create a novel, even something as one-dimensional as Crash. Why then did Ballard bother to write it? What was he trying to tell us? What exactly did the real-life Mrs. Ballard think of the following sentence, “I visualized my wife injured in a high-impact collision, her mouth and face destroyed, and a new and exciting orifice opened in her perineum by the splintering steering column, neither vagina nor rectum, an orifice we could dress with all our deepest affections.” For that matter, what did Elizabeth Taylor make of being the locus of his vicious starfucking fantasy? What did she ever do to Ballard besides in all probability provoking in him an adolescent hard-on way back when? Ballard’s novel is not morally objectionable so much as it is breathtakingly insensitive. The author’s absence of human empathy is nothing short of astonishing. A good companion piece to the novel (or Cronenberg’s film) is Warner Herzog’s public service short From One Second to the Next, which addresses the dangers of texting while driving by showing very personal stories of both victims and perpetrators of accidents caused by yet another accoutrement of technology. There are no erections or bodily fluid expulsions here, merely heartbreak, tears and regret, and the sadness of what was to what has become.

Dybbuk, the dislocated soul of the dead, Illustration by Ephraim Moshe Lilien.

The Resurrection of Mogwai

Marvel not at this: for the hour is coming, in the which all that are in the graves shall hear his voice, (29) And shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation.

                                                                                             — John 5:28-29

The story of Lazarus of Bethany, in the gospel of John, is well known among those followers and scholars of religious texts to confirm the last and most important of Jesus’ seven feats—the Resurrection—the lynchpin in the signs that point to his divinity and what his more zealous adherents would go on to use as justification of his continued relevance. Indeed it has become the central tenant of Christianity. It’s no lie, the defiance of death, the finger in the face of nature, tipping the scales of time, resurrection is a powerful idea. But, owning up to the very real scientific nature of the Lazarus phenomenon, and as its scarcity defines its high value, Lazarus—i.e. the dead coming back—is more potent as a metaphor, at least in terms of saleability, than as a reality. Who doesn’t want to live forever, or at least think they do?

No one in their right mind believes that it is possible today to raise the dead, but having a look around at the neo-evangelical fervor that has gripped the United States, and the power and reach of quasi-cult organizations like Scientology, it seems that many want to believe. The best-selling novel series Left Behind attests to this. Even those who claim atheism seem to be searching for something to believe in. What exactly is yet to be seen. Hence the popularity of the Star Wars, Lord of the Rings and similarly genre’d Game of Thrones and the plethora of lesser quality copycat series based on a pastiche of fast and loose mythology and incorporating the Force, or some form of intangible “magic” as core form of guiding power. But what actual magic do we seek? Belief in a 2000 year-old Bronze Age John Lennon who preached peace and love? What say the followers of Yoda, Gandalf & Khalisi? What chance does Jesus, let alone, the rest of us have in the race to the final finish?

Jesus of Nazareth was not the first to be raised from the dead. Even Lazarus, who beat him to it, was not the first to be raised from the dead. If we remember our Greek mythology, both Achilles and Heracles (or Hercules, if you prefer) died and were resurrected, both after accomplishing a number of feats that pointed out to their contemporaries their own place in the pantheon of gods. Before them in the ancient near east, Baal and Osiris lead a motley crew of old-timey resurrections, presumably based upon their own predecessors reanimation as well. In short, resurrection is old school. But because it’s such a high gloss issue, it’s basic story line has stuck in our collective craws since before recorded history and became especially popular throughout the not-much-else-going-on middle ages.

The Resurrection of Mogwai

History of English Affairs

Take William of Newberg, whose 12th century work History of English Affairs depicts several instances of medieval revenants, those poor unbelieving criminal souls who didn’t quite make the cut in life and so, in death, come back, ostensibly, to haunt their their friends, family and associates. How irritating that they were shits when they were relatable corporeal humans, and after finally passing, they return—covered in dead people doodie—to do it all over again. If they embody the resurrection of damnation, who are the damned—us or them? Is it any wonder that vampyric legend out of 16th century Baltics became conflated with the peasant folklore of medieval British revenants—imagine their complexions. Ghastly indeed.

The Dybbuk, recently popularized in the Coen Brothers’ film, A Serious Man, is yet another form of revenant from Jewish mythology, a dislocated and parasitic soul cleaving to the living in order to right a wrong. Then there is the Draug, the animated corpse from Norse mythology, that has similar characteristics to humans (think the ring-wraiths from Lord of the Rings). The less popular Nachzehrer, a Germanic mixture of a vampire and ghost, begins to recall the reigning champ, the zombie.

Since Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead spawned and popularized the genre of the reanimated undead, there are too many instances of zombie culture to name. It is its own universe now, seemingly a living entity whose evolution is written not from the mind of writers worldwide, but from a growing compilation of material from which to morph a collective unconscious of the undead.

Such seems to be the case with the new show Resurrection from Brad Pitt’s Plan B Entertainment and ABC Studios, based on the eponymous novel by Jason Mott, which is apparently based on a dream the author had, and not the eerily similar 2012 Canal+ television show Les Revenants, itself an adaptation of the 2004 film Les Revenants by Robin Campillo, in which millions of French zombies return, not to eat le cerveau (brains), but to reintegrate into their former lives. How French, they just want their postprandial cheese. Is its likeness to the 2003 film Yomigaeri (Back From Hell) by Akihiko Shiota coincidental or a process of cross-cultural collectivity? Are we drawing from some vast unconscious pool of similar imagery for a reason or for commercial sales? Is this an evolution or a stagnation?

The Resurrection of Mogwai

The Resurrection of Mogwai

Mogwai live at 2009 Summer Sonic

The unclassifiable Scottish band Mogwai left me wanting circa their fifth full length album, Mr. Beast (Play It Again Sam, 2006), which also carries the dubious distinction of being the last compact disc I bought. The jewel case, dense with rich, disturbing decoration, included—beyond the actual disc itself—a booklet of paintings by the cover artist Amanda Church and a DVD of the Making Of Mr. Beast at their newly constructed Castle of Doom Studios in Edinburgh. I wanted more and I wanted less. More clarity and less feedback. While it still appeared that the band were, as a friend put it after their mediocre 2009 performance at the mediocre and rain-besieged Summer Sonic festival outside of Tokyo, “muddling about in their own piddle.” I could no longer hear the lovely and noisome progression of instrumental bliss I loved from Young Team (Chemikal Underground,1997), Come On Die Young (Chemikal Underground,1999), Rock Action (Matador, 2001), and Happy Songs For Happy People (Play It Again Sam, 2003). At the time it seemed that we had both emerged out of an extended adolescence and, like old loves often do, faded from one another’s lives. In their case it made sense that they had run out of sublime melodies to tear apart and put back together with guitar, drum and keys. In my case the fade caused them to disappear completely from my conscious mind. The age of the compact disk had joined the 8-track cassette in technology’s abandoned corner lot trash heap. So be it.

And so life goes on. And tastes progress. The older one becomes the harder it is to listen to bands like Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Explosions in the Sky, and Mogwai around others. The pretty parts are fine, orchestral, sublime and are made for sunny Saturday picnics by the lake, but soon the lilting melodies tend toward to the post-WWI musical DADA-ism of post-rock noise art. There is meaning there, there’s just no explaining it to the in-laws. It then becomes extremely situational listening, rarely being played on the family Bose system or being aired out only during the sporadic family drives to Joshua Tree or, heaven forbid, Texas.

Les Revenants - The past has decided to resurface

Les Revenants – The past has decided to resurface

The television heads have gotten wise to paying top dollar for indie rock songs to attract the ever-waning attention spans of twenty-somethings. Lorde, Fun., The Halo Benders (also, think Lou Reed’s death eerily coinciding with his song Perfect Day on a Playstation 4 ad) have all been lucratively synced, but it’s more than just a snippet of a single by the latest Coldplay-for-hires, this was “Coming Home – Part II” by Skylar Grey, a benign tune in itself, but when paired with ABC proselytizing wantonly sentimental and vaguely apocalyptic evangelical fodder, it turns the stomach. The promos for Resurrection are full of Jesus light and leave you feeling like you’ve douched with a dirty Mormon undergarment, while the Canal+ Les Revenants has the pristine lakes and pastoral forests with just enough of the dark and gritty feel of the subterranean backalleys of old wartorn Europe—the resurrection of life in contrast to resurrection of damnation. Though outwardly we strive for the former, it’s the latter that we secretly covet. Like, though coveted by all, the return of a long-missed loved one, is not right, and somehow, it’s all going to go horribly wrong. I hope that for ABC Studios & Plan B there are the seeds of a Walking Dead / World War Z planted deep within the bowels of Resurrection. If so it could be ABC’s next Lost.

Nausea, at least for me, has always implied a cure, a revolt against treacly ills of bad writing and religious indoctrination. Synapses firing, I searched through my folders of global television series unwatched for clues. It was then I happened on Les Revenants and my introduction to French zombies began. Cueing up the first episode you hear “Hungry Face”, the title track off of Mogwai’s 2013 soundtrack and you are sucked in by the familiar stroke of fret, combination of keys, and patter of drums, but moreover by the use of silence, pairing mercilessly with Fabrice Gobert’s stunning visuals which transcends mere television watching.

Does Mogwai make the series a success singlehandedly? No, but the meditative and mystery implied in the haunting tones sets the table nicely. Les Revenants is Young Team on Quaaludes. Subdued and at times ambivalent, it represents the more contemplative side of the band. The side that, behind the sheer wall of mind-numbing Marshall stack feedback, you always knew was there, but wondered how they could ever more fully explore that side. Discipline and restraint have supplanted the atonal choler that plagued various tedious middle-marches of albums past, leaving listeners awash in euphonious and dulcet tones that have transcended the mere physicality of instruments toward a diviner vibration. Laced with songs entitled “The Huts”, “Kill Jester”, “Eagle Tax”—which, despite their nonsensical titles, belie a narrative beyond the seeming nihilistic text (in some cases the series writers used their scores to write the series). One senses a denouement, an unfolding of a mystery, growth. This growth is most noticeably sublime when its power is wielded with authority rather than youthful angst. The erstwhile rage spun from delicate and brooding melodies that have garnered Mogwai avid audiences spanning multiple musical genres has matured into instrumental mastery.

The Resurrection of Mogwai

Rave Tapes – Sub Pop 2014

Their most recent release, Rave Tapes, continues where Revenants left off. “Heard About You Last Night” opens by demonstrating an almost austere Buddhist simplicity, yet they stake the territory of resonant clarity for grim abstinence. There is plenty of sex, but no pornography. The album’s waistband—“Remurdered”, “Hexon Bogon”, “Repelish” and “Master Card”—is thick with rigorous and meaty cuts of guitar-driven narrative backed by keys both luminous and mysterious. The swirling epic “Deesh” takes us to concise altitudes where only when the silence prevails can one hear the true framework of whitenoise, while the album’s closer and the first single “The Lord Is Out of Control” can play both as a hearkening toward and a recanting of tones as narrative progressions. Provocative mixing of electronic beats, organs, vocoders and ocean waves propel the multitude of inner monologues toward an attainment of true revelation through collective unconsciousness. Attaining musical excellence is one thing, yet the key to maintaining harmonious Nirvana is to not be happy, to never be satisfied with status quo achievements. To not be born again, but rather to have become. To be becoming.

In retrospect I guess I should have realized that it was the shitty acoustics of the concrete warehouse venue in which they played to 10000 middlingly stoned, distracted and overprivileged youths that made the 2009 show such a letdown. Summer Sonic is a good idea gone horribly astray from its hopefully humble intentions. Lord knows the amount of money they are paying decent musicians to come from across the world to play in a sweltering concrete convention pavilion. What’s worse they’ve convinced the youth of Japan that it is normal, good even, that they should see, not just a show, but cram multiple artists together under such conditions. If I am honest I will admit that I had grown apart from Mogwai on my own, but such a reunion can either reinvigorate a once mirthful love or push it farther afield. In my case Summer Sonic performed the latter. May the Lord Be Out Of Control On Thee, Summer Sonic.

Organized religion represents a trusted link to the mythology of the past, but if there is any kind of rough guide for living in the modern world, it must be film, for good or ill. Occasionally when we cut through the fog of dogma, and the two-faced stubbornness of politics we come to nuggets of wisdom, such as this, from the mouth of Celine, in the Richard Linklater classic Before Sunrise, “If there’s any kind of magic in this world, it must be in the attempt of understanding someone, sharing something. I know, it’s almost impossible to succeed, but…who cares, really? The answer must be in the attempt.” Forget Gandalf, fuck zombies and screw loved ones back from the dead, these are Hollywood’s attempt to recreate more mind-numbing blather—that you’ve already seen—to entertain you to death while real life goes on all-around, and inside of, you. It’s not on the screen. It’s sitting next to you. The true magic is eye contact, the breath, community and connection. And I don’t mean WI-FI.

Pool Party Still from The Wolf of Wall Street, Martin Scorsese 2013

Wall Street – The Crack-Up Edition

There’s no nobility in poverty. I’ve been a poor man, and I’ve been a rich man. And I choose rich every fucking time.

Wall Street – The Crack-Up Edition

The most surprising quality of The Wolf of Wall Street, Martin Scorsese’s epic about yuppie-broker-asshole apotheosis is not that it might be the best movie of 2013, but that it might be the best movie Scorsese’s made since Taxi Driver. Wolf has earned a bad reputation for glorifying, if not humanizing the bad behavior of stock broker analysts. Those offended might have watched the film too literally, ideological do-goodism getting the best of them. Jordan Belfort (whose memoir is the film’s inspiration) might be an avaricious scumbag with a long trail of victims suckered by his shady investment schemes, but he’s never boring. Arguably, he’s comic book evil but I’ll take a film about a ‘lude-popping cokehead sex maniac antihero over predictable pure-hearted dull-witted Superman any day. And anyways, Wolf, besides being absolutely hilarious, is more subversive than its critics give it credit for. This is a vision of the American Dream taken to the nth dimension, littering consciousness with fuck-you Testarossas, tacky yachts, heaps of cocaine, sex orgies, and suitcases of undeclared millions in cash smuggled into Switzerland. It’s excess, all right, but beyond comprehension and even imagination, a tableau of money-hungry Hieronymus Bosch-type motherfuckers having one last long shindig on earth before roasting in hell for all eternity, amen.

Wall Street - The Crack-Up Edition - Pop Zeitgeist

DiCaprio at his best?

A cinematic bastard love child of Scarface, Good Fellas, and Wall Street, a breakdown of Wolf‘s plot is almost superfluous. Not quite rags to riches, but a dude from the middle class, an offspring of accountants in suburban New York, makes it big on Wall Street, very big, by misrepresenting the earnings potential of penny stocks to gullible marks, eventually moving on to bluechip investors and big money windfalls, culminating in stock manipulation of the trendy shoes manufacturer Steve Madden’s IPO. Belfort gets too big for his own good, and the SEC and FBI begin monitoring his moves. He has an opportunity to retire fabulously wealthy, paying off some fines and staying out of prison, but his brokerage house is like a family, and anyways, it’s not the money he loves so much as the making of it. He stays in the game, the drugs and sex parties negatively affect both his marriage and judgement, mistakes are made in professional and personal spheres, and his fall from the top is precipitous, and comeuppance significant: divorce, humiliation, betrayal, and jailtime. But then it’s only three years in a minimum security facility and though barred from professional trading, Belfort’s comeback is in the speaking circuit, mentoring tomorrow’s generation on the dynamics of swindling, I mean, salesmanship. That’s the gist of the story and I’ve spoiled nothing by telling you how it all ends. The devil is in the details, in magnificent riffs between DiCaprio and his co-stars (particularly Jonah Hill), the reason for seeing the film being not what happens but how it happens.

The soul of this depraved project is Leonardo DiCaprio and his tour de force performance as the titular wolf. Titanic made DiCaprio such a larger-than-life movie star that I’ve always found it difficult to separate his star power from the character. For the first time ever I truly lost myself in DiCaprio’s performance, this decadent, once and for all “fuck you” to his Titanic past. (Forget Baz Luhrman’s adaptation: Jordan Belfort is the Great Gatsby 2.0, rebooted to turn-of-the-century nihilistic fashions and we are all Nick Calloway, participating in the Great American Mess simply by virtue of looking on.) DiCaprio inhabits the manipulative huckster almost too gorgeously, as if, had movie stardom never hit, he might have been just as successful bullshitting market hyperbole on coldcalled investors. But what makes his performance so interesting is that DiCaprio and Scorsese pull off a magic trick convincing us not to just like, but, unbelievably, to sympathize with Belfort. Instead of being another cliche-ridden bio-pic about the rise and fall of a wanna-be Gordon Gekko, Wolf is sensational, not just on a sensory level (who doesn’t enjoy a bit of looky-look at limitless bacchanalia?), but for the very reason we go to the cinema in the first place, that is to feel closer to the human spirit, to be part of something larger and grander than ourselves.

Wall Street - The Crack-Up Edition - Pop Zeitgeist

The Wolf of Wall Street by Jordan Belfort

This might sound absurd if you haven’t seen the film, but there are two important points to clarify about Wolf‘s ideas. First, Jordan Belfort did not begin his Wall Street career intending to fleece his investors– one of the best scenes in the movie is when DiCaprio’s rookie broker Belfort takes a martini lunch with his boss, Mark Hanna (an amazing turn by Matthew McConaughey). Belfort wants to succeed, but not at the expense of his clients’ welfare. Hana pooh-poohs his naivety: “The name of the game is moving the money from the client’s pocket to your pocket.” Certainly, Wall Street attracts a certain ruthless character, but the film seems to suggest that it is the institution, rather than the individual broker, that is truly rotten. Secondly, Belfort’s success stems from his capacity to manipulate greed in his victims– he fuels his fortune by tapping the longing in others for wealth accumulation. Greed, then, is the universal condition, and Belfort merely a psychological miner pinpointing and extracting it from the darker areas of our collective soul. He sells us that little lie we tell ourselves, that we’re special and deserve our riches too.

Making big money is almost illogical. McConaughey’s Mark Hanna tells Belfort in that same martini lunch, “First rule of Wall Street– Nobody- and I don’t care if you’re Warren Buffet or Jimmy Buffet- nobody knows if a stock is going up, down or f-ing sideways, least of all stockbrokers…It’s fugazi. It’s a wazy. It’s a woozie. It’s fairy dust.” In voiceover Belfort attempts to describe his shady practices, before dissolving the blah-blah into ‘don’t worry about it, I got rich’ pomposity. The stock market is a senseless enterprise run by senseless monsters deceiving senseless chumps. For some it can only go on so long before the absurdity destroys us. But no matter. F. Scott Fitzgerald was wrong about second acts, especially for ambitious charmers. Who knows? You might even be sorta kinda vindicated when our nation’s most famous actor gives his best performance in your honor. As Belfort bellows to his whooping broker henchmen, “This right here is the land of opportunity. This is America. This is my home! The show goes on!” We cheer him in little fistpumps despite ourselves. Look in the mirror, Jordan Belfort. Maybe the zeitgeist is looking back.

Best Documentaries of 2013 – Why Blackfish Matters

Best Documentaries of 2013 – Why Blackfish Matters

Best Documentaries of 2013 – Why Blackfish Matters

Blackfish Film Poster, Gabriela Cowperthwaite, Magnolia Pictures

While Hollywood languishes inside of digitized cliché and regressive idolatry of the almighty dollar, the collective work of internationally-based documentary film makers only seems to improve year after year. Is it access to better and more easily functional technology or access to better and more compelling stories? What we used to revere as The News, is now so manufactured by particular interest groups as to render what passes for information is generally opinion. With the 24-hour news cycle comes a kind of desensitization of the news, or what is happening in the world, so that we as a collective society have relegated to the documentary film genre and to that peculiar brand of filmmaker the truly courageous chase of journalism. The journalism of documentary film is not always objective, as in the case of Sarah Polley’s excellent Stories We Tell (National Film Board of Canada), but it is generally fascinating and full enough of great stories and characters to overcome the slant of unbiased storytelling that is, more and more, the best form of informative media almost anyone currently has access to.

Take The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer, Final Cut For Real), in which the director offers the hitmen of Indonesian dictator’s Suharto’s death squad a chance to reenact their gruesome murders, in whatever Hollywood genre they wish to use. The film crescendoes to a bloody and violent apex only to grind to a halt as the murderers begin to intimately realize what they have done. This is more than the news could ever be. This is the new post-postmodern reality of melding the fantasical form of fictional film to the everyday make-believe humanity creates to get through the murder of life.

Many other noteworthy films from this year follow the example of Eugene Jarecki’s The House I live In, which give voice to those people who have little to no voice in society. Inequality For All by Jacob Kornbluth, Gideon’s Army by Dawn Porter, A River Changes Course by Kalyanee Mam and The Square from Jehane Noujaim are some of the best among a host of others. Yet the 2013 documentary film which has and will have affected change is Blackfish, directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite (Magnolia Pictures).

Best Documentaries of 2013 – Why Blackfish Matters

Best Documentaries of 2013 – Why Blackfish Matters

2. Tilikum in a scene from BLACKFISH, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

When The Cove premiered at the 2009 Tokyo International Film Festival, the director, Louie Psihoyos, answered questions from the audience after what amounted to one of the only showings of the controversial film in Japan. With the mayor of Taiji, the Japanese IWC Representative, the notorious Private Space all in attendance, Psihoyos spoke about why he had to make this film:

The skeptics wanted to focus on animal rights, but this isn’t just an animal rights issue…It’s a human health issue also. And I wanted everyone in the theater to understand that. It’s a human rights film because people need to know that the levels of mercury is off-the-charts toxic.

The Cove was called the Citizen Cane of environmental documentaries and while it proved to be ground-breaking–in many ways analagous to Kane–in its ability to uncover certain of the monstrosities perpetuated upon the animal kingdom by humans, the film was ultimately unable to create the upwelling of support domestically necessary to bring about swift and sure change in the treatment of cetaceans. People couldn’t relate. Americans don’t eat dolphin, never have. But Seaworld? This is where Blackfish changes everything.

The 83 minute film revolves around Tilikum, a 34-year-old orca, whose story is told from his initial capture in the North Atlantic in 1983 to his first non-ocean home at Sealand of The Pacific, where, in 1991, he was responsible for killing trainer Keltie Byrne. After which he was sold to SeaWorld Orlando, where trainers were kept in the dark about the whale’s involvement in Byrne’s death and permitted to work closely with him. Cowperthwaite gives these trainers voice to share with the audience the incorrect whale facts given to park visitors – from diminished whale lifespans to supposed whale behaviors. Since Blackfish’s production ex-trainer John Hargrove has written Beneath the Surface, an expose on the Seaworld culture.

Several whale attacks are seen and explained, including one involving trainer Ken Peters, who survived the grip of a killer whale who inexplicably refused to release him. Eventually we see the story which got Cowperthwaite off of her couch and talking to people: when veteran killer whale trainer, Dawn Brancheau, was attacked and killed by Tilikum on February 24, 2010 at SeaWorld Orlando.

Seaworld, not mentioning the film itself, took out full-page ads in national newspapers in mid-December 2013 which read “SeaWorld: The Truth Is in Our Parks and People” and summarized the following points:

  • SeaWorld does not capture killer whales in the wild.
  • We do not separate killer whale moms and calves.
  • SeaWorld invests millions of dollars in the care of our killer whales.
  • SeaWorld’s killer whales’ life spans are equivalent with those in the wild.
  • The killer whales in our care benefit those in the wild.
  • SeaWorld is a world leader in animal rescue.

OPS, the Oceanic Preservation Society, led by Louie Psihoyos, has released a letter countering SeaWorld’s facts, entitled, “Marine Mammal Captivity: The Truth Is in the Facts.” The subtitle reads “An Open Letter from the Informed American Public,” which is an important point. 50 years ago when SeaWorld was created, their ethos that “our guests may enter our gates having never given much thought to the remarkable animals in our oceans,” was largely true. Most Americans didn’t know anything about fish, let alone cetaceans and other marine mammals. 30 years ago, even 20 years ago, “when they leave with a greater appreciation for the importance of the sea, educated about the animals that live there and inspired to make a difference, we have done our job,” this statement might have been true to the extent that other than those guided by self-interest and curiosity in the exploration of marine biology, not many people in general give much thought to what lives in the ocean other than the tuna fish sandwich their mom used to make them, but today is another story.

Today we have documentaries like The Cove, Sharkwater, Atlantis, and the work of Jacques Cousteau, who taught that there is as much educational benefit in studying dolphins and whales in captivity as there is in studying humans by observing prisoners in solitary confinement. Today we do not have to rely solely on passionate experts like Cousteau, Cowperthwaite and Psihoyos. Today we have the ability to find out for ourselves what kind of world we live in, and more than ever, choose what kind of world we want to live in. The fact that Blackfish has been aired multiple times on CNN to an audience of more than 20 million, and has become available via iTunes and Netflix, is proof enough that the American public is interested and is becoming educated.

The letter finishes by saying “The truth about SeaWorld is in the facts. Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s Blackfish and our film The Cove give viewers a deep and meaningful connection with the remarkable animals in our oceans. But this is just the beginning of a growing shift in public awareness about the impoverished lives of animals at SeaWorld. As Cowperthwaite says, young people today are becoming the ‘I can’t believe we used to do that’ generation. No amount of advertising will counter the Blackfish Effect. SeaWorld, your job is to now adapt to an informed public.”

Whether we agree that capturing and holding animals in captivity is something we as a society want to continue, a related issue has to be that of the survival of the oceans, acidifying at an alarming rate. The Losing Nemo animated short by, coincidentally enough, The Black Fish, is compelling enough to get you to think that without changing the way we do many things, the only animals that exist will be in tanks and surrounded by cages, ourselves included.

Horse shagging and Jodorowsky: a report from Tokyo International Film Festival 2013

Sharing acronyms can be a real shitter, especially when you’re forever relegated to second place. A month after Toronto International Film Festival wraps up its annual media frenzy, Tokyo wheels out its own TIFF – an event that, but for its accreditation by the FIAPF, might as well not exist to the wider world. You’ll find no Oscar buzz here: even local directors tend to save their best efforts for Cannes, Venice, et al., and though the winner of the US$50,000 Tokyo Sakura Grand Prix occasionally goes on to greater things (as with the international success of French comedy Untouchable in 2011), the accolade doesn’t seem to have much bearing on a film’s fortunes.

This was the first TIFF since the departure of long-standing chairman Tom Yoda, though the most glaring absence was that of Toyota, whose prominent five-year sponsorship of the festival had included a special eco-themed section. Natural TIFF was out this year, though that wasn’t the only shake-up in the programming: the unwieldy Winds of Asia Middle-East has given way to a more streamlined section, Asian Future, limited to directors producing their debut or sophomore features. It’s encouraging to see TIFF make a concerted effort to support emerging talent; perhaps more importantly, this is a corner of the market where it might conceivably be able to wield some clout.

Sayonara Yoda, Hello Asian Future

Asian Future turned out to supply some of the highlights of this year’s festival, not least Tetsuichiro Tsuta’s The Tale of Iya. (Confession: despite watching a fair few flicks, I managed to miss the winners of both this section and the main competition – Yang Huilong’s Today and Tomorrow and Lukas Moodysson’s We Are the Best!, respectively.) Set in the wilds of Tokushima, this ambitiously conceived eco-parable follows the exploits of a mute mountain man (butoh dancer Min Tanaka) and his adopted daughter (Rina Takeda), as the outside world threatens to encroach on their natural idyll. Big, bold and shaggy, it’s part Naked Island humanism, part magical-realist fable, and though it sprawls for nearly three hours, it held my attention throughout. The 29-year-old Tsuta also takes producer, screenplay and editor credits – on this evidence, he’s one to watch in the future.

The rules for entry at TIFF aren’t as stringent as for more high-profile festivals, meaning that some of the films in this year’s competition had already been doing the rounds before arriving in Tokyo. Richard Ayoade’s The Double and Daniele Luchetti’s Those Happy Years both screened at Toronto, while Joe Swanberg’s Drinking Buddies originally premiered at South by Southwest back in March. All were genuinely enjoyable. The Double transports Dostoevsky’s novella into a retro-futurist nightmare redolent of Alphaville and Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, and though it gets a little overwhelmed by its own eccentricities, it suggests that Ayoade is blossoming into an assured filmmaker. Luchetti’s autobiographical comedy-drama casts a loving eye over his ‘70s upbringing and the troubled relationship between his parents; warm, funny and sexy, it also boasts a commanding turn by Micaela Ramazzotti, as a mother torn between devotion to her narcissistic artist husband and an increasing desire for independence.

Olivia Wilde and Jake Johnson in "Drinking Buddies"

Olivia Wilde and Jake Johnson in “Drinking Buddies”

I spent much of Drinking Buddies admiring the way that writer-director Swanberg’s dialogue preserved the awkward, overlapping rhythms of authentic speech, only to discover that it wasn’t his dialogue at all: he gives his actors pointers and then gets them to improvise the rest. Even if you consider this a cheat, Drinking Buddies is as refreshing a romcom as you could ask for, bolstered by warm, believable performances from Olivia Wilde and Jake Johnson as the titular twosome. Filmed at Chicago’s Revolution Brewing, it also serves as a surprisingly effective advert for craft beer, though anyone attempting to turn the viewing experience into a Withnail & I drinking game would probably end up in hospital.

Of the local contenders, I was far more taken with Koji Fukada’s Au revoir l’été than Hideo Sakaki’s Disregarded People. The former is a slow-moving but ultimately beguiling seishun eiga, where even the moments of high drama feel deliberately underplayed. Treading lightly around some weighty themes – one of the characters is a refugee from Fukushima; another runs an illicit love hotel – it’s a film that’s content to leave a lingering glow rather than a deeper impression (and yes, rising star Fumi Nikaido is a more than welcome presence). Sakaki’s film, by contrast, is an unremitting bummer: a two-hour manga adaptation that resembles the most nihilistic Roman porno in its grim view of humanity and its lovingly shot rape scenes.

Horse shagging and Jodorowsky: a report from Tokyo International Film Festival 2013

Other competition films went to even greater extremes: set in rural Iceland, Benedikt Erlingsson’s Of Horses and Men crams so much incident into its 81-minute running time, including sex (both equine and human), death and disembowelment, that it feels like The Archers with better scenery. I wasn’t hugely taken by it, though Erlingsson’s Best Director award felt well earned for the skillful way in which he manages a 300-strong cast of horses. The eponymous Red Family in Lee Ju-hyoung’s debut feature – this year’s Audience Award winner – is actually a quartet of North Korean agents living undercover in a suburb of Seoul, who grow attached to their feckless, capitalistic next-door neighbours. Notable mainly for being written and produced by notorious provocateur Kim Ki-duk, this deeply wonky pic never manages to find a good balance between its comedic and thriller elements, alternating between clumsy satire, sentimentality and some unnecessarily graphic violence on the way to a bizarre and genuinely unexpected climax that I found weirdly cathartic.

At the opposite end of the spectrum was Behnam Behzadi’s Breaking the Rules, an intelligently crafted drama that initially struck me as rather slight, but ended up lingering with me for days afterwards. This tale of a group of students attempting to take their theatre production overseas has plenty to say about the generational divides in modern Iranian society, and Behzadi’s preference for long takes and meticulously directed group scenes gives his cast ample opportunity to shine. In a competition section that was heavy on sex and sensationalism, it was nice to see this walk away with the second-place Special Jury Prize.

As is so often the case at TIFF, some of the best films were screening outside of competition. Already a big hit in Hong Kong, Dante Lam’s Unbeatable is an implausibly entertaining MMA drama, generous in its sentiment but genuinely thrilling in its action sequences. Emma Dante’s A Street in Palermo takes a simple conceit – two cars come head to head in a narrow street, and both drivers refuse to move – and turns it into a wicked satire of Italian society and gender politics, with sterling performances by Elena Cotta and the director herself. And while I’m not sure I’ll ever figure what the hell was happening in Alex van Warmerdam’s Borgman – a po-faced, Michael Haneke-esque home invasion drama with macabre fairytale elements – it’s a fascinating curio.

Alejandro Jodorowsky in "Jodorowsky's Dune" (© 2013 City Film LLC)

Alejandro Jodorowsky in “Jodorowsky’s Dune” (© 2013 City Film LLC)

Ironically, the most convincing case for the importance of imagination and ambition in cinema came from a film about a film that never even got made. Jodorowsky’s Dune is a wickedly entertaining account of how the lysergic movie messiah responsible for The Holy Mountain almost got handed the reins of a big-budget adaptation of Frank Herbert’s sci-fi classic. Director Frank Pavich makes the sensible choice of letting Jodorowsky do most of the talking himself, and the 84-year-old rises to the occasion, recalling with infectious glee how he courted Salvador Dalí and Orson Welles to play key roles, or subjected his son to two years’ worth of intensive martial arts training in order to portray the lead character, Paul Atreides. “I was raping Frank Herbert,” he says, grinning wildly, “but with love.”


Click here for brief reviews of all of these films, plus many others featured in this year’s Tokyo International Film Festival.


James Hadfield writes about music, film and other stuff. You can find him at @JamesHadfield

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