Indian Film

About Indian film:
Films of India (and related areas):

"Lessons of Darkness" - Werner Herzog (1992)

Werner Herzog’s documentary films lie at an extreme distance from the Anglo-American tradition of documentary filmmaking. Part of that distance can be linked to the distinction between two fundamental stances towards the depiction of reality: “Objectivism” and “Interactionism”, which I have discussed in other essays, for example, Avatar (2009), Close-Up (1990), and SiCKO (2007). American documentarians generally align themselves with Objectivism and hold that they are presenting an objective view of reality. An extreme form of this approach is “direct cinema”, which seeks to create the illusion that the filmmaker is an invisible “fly on the wall” and has no impact on the subjects being filmed, thereby supposedly ensuring scientific objectivity. But even in more conventional American documentaries with explicitly polemical content, there is a presumption that objective reality, independent of any observer, is being presented. Continental European documentary filmmakers, on the other hand, have had a tendency to lean towards Interactionism and have made more personal films in which the filmmaker and his or her point of view is a confessed part of the narrative. Herzog is so much on the Interactionist side of the ledger that his documentary films not only include his personal perspective, but seem primarily to be his own personal essays about the world – he, himself, is an implicit focus of the film, and the “reality” depicted is self-consciously Herzog’s own reality. Lessons of Darkness (Lektionen in Finsternis, 1992), which was shot in Kuwait in the immediate aftermath of the First Gulf War (1990-91) is one such example of Herzog’s style.

Although focussed on the harrowing events and ravages that happened in Iraq and Kuwait during that time, Lessons of Darkness has clear-cut affinities with Herzog’s first documentary Fata Morgana (1971), which was shot in Africa. In that earlier film Herzog edited footage that he had (seemingly randomly) shot in the African Sahel and tried to fashion a dark vision about man’s hopeless ineffectiveness, and consequently likely impermanent existence, on the planet – an ephemeral existence like a mirage. Some twenty years later, with Lessons of Darkness, Herzog again collected footage, this time in Kuwait, and then assembled his photographic essay in post-production, and again his vision is one of dark apocalypse and pessimism concerning man’s prospects for a sustainable future. In fact both Fata Morgana and Lessons of Darkness contain vague commentary that suggests that humankind on Earth is being clinically observed, with amazement and horror, by a visitor from another planet. However, in neither film is there any real narrative or sequence of events that could amount to a story – they are both more or less personal essays of despair. But if we assert that they are both cinematic commentaries, we have also to concede that neither of these two films provides an explicit disquisition or argument, or even has a clearly articulated thesis. What we are really presented with is just a suggestive sequence of images, on which the viewer reflectively fills in many of the blanks and faces a greater-than-usual task of constructing his or her own story or vision. This process of placing much of the narrative burden on the viewer essentially fails with Fata Morgana (which was almost a random collection of lurid images of garish and pathetic human folly), but is more successful with Lessons of Darkness, primarily because the viewer in this case is more likely to bring to the film considerable familiarity with what happened during the “First Gulf War”and use that material for his own imaginative reconstructions.

The greater part of Lessons of Darkness consists of lurid scenes of fires in the Kuwaiti oilfields burning out of control and spewing gargantuan clouds of smoke. These images are interspersed with images of devastation, both at the physical and human level, and with human firefighters seemingly overmatched in their efforts to quell the multiple, raging infernos. The images are apparently meant to be abstractly horrific, and there is almost no spoken dialogue and no explicit reference to the Gulf War, or to specific places, or to any historical context. To set some kind of context Lessons of Darkness opens with images of wasteland and destruction, and the prologue refers to a planet “in our solar system” which evidently has undergone a catastrophic war. So the viewer sees things simultaneously with respect to two overarching narrative perspectives: the real Gulf War and an abstract metaphorical fable of how bizarre humankind’s self-destructive impulses might be to a detached, external observer. The film is then presented partitioned into thirteen chapters, each identified by apocalyptic, perhaps oracular, intertitles which suggest chapters to some sort of apocryphal Book of Revelations.
  1. “A Capital City”. This section features an opening voiceover narration with images of Kuwait City filmed from a low-flying helicopter, ominously suggesting that this doomed city will soon be utterly destroyed by warfare (it wasn’t, and this footage was filmed after the conflict).
  2. “The War”. Here is shown footage of the aerial bombing of Iraq as seen via night-vision video cameras. Although this section is relatively short and no mention of “Operation of Desert Storm” is made, the context is likely to be familiar to a worldwide audience, since it was widely viewed on CNN.
  3. “After the Battle”. Images of war devastation are presented.
  4. “Torture Chambers”. This thankfully brief section is one of the most memorable, though difficult to bear, sections in the film. First is shown what is apparently the insides of one of the torture chambers run by Saddam Hussein’s government, and it features a mute display of mechanical devices designed to inflict unbearable pain. Then an Arab woman is shown who was been rendered almost permanently speechless by having been forced by the authorities to witness her own sons being tortured to death.
  5. “Satan’s National Park”. Helicopter footage of what seems to be a vast marshland are revealed to be in fact entirely flooded with oil.
  6. “Childhood”. Another Arab mother is shown, this time with a young, disturbed boy who has been rendered speechless by what he has witnessed during the conflict. As with the woman shown earlier, the horror of what happened is not shown, it is only something so unspeakable that one cannot bear to think about it. The viewer’s imagination then fills in the blanks.
  7. “And A Smoke Arose Like The Smoke From A Furnace”. Here, 23 minutes into the film, the raging fires take over the screen. Again, they are filmed from low-flying helicopters.
  8. “A Pilgrimage”. Now the (American) firefighters are shown, sometimes relatively up close and at other times at a distance and dwarfed by the towering flames of the fires that burn endlessly. This section shows the firefighters using explosives to try to put out the fire.
  9. “A Dinosaur’s Feast”. This is more or less a continuation of the previous section showing the firefighters, but now emphasizing some of the huge construction and excavation machines employed in their work. The machinery has monster-like appearances, with arching cranes, serpentine bodies, and huge digging claws.
  10. “Protuberances” – a brief section showing closeups of oil–and-mud swamps bubbling and frothing, and evoking more nightmarish images of Hell.
  11. “The Drying Up of the Wells”. The oil-covered firefighters are shown, often in slow-motion, intensely engaged in the mechanics of their operations. The functional nature of these activities is incomprehensible to the typical viewer, and it all appears perhaps as an abstract Ballet Mécanique from the dark side. The macabre strangeness of it all, and the degree to which these operations seem to be foreign to what we might call normal human intercourse, are worth comparing to Louis Malle’s documentary, Humain, Trop Humain (1974).
  12. “Life Without Fire”. With many of the fires now apparently been extinguished, the voiceover commentary of the interplanetary visitor expresses wonder as these strange creatures to him (i.e. the firefighters) engage in the baffling act of relighting an extinguished geyser of oil. He comments: "Has life without fire become unbearable for them? . . . . . Others, seized by madness, follow suit. . . . . Now they are content, now there’s something to extinguish again.”
  13. “I am So Weary of Sighing, O Lord, Grant That the Night Cometh”. The final portion returns to the fires, themselves, carrying with it an air of resignation and gloom.
Herzog’s fascination with fire extends to a fascination with its opposite, darkness (hence the title). The demonic forces that lurk inside the hearts of men seem to be beyond civilized understanding or rational control. These issues or cruelty and madness are as elemental as fire, itself, and are not confined to the Middle East [1]. This apparently was Herzog’s project: not to focus on just the particular horror of what happened in one part of the globe, but to fashion a fiction that would portray a more universal damnation. To this end, he opens the film with his own fabricated quotation ("The collapse of the stellar universe will occur, like creation, in grandiose splendor”) which he probably attributes to Blaise Pascal in order to give it the appropriate resonance – Pascal is perhaps not so well-known to English-speaking audiences, but his genius occupies a peculiarly iconic place in the European mind.

The horror that Herzog attempts to convey by his images of man-made Hell is enhanced by its unspeakable nature – it is beyond human articulation. Instead of a deafening roar from the fires drowning out occasional shouts from the firefighters, much of the stoundtrack is filled with funereal, dirge-like orchestral music from Mahler, Prokofieff, Verdi, Wagner, and Arbo Part. The unspeakable nature of this horror is explicitly referenced by the two mothers: one mother is unable to speak comprehensibly and the child of the other mother has been rendered speechless by rational choice. It is left to our imaginations to fill out these nightmares.

  1. For example, consider the use of germ warfare by the Japanese during the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-45). Here is a quotation from that article:
“The methods were brutal. Army trucks dumped gallons of deadly germs alongside roads and railway lines linking Chinese towns so that infections would spread from town to town; planes dropped porcelain bombs containing infected fleas on dozens of villages, causing devastating outbreaks of bubonic plague. The Japanese laced more than 1,000 wells in the area of Harbin with typhoid bacilli. They also inserted typhus into bottles of lemonade that children loved to drink in the summer, Harris reported. In Nanking, they distributed anthrax-filled chocolate and cake to hungry children. The Japanese discovered that packing fountain pens and walking sticks with deadly germs was a particularly effective way of secretly disseminating them. In 1940, Major General Ishii sent a train carrying 70 kilograms of typhus bacterium, 50 kilograms of cholera germs, and 5 kilograms of plague-infected fleas to the city of Hangzhou, a holiday resort favored by Shanghai’s wealthy. From there, the germs were dumped into ponds and reservoirs and spread by aerial spraying, contaminating all life in fields of wheat and millet during the harvest.”

“Avatar” - James Cameron (2009)

James Cameron’s Avatar (2009) is not just a movie, it is a cultural and economic phenomenon of such scope that it has aroused commentary from wide sectors of society. The numbers alone are staggering. Its production budget of about US$ 300 million far exceeded all previous efforts, but those expenses were easily recovered – its box office gross is already over $ 2.7 billion, and these numbers apparently reflect a large amount of repeated viewing. This makes Avatar the top grossing film of all time, surpassing the previous top-spot holder, Titanic (1997), also written, produced, directed, and edited by Cameron. Though there has been much written about what has made Avatar such a hit, my main concern here will focus on some of the film’s aesthetics and also on some of the philosophical themes underlying Avatar.

The story is set in the future, in the year 2154. The narrator, Jake Sully, is a paraplegic ex-Marine who has contracted to work for a project located on a moon, Pandora, of a planet orbiting the star Alpha Centauri. Pandora has both natural biological life on its surface and a staggeringly valuable mineral, called “unobtainium” [1], that the RDA Corporation is bent on mining. The life on Pandora exists in a poisonous-to-humans atmosphere and features a lush and bloodthirsty ecosystem, including intelligent humanoids, called the Na’vi, who are about 10 feet (3 meters) tall. Thus there are two concurrent human-manned projects on Pandora. One is concerned with mining the valuable ore, and the other, the one for which Sully has been contracted, is concerned with scientifically studying the local flora and fauna on Pandora, particularly the Na’vi. In order to investigate in the hostile atmosphere, the scientific team, led by Dr. Grace Augustine, has developed enormously expensive hybrid beings, called “avatars”, that comprise a mixture of Na’vi and human DNA. While the Na’vi-lookalike avatars walk about on Pandora, they are mentally controlled by humans with matching DNA, one of whom is to be Sully, who are safely housed back inside the climate-controlled space colony quarters on the moon. Because his avatar is purely mentally controlled, Sully’s crippled physical condition is not an issue for his employment.

The mining operation is manned by military contractors and mercenaries, who use heavy machinery to clear the land and exterminate any hostile creatures in their way on Pandora. Sensing an affinity with Sully, the leader of the mercenaries, ex-Marine Colonel Miles Quaritch, secretly hires Sully to work for RDA, too, promising him that he will guarantee that the paraplegic eventually gets restorative surgery on his return to Earth. So early in the piece Sully is now serving two masters, Augustine and Quaritch.

Much of the rest of the movie now takes place in the wild Pandora environment among the Na’vi, with Sully’s avatar interacting with the Na’vi people and learning their ways. In particular, he becomes fascinated with and ultimately romantically interested in their princess, Neytiri, and from here on Sully is serving three masters and being pulled in three different directions.

Clearly the Na’vi are presented as noble savages, the RDA mercenaries are predatory plunderers, and the morally compromised scientists are relatively helpless technicians caught in the middle. Although Sully’s avatar is supposed to learn enough about the Na’vi so that the RDA corporation can gut their planet of the valuable mineral and force them out of their home settlement, Sully eventually goes native and turns the tables: he switches sides in support of the Na’vi. The Na’vi, though technologically primitive, are not powerless, since they have a holistic connectivity with nature that serves them well in their native habitat. The last third of the movie, then, is essentially a seemingly endless blood-and-guts battle to the death between the firepower-laden RDA mercenaries and the Na’vi warrior cohort, led by none other than Sully.

As a film, Avatar is less a drama and more an ornately-constructed cartoon. Much has been made about the 3-D filming: Avatar was released in several formats, including IMAX, RealD, and conventional two-dimensional projection technology (the version I saw was in RealD). To me the 3-D projection has been overly-hyped, and it is more of a marketing gimmick than an essential aspect of the viewing experience. Anyway, 3-D technology has been around for years, so there is nothing particularly startling about its use in this instance. Moreover, the 3-D viewing experience is definitely not natural and in conformance with the way we normally see, and, what's more, the enforced perceptual load is sometimes distracting, if not wearisome. Fortunately, Cameron did not overdo the 3-D effects in the film, so they do not get in the way too much.

The principal roles and the acting in Avatar are heavily stereotyped, again in keeping with the film’s cartoon dimensions. Dr. Grace Augustin (played by Sigourney Weaver) is a hardboiled, chain-smoking taskmaster, rather in the style of a front page city newsroom editor from a 1930s film. Similarly, Quaritch (played by Stephen Lang, in a showy performance) is satanically over-the-top, reminiscent of Beau Geste’s (1930) Sergeant Markoff (Brian Donlevy). Jake Sully is a typical innocent and mindless “G.I. Joe” that will appeal to the fun-loving redneck crowd. All of these characters appear to be self-consciously “working class”, whose roles have been crafted to appeal to the common dudes and dudettes out there. If you are looking for subtlety in the performances, you had better look elsewhere.

What is on display is grand scale and scope that is intended to awe the viewer. In fact as a filmmaker, it is interesting to compare James Cameron with Stephen Spielberg. Both are essentially civil engineers, rather than dramatic directors. They construct lavishly overwhelming environments into which they inject rather simpleminded and exaggerated narratives. And they are both enormously successful at the box office. But despite Spielberg’s successes, Cameron trumps him. Cameron’s environments are even more breathtaking, and his stories, simple though they may be, have rather more compelling relationships, including romantic entanglements, that make them generally superior to Spielberg’s. In addition, Cameron uses his crafted environmental space more effectively than Spielberg does (although despite the architectural dazzle, neither Cameron nor Spielberg creates the kind of navigable, interactive spaces Michelangelo Antonioni generally established and in which he situated his films).

But when one compares Avatar’s director with another blockbuster producer-director, Ridley Scott, Cameron doesn’t fare nearly so well. Scott’s films, like those of Spielberg and Cameron, are also huge commercial successes, but they come out ahead, in my opinion, because they are inevitably deeper and more gripping. The perfect matchup for comparison between Scott and Cameron is to contrast Scott’s Alien (1979) with Cameron’s Aliens (1986) – two films which not only contrast the two directors, but also clearly display the fundamental disconnect between British and American science fiction. Alien, which is one of the all-time great science fiction thrillers, captures the pure essence of horror – the shuddering fear of the dreadful, shapeshifting force that cannot be fully fathomed or even identified. One never really knows fully the nature of the pernicious and unstoppable creature in the film. Cameron’s Aliens, by contrast, simply fills the screen with pyrotechnics, much along the lines of King Kong versus Godzilla (1962). There is nothing really haunting, moody, or mysterious going on in Aliens; instead it is just a lengthy knock-down-drag-out brawl between two monstrous thugs. And that is pretty much the same thing happens in the last third of Avatar, too. This kind of slugfest may appeal to the teenage video arcade crowd, but it blunders on far too long and without the proper dramatic pacing for my tastes.

What really does intrigue me most about Avatar, though, is neither its box office success nor its production details, but some of the cultural/philosophical themes that are raised, albeit confusedly, in the course of the story. Though critics around the world have examined the film along a great many cultural dimensions, what specifically interests me about Avatar are some basic interrelated and progressively deeper notions and issues that cast their shadow over the film:
  1. the antiwar message
  2. reductivism vs. holism
  3. Objectivism vs. Interactionism (man vs. machine)
  4. distributed being
1. Antiwar Message. Cameron cast the role of the RDA Inc. mercenaries as Western imperialist invaders of pristine wilderness already occupied by indigenous natives. In fact the depicted Na’vi in Avatar seem to blend notions from American Indians, Pacific Maori, and possibly Australian Aborigines and Black Africans. What may also (perhaps even primarily) come to mind to American audiences, though, is the Vietnam experience. But the more obvious metaphorical comparison is the near extermination of the Native American (Indian) people by European settlers in the 17th-19th centuries. In any case the evocation of recent, current, and possibly future US military excursions is explicit. For example, Sully refers to his bloody military experience in Venezuela, evoking the image of a current thorn in America’s side becoming a future US invasion target. And the utterance of the phrase “shock and awe” in the film suggests that it will still be common parlance in 2154.

But despite the clear-cut condemnation of rapacious imperialistic plunder and war, Cameron undercuts the purity of the antiwar theme by depicting the Na’vi as killers, too – they are meat-eaters who hunt their prey with bows and arrows. Their presumed high level of spirituality development notwithstanding, the Na’vis do not seem to raise any crops – they are basically just hunter-gatherers. So although their technology is not as efficient as that of Western killing machines, that is merely a technical detail; their sustenance, and hence their culture, is maintained by killing.

Sully is basically a violent individual, too. Once he assumes the physical body of his avatar and ventures out into the Pandora wilds, his instinct is to “take on” all comers in combat. In the film’s finale, in fact, Sully even spearheads the bloody Na’vi counterattack against the RDA warriors.

So by the end of the film, whatever antiwar message may have been earlier intended is completely undermined by the mayhem from both sides.

2. Reductivism versus Holism. Though both sides may be violent, there is still a fundamentally deeper divide that separates the humans (both the mercenaries and the scientists) from the Na’vi. The humans in the film share the Western European cultural attitude of scientific reductionism. From this perspective, effective understanding and manipulative operation in the world involves first an analytical division of everything encountered into its most basic parts and then understanding how those parts interact according to mathematically mechanical rules. This is the divide-and-conquer analytical methodology that has fueled Western civilization’s triumphant domination of the natural world, and it is epitomized here in Avatar by RDA Corporation’s operations to locate and mine the ultimate physical resource: unobtainium. The Na’vi, on the other hand, have a more holistic engagement with nature. When a Na’vi interacts with a wild Pandoran animal, for example, he or she connects its tail with that of the beast in order to achieve some sort of mysterious oneness that connects the two beings. This enables the Na’vi to ride flying Pandoran beasts through the treetops in a sort of symbiotic harmony, as if they are a single creature. How they do it is, of course, outside the understanding of reductivist Western science and more in the domain of the chigong and yogic masters of the East.

Given this identified distinction between reductivism and holism, the film clearly celebrates the holism of the Na’vi and their attempt to live in a sustainable harmony with their environment, as opposed to the humans, who are relentlessly looking for new worlds to dominate, plunder, and exploit for their selfish needs.

But holism, in the West at least, is primarily understood by what it is not – it is simply not reductivist – and holism is merely understood to be an assertion that the system as a whole must be appreciated in order to understand its workings. The question of how that unification might be accomplished is usually left begging. A better way to proceed down this track and approach this divide is to consider another dichotomy: Objectivism versus Interactionism, contrasting perspectives which can be characterized in Western philosophical terms.

3. Objectivism versus Interactionism. As I mentioned in my review of Michael Moore’s SiCKO (2007), Objectivism and Interactionism can loosely be characterized as follows:
  • Objectivism is the naive objective reality stance, which most of us adopt most of the time in our everyday activities. The objective world is assumed to be scientifically knowable and reducible to elementary entities that operate according to laws that can, in principle, be discovered by an “objective” observer. This objective world is “out there” – independent of any observer. To know about this world, one’s act of scientific observation must avoid any interference with that which is being inspected. Isaac Newton’s Laws of Physics are representative examples of Objectivism’s achievements.
  • Interactionism (which could also be called the “the Phenomenological”) recognizes that the observer invariably and essentially has an effect on whatever may be observed (as attested to by physicist Werner Heisenberg with his Principle of Uncertainty). For Interactionism, every human activity invariably involves an embodied interaction with something else (even, as Heisenberg noted, when interacting with a scientific observation instrument). In this respect, Interactionism is not compatible with Cartesian dualism and Newtonian analysis that separates the observer from the observed; instead one should associate Interactionism with Buddhism, Sufism, and the work of Merleau-Ponty. From the Interactionist perspective, Objectivism is only an abstract ideal that has pragmatic application in some domains, but certainly not all – real experience, which is inescapably interactive, can only be usefully approximated by Objectivism some of the time (such as when observing the heavens). In other spheres of activity, where account of human interaction cannot be dismissed or minimized, such as the sphere of human social activity, Objectivist approximations are condemned to be unavoidably weak and inaccurate.
Objectivists tend to see biological life in mechanical, deterministic terms – biological organisms are essentially extremely complex machines. Interactionists contend that the mechanical explanations, which discount the observer to achieve their models, need to be surpassed or supplemented with more sophisticated approaches. Thus the Objectivist-Interactionist split lies at the heart of the “man versus machine” dichotomy that continues to fascinate and bedevil our culture. It has clearly been an obsession with Cameron, whose Terminator films (1984,1991) explored the boundaries between man and machine.

From the Interactionist/Objectivist angle, then, the humans from Earth in Avatar visiting Pandora are Objectivists, while the Na’vi are Interactionists. Given the preferential depiction of the Na’vi in the film, Cameron seems to be urging us, too, to adopt an Interactionist stance towards our biophysical environment. But to pursue this point further, one needs to consider the nature of our being in the world.

4. Distributed Being. At the heart of the Objectivist-Interactionist split is the question of who we are and what is the locus of our being. What are the boundaries of our being? An Objectivist would usually either claim that (a) our being comprises a Cartesian duality of a physical body and a mysteriously related spiritual soul or (b) that we are only our physical bodies and that consciousness is merely an epiphenomenon of no causal significance. The mind, the “I”, in either case seems to have no spatial extent and no meaningful spatial location, other than some sort of obscure identification with the physical body.

An Interactionist such as Merleau-Ponty, however, would argue that the fundamental starting point and basis for understanding the world is that we are essentially embodied beings that have consciousness. This raises the question concerning what are the boundaries of that conscious body? Consider several types of extensions that can be considered as additions to our bodies:
  • When we add eyeglasses (if we need them) to our bodily equipment, we improve our embodied capability of vision – the eyeglasses seem to be extensions of our eyes. Our visual capacity, and hence out interactive capability, is improved by wearing the eyeglasses. Similarly when a basketball player dons a pair of athletic shoes, he (or she) can jump better – his embodied use of his legs has been enhanced. These are thus enhancements of the biophysical body. A bit further in this direction is the case of a person who is given a prosthetic limb. In such cases a mechanical add-on has been so closely allied with the physical body that it seems to be part of the embodied nature of the being. We can call this a level 1 type of extension to the body.
  • A still further extension is when a person uses any kind tool, such as a hammer or saw, to enhance his ability to manipulate things in the world. The tool in this case is not obviously part of the person, but it enhances his interactive operations in the world and so extends who he is. Call this a level 2 type of extension of the body.
  • Still further on in this direction is the use of computers and telecommunications, which is greatly extending the reach of our interactiveness. Or consider when someone else simply provides us with some useful knowledge about the world that enhances our ability to interact in the world. With our interactive capabilities so enhanced, we have been further extended (level 3).
All of these tools and devices extend our interactiveness and thereby change the nature or our being-in-the-world that characterizes our individual existences. Where does one draw the line in terms of his bodily extent (and in terms of who he is): at level 1, level 2, or level 3? The confusion comes in when we insist on the absolute nature of the mind-body separation and on drawing sharp lines that separate them. Unfortunately, this is exactly where Cameron goes astray in Avatar. In the film Cameron adopts a purely Cartesian/Objectivist attitude towards Sully, even though the film seems implicitly to endorse the Interactionist perspective towards civilization. Early on Sully’s isolated Cartesian “mind” in the film is able to transfer its control to a different body, i.e. that avatar body that Sally sometimes “occupies”. This is a purely Objectivist conceit, not an Interactionist one. At the end of the film, Cameron’s Cartesian/Objectivist (and therefore anti-Interactionist) characterization of the world has Sully’s mind actually making a total transfer to the alternative body of the Na’vi avatar. This is an Objectivist hallucination that contradicts his otherwise Interactionist stance.

So James Cameron’s Avatar ultimately evokes powerful notions and images concerning war and the nature of man, but in the end its confused characterization of those issues undermines its powerful metaphors and fails to deliver the right messages. He undermines his antiwar message by depicting the pro-war mentality of the Sully and the Na’vi. He undermines his pro-Interactionist message by depicting Sully’s mind in an Objectivist/Cartesian fantasy. Both of these contradictions I consider to be fatal to any fundamental coherence in Cameron’s narrative presentation. The message that could have been delivered has been garbled and lost.

I would agree, though, that Cameron’s Avatar does deserves some credit for dwelling, however imperfectly, on some of the key issues that must be addressed in order for us to meet current global challenges and make our way in the modern world.

  1. “unobtainium” is a flippant epithet in US engineering circles, dating from the 1950s.

“Collapse” - Chris Smith (2009)

The documentary Collapse (2009) by Chris Smith is effectively an extended monologue on the part of maverick social critic Michael Ruppert [1,2,3] about how predicted energy shortages will lead to worldwide calamity. Ruppert is seen throughout the film sitting in a chair in a darkened studio and emphatically expounding on the catastrophe he envisions. This apocalyptic rant is visually spiced up with archival footage that serves to underscore his pitch by providing visual metaphors that dramatize his argument. But despite the seeming simplicity of the format, Collapse has three distinct themes that need to be distinguished:
  1. Peak Oil
  2. The Catastrophic Economic Collapse in the near future
  3. Michael Ruppert, himself
1. Peak Oil. The notion of peak oil revolves around the finite limits of the earth’s petroleum supplies. While it is common knowledge that the earth is running out of oil, most people take some assurance in the idea that the world’s supply of oil will probably not run out for a couple of generations. But the concept of peak oil focuses on a related and perhaps equally important idea that at some point in the very near future, the global extraction of oil will pass its peak and begin declining. The mere fact that oil production will be in decline could have dire consequences. M. King Hubbert made the initial calculations in 1956 and came up with a logistic model that represented the likely rapid decline in world oil production after the production peak has been passed. When the peak of oil production is passed, the models predict that there will be a rapid rise in world energy prices, which will likely have grave economic consequences. If you are an optimist, you might believe that the world will successfully, if painfully, make the necessary shift to alternative energy sources, such as solar, wind, thermal, tidal, biological, and nuclear sources as the oil resources peter out. If you are one of the many pessimists on this subject, though, you are likely to believe that the drop in oil production will be too rapid to allow enough time for the world to make the needed transition to the alternative options. Michael Ruppert is a pronounced pessimist and has spent the last thirty years as a self-employed journalist arguing his case to any and all who will care to listen.

In the film Ruppert articulates quite clearly the theory and facts behind peak oil, and they appear to be based on sound evidence. He points out that much of our worldwide transportation system is based specifically on oil, and it cannot easily be served by alternative energy sources. For example there are eight gallons of oil in every automobile tire, and even electric cars will need to run on wheels of some sort. We can’t simply switch to plastic, because they are all based on oil, too. A key notion in this connection is EROEI (Energy Return On Energy Invested). This measure is the ratio of the amount of usable energy produced divided by the energy required to produce it. Clearly only energy sources having values of EROEI greater than 1.0 are of any practical use. (There are different ways of defining and calculating this ratio, which has led to some criticisms of published values, but this is only a minor detail to the overall argument.) Unfortunately, the EROEI values of the alternative energy sources on the horizon are not nearly as good (not as high) as what we have enjoyed with petroleum during the 20th Century. So even with alternative energy sources available, the efficiency of energy production will be greatly reduced.

Suffice it to say that the peak oil discussion is significant and worthy of everyone’s consideration, and Smith and Ruppert present the gist of the argument succinctly and with gusto.

2. The Economic Collapse. Ruppert is also one of the pessimists who believe that the immediate aftermath effects of peak oil will lead to an economic catastrophe and a complete breakdown of societies all over the world. Here the argument is highly speculative, but one must consider the possibilities. With the rapid rise of the world’s population, from 2.5 billion in 1950 to almost seven billion today, there are enormous demands for energy, food, and water. These are likely to come into short supply after the oil peak, and this could lead to massive catastrophes – it is not so easy to shrink the world’s population back to manageable numbers in a short space of time.

Another thread to this narrative concerns the enormous amount of leveraged debt in the today’s globalized society, which Ruppert feels will intensify the economic collapse. Ruppert refers to “fiat money”, the tendency of governments simply to print paper money in order to increase credit and “pay off” existing debts.

Ruppert’s doomsday vision is underscored in the film by numerous lurid archival film clips of war, famine, and massive social chaos. None of the predicted calamities is provably correct and inevitable, but they are plausible; Ruppert is right that sweeping and hitherto unprecedented measures will have to be taken in order to deal with these issues in the relatively near future. But the emphasis here is not on any proposed remedies, but on the horrors of the impending disaster, itself. In any case this is the aspect of the film that will strike fear in the hearts of many viewers and will have the most memorable effect.

3. Michael Ruppert, himself. But Collapse is not at all a typical polemical documentary like the carefully constructed and paced An Inconvenient Truth (2006), which seeks to mount convincing evidence in order to persuade a discerning viewer. In fact director Chris Smith seems to have adopted an equivocal stance with respect to his subject, and this is why some viewers are reminded of Errol Morris’s portraits, Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. (1999) and The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara (2003). In Smith’s Collapse Michael Ruppert is displayed as an oddball, a lonely and obsessive maverick who seems to live in an alternative universe.

Chris Smith shot the interviews with Ruppert in fourteen hours over four days, in a darkened studio that looks like an old warehouse. From this footage he edited the interview with Ruppert down to fit into the film’s 82 minutes of runtime. Ruppert is shown in stark lighting, sitting alone in a chair while he tells the story of his life’s travails. He was graduated with honors from UCLA and then became a police officer for the city of Los Angeles. But at the age of 27, something happened that altered the course of his life. According to his account he became aware of the CIA’s illegal drug operations in the United States, and when he attempted to report these activities, he became a target of the agency’s thuggery and feared for his life. This is apparently the background to Ruppert’s particular sensitivity to perceived conspiracies that are thought to be undermining American society and accentuating future risks. In fact Ruppert apparently also believes that there was a US government conspiracy behind the 9/11 (September 11, 2001) attacks, although these claims are not discussed in the film.

All of this noirish mise-en-scene presents Ruppert in a rather negative light – as an outlier from normal society – and this was apparently Chris Smith’s intention. There are numerous shots of Ruppert taking drags on his cigarette, presumably to cast him as a rumpled and unrefined blowhard. At one point Ruppert even breaks down in tears as he reflects on his lifelong struggles to get out the truth. Amazingly, though, and despite Smith’s efforts to present Ruppert as something of a freak, Ruppert does get his story across surprisingly well. True, Ruppert is rather obsessive, but he is clearly intelligent, and he manages to make his case even in these difficult circumstances.

In documentary films one always has to consider the two sides, so to speak, of the camera: what is in front of the camera and what is behind the camera. What Smith does with and behind the camera is not particularly praiseworthy. The melodramatic add-ons, both the background music and archival film footage, are presented purely for emotional effect and have little connection with the specifics of what is being said. In addition the heavy-handed portrayal of Michael Ruppert as a weirdo seems to me to be rather unfair to his subject. But what Smith has in front of the camera, Michael Ruppert, is what makes the film. Ruppert has a story to tell, and he makes the most of this one chance to tell it. And this reminds us of the inescapable truth of documentary filmmaking: there is no substitute for having the goods in front of the camera. What Smith has there is someone discussing issues worth your consideration.