Richard Wagner: Parsifal
Richard Kleinmichel (transcription), Alexander Jacob (piano)
Numen Media, 2015, $19
Parsifal grew from the fertile brain of Richard Wagner, who adapted ancient German subjects into his popular and extremely accessible operas in the late 19th century. An adherent of German romanticism, Wagner enjoyed plucking heroic tales from the Teutonic past and transforming them into an ode to the Germanic spirit, making Wagner extremely popular with German nationalists from Houston Stewart Chamberlain to Adolf Hitler as well as audiences worldwide from Berlin to San Francisco and Tel Aviv.
Parsifal is taken from the minnesinger Wolfram Von Eschenbach’s tales of the Grail knights and their quest for that great symbol of religious enlightenment. Opposing the character Parsifal is the wicked magician Klingsor, a man so overcome by passions that he has castrated himself to remove the distraction. Parsifal is the pure youth, the personification of innocence and virtue, such that he cannot, at the beginning of the opera, recall his own name. The musician captures this innocence beautifully as she teases the youth into the scene, by chance as much as not.
Alexander Jacob’s music builds beautifully during the prelude to Scene I, where the grail knights have assembled to pray. As the score fades into the boy with his bow, and closing portions of the body and closing portions of Scene I, the tension is maintained by a soft hum of key strokes, deep and persistent, which are offset by the sharper keys forward. As the knights accept the youth Parsifal into their brotherhood, and the light of the Grail is revealed to him, the piano becomes contemplative, resounding, eternal. One is moved, imagining the mustachioed men in their keep.
As Parsifal arrives at the castle of magician Klingsor, the evil sorcerer sets a succubus to tempt the youth. Jacob’s score becomes busier, lilting softly through faster and more delicate keystrokes, musically imitating the scheming and evil mind of Klingsor. As Parsifal slips through the garden of delights unseduced, one can almost feel the beating of his heart in the persistent rhythm of the music. The seductress, Kundry, cannot seduce the youth, Parsifal, and as the magician casts the Holy Spear that pierced the side of Our Lord at the youth, a magical force intervenes and Parsifal catches it, and the castle of Klingsor crumbles into naught.
Many years later, the story continues, the Grail knights grown old. Jacob’s music continues, cautiously, his skilled fingers picking through what sounds like personally enchanting melodies on the keys. A helmeted figure arrives, bearing the spear that killed Our Lord, and it is revealed, many years later, to be Parsifal, who has never used the holy weapon to strike in anger. Deep wells of emotion arise through the score as Parsifal and the knights baptize the succubus and pray to the Lord on Good Friday. The spirit of renewal seems to pass through Jacob’s fingers; spring seems as fresh, as youthful, as it ever could. Twinkling sounds echo, everywhere.
The finale of Parsifal is no letdown. As the knight, Parsifal, pardons the grandmaster of the Grail knights for his unmentionable sin, converts the succubus, and reveals Die Graal, high overhead, for all to see. The music becomes prosaic, relaxed, as it must be for a penitent priest. The crystalline stokes of Jacob’s hands lead us through Parsifal’s baptism of the whore, to his revelation of the Grail, this final bit of wisdom- her expert hands making the terrifying journey of a knight errant seem a happy, untroubled place.
Some might contend that a Wagner opera requires a violent, exaggerated score. A man holds in his mind the score from the Flight of the Valkries. Richard Kleinmichel, who transcribed these excerpts from Parsifal to piano, however, has been able to relax out of an ancient tale of pure youth obtaining the highest spiritual accomplishments. Interpreting that scroll, the fingers of Alexander Jacob tap out the feeling of nervousness, accomplishment, and ultimately, victory through God, which is what Parsifal ultimately is, evidenced by the succubus turning into a white swan at the end of the opera.
I would highly recommend Richard Wagner: Parsifal as an interpretation of Parsifal for who seek to understand the meaning behind the Wagner opera and have inquiring minds. It transfers the bombast and grandiosity of opera into a personal narrative, both background like ambient music and intensely melodic, creating a world which immerses the listener in the feeling of both the ancient tales and the powerful opera, but does so unobtrusively like memories of a dream.
Movies like this clarify the “golden age” of movies: things were simpler, audiences less demanding and, thanks to common cultural guideposts, it was easy to write a script that fulfilled audience expectations without having to be unduly saccharine. At the same time, movies like Invisible Invaders feature boxy plots, vague mechanics and sometimes, gaping plot holes. For a low-budget sci-fi flick however it seems entertaining enough.
The reason this review pops up here on Amerika involves the setting of this movie. Earth is under attack by invisible invaders who wander around and re-animate the recently dead, using those as avatars through which they attack humanity. This trope appears in other films, as recently as Surrogates (2009) which explores how modern humans live through their avatars, but here it takes on a paranoid dimension. The invaders want earth to surrender so it can be ruled by a galactic dictatorship. Humans resist, but must overcome their own weakness in order to discover a scientific solution to the threat.
That combination of tropes — zombies plus unseen overlords — ranks this film high on the paranoid scale, and also suggests a primitive metaphorical consciousness. Crowdism seems to animate the bodies of the recently dead, or at least hopeless, and turn them into unstoppable weapons of human destruction. The rest of humanity fails at opposing it because it simply wants to give in, hand over some of its money in exchange for peace, and get back to television, beer, donuts and shopping. As in this simple little film, the answer is found in banishing doubt and tackling the problem head-on.
Perhaps this film was more influential than realized, and lived on in Star Wars or another movie using modern editing and detailed plot structure. Maybe it was forgotten except by hipsters who tromp in groups down to basements to watch this between PBR burps. Yet for someone at the height of the early Cold War, with a Communist fifth column at home and shadowy espionage abroad, it may have struck a note. The relentless sociopathy of leftists resembles the zombies in this film, and the invisible enemy — a seductive but illogical notion of equality and the method of prioritizing popularity over truth — wanting to take over the earth resembles the leftist agenda quite closely. Without adding a spoiler, perhaps the method of ultimately solving the problem is metaphorical as well as we struggle in a later time with the same dilemma in new camouflage.
Taking up the same underlying material that propelled the tales of Jesus Christ and Socrates, High Noon involves the sheriff of a small town who has just retired to get married. Most agree that he has reformed this small town and made it safe, and they want him to just sign off and ride away. Then comes news: the brother and allies of a man he put away for murder, but has been exonerated, await the arrival of this radical killer on the noon train, at which point they plan to do in the sheriff. The film takes place on one morning in the time leading up to that event.
High Noon makes for difficult watching because it transports us to another time and then metaphorically shows us the eternal human struggle: do we acknowledge reality and act on it, or retreat into the comfort of denial, narcissism, compensation, apologist and solipsism? This film ultimately takes the form of a psychological drama with most of it focused on the efforts of the sheriff to prepare for the confrontation and perhaps to find someone, anyone, who will take his side. He faces four gunslingers and any knocking down of the odds would radically increase his chance for survival. Instead, the townspeople invent a creative series of excuses: it is easier and cheaper to work with the bad guys, the job is thankless, the town is not worth it, and the odds are too bad. Somewhat shocked that the people who have benefited from his transformation of the town from an unsavory place to a successful one have nonetheless forgotten this and effectively betrayed him, the sheriff makes his will, and prepares himself to go it alone.
Expert cinematography and editing use techniques ahead of their time to increase tension in a steady upward path interrupted by many strange detours into the human mind. Gary Cooper makes the lead character complement that with his laconic, forthright and masculine character. He makes the sheriff into a character both robotic and expressive, a nervous constant searching gaze complementing his ready hands. This portrayal seems more accurate for a smart man facing multiple enemies and near certain death than the usual flippant cowboy stereotype. As critics noted at the time, nearly everyone in this movie is seating, a psychological device that enhances the tension within. This builds up to a series of combat scenes that, as far as a movie can be, are intensely realistic. Unlike most cowboy movies, the bullets here feel real, and the gunplay is not showmanship but lethal intent. Each character works systematically to act as programmed, drawing the movie toward is deadly conclusion.
Characters in this film — and it is ultimately a cinematic book, where story drives visuals and not the other way around — struggle with the tensions of human life in a way that shows how frustratingly simple and broken we are. The new wife who turned Quaker to be pacifistic after her brother and father were killed must decided whether having a good outcome is worth an evil method, and whether evil can be banished by method (non-violence) at all. The townspeople who acknowledge that the sheriff has saved the town from being a criminal wasteland, but want to believe that nothing needs to be done except absorbing a few costs created by these criminals. The deputy enraged by his own cowardice, lashing out at the sheriff for making all of them look bad by not knuckling down to be a good cuck chicken-man. Finally, the sheriff himself, aware that he is not wired in a way that allows him to ignore imminent evil, and giving himself to his fate with grim determination even as there is little chance he will survive.
Published at the height of the Korean War, High Noon served as a reminder that people would rather sacrifice truth for convenience, and it takes rare and uncivilized men to reverse that — and that these men are our only hope. While the useful idiots, armchair critics and chattering neurotics of the suburbs will always prefer inaction and making deals with the devil to confronting evil head-on, the path to destruction begins with those steps, and no matter how it is justified as prudent, moral, pragmatic, pacifistic or compassionate, such behavior is always the same thing: cowardice. Resonant with truth of human behavior as told in a setting that is both comfortably removed and yet wove into our DNA in the West, High Noon teaches the point of Socrates and Jesus that reality is not optional and cowardice is death.
Generally, documentaries are best avoided because they tend to be emotionally manipulative, swing left and wax boring. Beyond Clueless avoids most of that with an in-depth look at the duality of teenage life: public versus private personae, and sexual release versus awareness of the adultness that sex brings into life, perhaps too early.
Narrated by Fairuza Balk (The Craft) the documentary samples from dozens of teen films from the 1980s through the present day, tackling five sub-topics which overlapping generally distill to the two ideas mentioned above. Balk gives a convincing voice-over that is periodically excruciating, but more frequently profound. When it is over-written it ends in disaster but for the most part it stays functional and avoids this.
Where this film excels is in de-mystifying the teenage movie as a means of de-mystifying the teenage experience, and by showing so many Hollywood films in sequence, it reveals the emptiness of the Hollywood vision, which is centered around sex as EnlightenmentTM, and the destructiveness of the teenage tendency to fix on high school as a permanent rather than transient experience, and to expect social role — including sexual power — to substitute for self-development. This occurs through accidental or deliberate juxtaposition of multiple scenes revealing the emptiness of the thinking behind them, and explorations which leave out more than they say, then hit the viewer with so many repeated and similar visions as to reduce the symbol of that visual to a clich&eacuate; in contrast to its presentation as profound, stimulating and important. Beyond Clueless reduces teenage rituals like sex, proms, defiance and clique-jumping to rote animal behaviors. This in turn deprograms viewers by debunking the cinematic mystique.
Balk provides an excellent job of narrating with natural enunciation and a lack of over-acting, which makes her rise above the normal documentary standard of over-emphasizing emotion and making the experience miserable as a result. While Beyond Clueless may not be as exciting as some films, it seems much improved over the horrific dreck that is passed off as coming-of-age movies and from which, unfortunately, many teenagers get their expectations for their own behavior and moral choices. Without being preachy, this documentary reveals the emptiness of the illusion and implies the importance of finding a center within to resist peer pressure, social competition and other nonsense that merely serves to scar these kids on their way into adulthood.
Some movies one chooses to entertain. Some one chooses to feel profound. Others are chosen because they take a grim reality and make a kind of beauty of it. Something, Anything looks into the void of modern life from a passive perspective, and absent two major flaws, evokes what more of us should be thinking about, and what is gratifying to see clarified in such a striking way.
The film centers on Margaret Montgomery, a recently-married woman with a job in real-estate who starts to have doubts about… well, everything. Her husband is distant because he views her as a means to an end, her job is directed at personal profit at the expense of others, and her friends view her as a social distraction or dolls for their own manipulative playhouses. The result is that in the midst of much activity, Margaret is completely alone. When a life-changing event comes her way, she scoots out of the disaster and retreats to a solitary life with a relatively menial job, small apartment and simple schedule. At the same time, she is distracted by a letter from a monk, who writes what may be the only authentic sentiment she hears in the film, and becomes fascinated by the monastic lifestyle, even discarding most of her worldly possessions in order to get better clarity in her own mind. The film contrasts external freedom, with money/job/popularity, to internal freedom or the ability to know oneself and through that, to be able to see the world clearly.
The film possesses two fatal flaws. The first is its Christian tendency which would not be offensive except in that it directs the film toward a pity object, namely English as a Second Language (ESL) classes, which is another form of grotesque empathy for the third world that lost white Christians use to convince themselves they have found meaning. The second is the ending, which relies on broad strokes of a brush in a film that has made a point of evading those in favor of introspection, but this is understandable as it is very difficult to convey internal development onto the screen. These glitches drop this movie from a recommendation to a passing phenomenon, because otherwise it perfectly portrays the emptiness and false choices of an externalized modern life, in a cross between Steppenwolf and Office Space.
Something, Anything is not a happy film. It is a film about how we fail to do any soul-searching, and make ourselves into plastic cutouts that stumble through life reacting to perceived needs without any knowledge of why we do these things and thus no ability to appreciate them. Like the best of modernity-critical works, it shows us how people essentially use each other as means to an end, and how there is never a goal beyond personal desires and it is suffocating people. Filmed sparsely and with deliberate attention to minimalistic detail, the film is visually beautiful and accurately represents the brainless emptiness of this time in a way that channels the viewer toward wanting to demand more instead of simply laughing, burping and purchasing something else to distract the numb brain for another few hours.
Based on Graham Greene’s most famous book, The Quiet American uses tandem plotlines to reveal a metaphor. Set in Viet Nam before the French withdrawal, the plot centers around an American who arrives and befriends the locals, then starts to seize both power and the wife of a friend. It shows the vitality of America — at that time it was still alive — contrasted to the senility and squalor of the European soul, while the impassive and fatalistic Asiatics watch on from the sidelines. It also reveals the American method of taking power in the name of helping those who will soon be ruled.
The Hollywood types insist on casting this film as somehow being about seduction, when in fact as in the book, the plot involves the opposite: Alden Pyle, a “quiet American,” arrives in Viet Nam with a cover story of working in a medical mission and a secret identity as a CIA operative. He begins to plan a coup to deliver the country from what he sees as its twin evils of decrepit French rule and sadistic Communist murderers. The plot unfolds through the eyes of the protagonist, a journalist named Thomas Fowler, who is equal parts personally dysfunctional and credulous when it comes to certain sacred illusions that he holds. As he and Pyle rampage through pre-war Saigon, they compete for the attention of Fowler’s Vietnamese lover, Phuong. Eventually ideological and romantic differences split the two friends, culminating in an act of betrayal that mirrors European cackling delight in American foreign policy failures.
While the metaphor seems heavy-handed, it plays out deftly through unexpected but mundane events, courtesy of the unpressured and wily storytelling of Greene’s book. Unlike most Hollywood films, this one stays on task and avoids both being random and repetitive, which moves the plot along unobtrusively so that its most intense moments can stand out as being as shocking as they would be in real life. Brendan Fraser portrays an excellent Pyle, both boyishly well-intentioned and duplicitous like a 1950s teenage hoodlum on the make. Michael Caine, who must have his agent read 10,000 scripts a year in every known genre of film so he can pick challenging parts without regard to category, portrays Fowler accurately as a somewhat fuzzy-headed journalist who is barely able to escape the disaster of his own personal life, and consequently who finds hope and interest in external events that he will not permit for himself. The filmmakers distill this complex book into an hour and forty minutes of film, set in richly saturated color and decadent ruins of once-elegant French homes. While it lacks the clear moral lines that moviegoers enjoy, it reveals a moral depth in multiple directions that opens up possibilities for new ways to reflect on life, self-discipline and politics all at once.
This movie comes from the horrible genre that hybridizes the ordinary film with atmospheric music videos where the main point seems to be the lyrics of the pointlessly generic alt-rock songs. Despite that, which adds about a half-hour of utter dreck — both musically and in storyline — to this film, The Lifeguard makes a singular point: what we think of as adulthood is not what adulthood actually is.
Centered around the type of single-pivotal-event plot that has been trendy since the 1990s, this film focuses on a journalist who leaves behind her city life to go back to her hometown eleven years after high school ended. Now 29, she seeks escape back into the idyllic and simple world of her job as a lifeguard, her friend group who spent all their time just hanging out and getting loaded, and having someone impossibly impractical to fall in love with. She re-creates this lifestyle, only to have it slowly confine her and reveal its own emptiness, as contrasted to the pointless emptiness of the lives that everyone older than 18 has taken on because they think that this is the way people are supposed to act. Eventually, a non sequitur of an event provides the blasting cap to this fertile dynamite and the illusion unravels, and she goes back to the city and her friends go back to their lives, but with one crucial difference: they now realize that appearance of adulthood is destructive, where the real thing is more nuanced.
The movie peaks with this line:
Look, Jason’s been through enough in his life already.
Real problems. You get me?
This thing with the lifeguard — things happen.
Keep moving or die.
Much like the immortal lines “You’re a white suburban punk, just like me,” from a movie of greater importance, these key lines reveal the fundamental message here: adults are horrible because they get caught up in non-reality and invent fake problems out of it, when what must really be done is clear only when the fog of conformity passes. In this case, the fog of conformity consists of obligations that the best friends of the protagonist Leigh can perform but realize are empty, despite dedicating their lives to them. Leigh, as the high school valedictorian who now retreats home in failure, finds herself having failed in the adult world by having treated it too much like the image of an adult, while not paying attention to her inner voice demanding more from life than the obligatory career. There is also a painfully obvious symbol in there that is excessively emotional, but caters to Leigh’s vision of herself near the start of the movie. The film itself relies on the aforementioned music videos, lots of porny explicit sex, and an abundance of scenes of 30-somethings partying with teens in a melange of images that can be safely slept through because the point is made with the first scene in every case. As with most modern movies, the problem is that to convey an idea it must be distilled to something that can fit in a single Twitter tweet, but a movie cannot fully expand from such a simple point and so much of this movie is well-filmed but uncompelling filler.
While the acting in this is not terrible, it also will win no awards because the scenes are too obvious to permit nuance. Polish/Scottish-American Kristen “Dead Eyes” Bell manages the lead role well, but has too much of a studious and detail-intensive approach to performance that misses any kind of human spark. Ironically, a film about how being a good study-buddy is a failure hires a study-buddy for the lead role. Other actors, including the comically-named Mamie Gummer (a descendant of the Streep dyansty) perform well but are given gunk for lines because every scene is obvious and most are repetitive of previous scenes (with a music video between). The struggle this film faces is that it is cut from genre template, and so it has to conform to the kind of mind-numbingly obvious patterns that render any spontaneity dead so that every person in an average audience, even the fundamentally blockheaded, can understand it. This trashes any recommendation from sensible people to go see this film. It would be better as a micro-short story:
Leigh lived in a cubicle punching out the clock work. She saw how cages kill, so obsessed by nostalgia she returned to her lovely, green, leafy, pleasant hometown. There she found her old friends stagnant too. They started smoking weed and drinking beer with the local kids, but could not catch the vibe. They had matured past it, but what they matured into did not work either. They demonstrated hipness but frustration came from within. Everyone says naughty words a lot and the sex is really porny. Then, something big happened and everyone used their big people swear words twice as frequently. They saw the emptiness of nostalgia, and also the emptiness of conformity, so quit conforming and got on with adult life. There were also indie rock videos that demonstrate how rock music is entirely forgettable except that people like the lyrics because they make them feel validated. I hope I never have to see this film again. Amen.
What makes this film rise above background hum is its insight regarding adulthood. Nostalgia is horse feces; well, so also is pointless conformity to expectations that do not produce reward, says this film. It almost feels like an Ayn Rand-style capitalist jihad to remove all activities which do not produce immediate results in self-interest, simply because that indicator — return on investment — usually separates the pointless political activities from that one-tenth of human energy expenditure that is actually necessary. The Lifeguard will win no classic status, nor is it really worth watching. But it makes one point well and we will all be fortunate if that one is assimilated into popular culture. Unfortunately, it obeys the observation I have had about mass-culture movies trying to be critical of mass culture, which is that they either must end in returning to the herd or by destroying everything. The Lifeguard takes the former path, unconvincingly.
It is almost impossible to screw up a documentary about one of the most iconic movies in history, but this team managed to bungle it by appealing to audience feelings instead of telling the story. For some background, Night of the Living Dead (1968) achieved many movie industry firsts: a low-budget film from Pittsburgh, focused on the yet-untrendy topic of zombies, with an African-American actor, and no particularly positive message.
In theory, Birth of the Living Dead tells the story of the creation of this film, but it runs into trouble when it reaches beyond that. The thirty minutes of this film that consists of interviews with director George Romero and others associated with the film, often as voice-overs on scenes from the movie, tell a very compelling story and are well-done. On top of that the movie-makers heap numerous experts, both black and white, who tell a politically correct version of the story… over and over again, without adding anything substantial. The documentarians are reduced to filming one local cinema expert during his day job as a teacher as he instructs some not very bright kids from Philadelphia in the ways of horror films, and then allows them to be interviewed for lengthy answers consisting of reuse of the same nine words in different orders. Most sensible viewers will shut off their brains halfway through this documentary because of this fluff content, but owing to its political safety (and the risk of being seen as disliking it), will just keep churning through despite the bulk of the documentary being less interesting than a washing machine commercial.
One interesting aspect came from the discussion with Romero about the thesis of this documentary, which is that Night of the Living Dead reflected the political and social upheaval of the late 1960s. Romero chose his words carefully, and then apparently never spoke of it again, forcing the documentarians to incorporate the following text:
I think mostly that the 60s didn’t work.
We thought we had changed the world or were part of some sort of a reform that was going to make things better.
And all of a sudden it wasn’t any better. It wasn’t any different.
In liberal SJW hipster land, it is still rebellious to talk about how you do not notice race, despite plenty of evidence that this is a social conceit and nothing more, and that people of all races prefer honest noticing. In the land of brain-dead Baby Boomers, saying the same thing over and over again is acceptable if you have the right thing to say, and the audience is expected to pay attention to you because it is the right thing to do. But the point these people have missed is what Romero was subtly attempting to tell them: our world has been taken over by zombies, who have given their brains to whatever socially-acceptable trend is in power, and they are coming to destroy the brains of those who are not infected. In particular, zombies resemble the revolutionaries and leftists of the world who claim their ideas are “liberated” and “enlightened” but then swarm and destroy anyone who does not surrender to agreement. In this way, whether he knew it or not, Romero rose above his time and revealed the actual essence of the 1960s which was mass conformity in the name of non-conformity and destruction of social order as a means of avoiding confronting the real problems of society and the unpopular (and thus invisible) solutions to them.
Night of the Living Dead remains a cinematic classic; the documentary about it from 45 years later will be remembered for a few great lines from George Romero, some interesting trivia about the film, and then lots of bathroom and smoke breaks while the politically correct propaganda wound down. Otherwise, this documentary is a waste. Most of the screen time consists of entirely irrelevant material, and the interviews that were conducted were either sparse or erratic and produced a lack of really good material beyond the obvious stuff that supports the thesis of the documentarians. While the internet raved over this film and rated it highly, the reality is that the documentarians and the fans of this documentary are the zombies and Romero rather wisely did not let them far into his confidence, making for a boring and relatively uninformative documentary.
Television chooses its own audience: the witless prospers and the wise disappears, and the case of The Assets is no different. Released in 2014, the show has disappeared from the site of its producer and most movie review sites, yet remains one of the most insightful and compelling narratives unleashed onto the small screen. Portraying realistic spycraft and situations, this show focuses on CIA agent Aldrich Hazen Ames and his decision to become a double agent for the Soviet Union in 1985, passing CIA secrets to his controllers in Moscow.
Filmed in eight episodes of approximately 45 minutes each, the show efficiently tells the complex story of Ames, a CIA case agent with drinking problems and a failed first marriage. When in Mexico, he meets a Colombian woman, Rosario Casas Dupuy, and brings her back to the United States where they get married. Spurred on by the agency’s failure to recognize his self-alleged brilliance and Rosario’s compulsive spending, Ames meets with KGB agents and begins to sell them CIA secrets. When they demand higher quality information in exchange for the type of money he desires, he delivers to them the complete files on every Russian working for the CIA from within the Soviet bureaucracy. Such people were called assets, and most of them were summarily executed. As this process shocks the CIA, a case officer named Sandy Grimes assembles a team to locate the source of the leaks by determining whether it was a communications failure, sloppy tradecraft or a human intelligence failing that allowed the most massive leak in CIA history to occur. It takes her and the team another nine years, interrupted by bureaucratic bungles, to gather enough evidence to first ascertain that Ames is the leak and second to enable his prosecution.
The Assets suffers for being a brainy show with a brainy topic that will not be appreciated by most Americans who currently want to deny that the Cold War existed because we are both heading toward an ideological rigor like the Soviets, and also having the same problems that reduced that empire to rubble. In addition, people do not like television that struggles with a lack of moral ambiguity and points to life as a greater struggle than for personal achievements that glorify the individual. These officers sacrifice much of their lives in the belief that they are doing something good, including some of the assets especially Dimitri Polyakov, a highly-placed asset who loathed his government and resisted it by giving — without asking for money in return — information to the West. No car chases or glamorous overseas work intrudes on what is a basic narrative of hunter and quarry, but The Assets raises questions of allegiance and morality that resonate throughout all eight episodes. Its portrayal of tradecraft looks accurate and emphasizes the long hours and evasive tactics of spies, and it pulls no punches and refuses to re-write history when it comes to Soviet treatment of those they capture, including ad hoc executions. As a result, this is both a grimly real and highly emotional portrayal of an intricate and deadly game, balancing scenes of intense and compactly-written dialogue with atmospheric intrusions into the lives and personalities of the people involved. In the process, it tells the story of several great friendships, a clash between different empires, and the struggle of individuals to do what they see as right despite overwhelming odds.
Some may complain that this series reveals the Soviets to be brutal and calculating, but it also portrays some of their greatest moments in the strategic calculus of espionage. In addition, while individual Americans are shown as highly principled and thoughtful people, and the CIA is in general cast in the best light, the bureaucracy and complacency of the West also take center stage and show how grindingly slowly this investigation went — with several interruptions — as a result of bureaucracy and public image wrangling that ultimately served no one but the enemy. If any theme can be assigned to this series, it is the primacy of individual morally-inspired action against the brutality of dictatorships and glacial timorousness of bureaucracies alike. The cinematography takes a relatively straightforward approach, halfway between a documentary and a classic film, but the editing takes over by reducing shots to the shortest duration necessary. That technique creates a compelling energy to the process of the story by giving each moment its due without becoming overly focused on any single part of the narrative. The result is a story that draws in the viewer, conveys factual detail and procedure very well, then explodes to an emotional conclusion as all the pieces fall into place and the story arc completes itself. It is a shame this series did not get more attention as it uncovers one of the more interesting stories from a vital period in recent history.
You can already guess how this movie ends simply by reading the premise:
A young woman who works for a giant soulless corporation is tasked with infiltrating an anarchist network of ecoterrorists. The writers thus have about 120 minutes to convince us why she would want to give up a bland but reliable boyfriend and an exciting job to continue eating out of garbage cans with social pariahs until she’s thrown in prison for twenty years or more, after which she’ll spend her remaining days refusing entry into Walmart to people who forgot to put on shoes. There’s no rule that says you have to surprise your audience to be a great storyteller. The authors succeed at the only meaningful goal any artist can have, which is to leave an impact on your audience.
Despite a budget of $6.5m the movie yielded only $2.4m. Those who funded the project arguably made a miscalculation in that the American public simply isn’t ready to side with a gang of ecoterrorists. Whenever this topic is addressed, it is generally with thick layers of romanticism (Avatar) or testosterone infused nihilism (Fight Club). Honesty is this film’s greatest virtue: the authors do not hide behind irony, edgy metaphors and sleep deprivation induced mental disorders that leave them with a plausible escape route to proclaim that we have all completely misunderstood the film. The authors take their stand in act as well as deed and we’re free to take it or leave it, a kind of courage not a lot of people have when it comes to a topic like this.
The first reason you should watch this film is because it shows you what we’re missing. The main characters have lives that are filled with hard but meaningful struggle. They depend not on the outside world but on each other. Together they unlearn the values we were taught by modern civilization. This movie shows what makes religious cults, anarchist communes and other social experiments so appealing: participants become part of new tribes. Individuals in these situations meet people who are similar to them and with whom they can be honest to and share everything with. This is the exact opposite of modern Western society where we are all isolated from each other, as studies now show that a quarter of all Americans have nobody to confide in.
The second reason to watch this film is because it happens to ask the right questions. We’re horrified by violence and terrorism, but why exactly? If you happen to be poor and someone decides to dump toxic waste into your community that will eventually give some people cancer, is that violence? Why are we more horrified by deaths from terrorism than deaths from air pollution? Why are we more horrified by deaths caused by political statements and sheer hatred, than deaths caused by greed and indifference?
There exists a social class within Western society that benefits from maintaining a narrow definition of violence. These plutocrats propagate Nietzsche’s slave morality. If your child dies from leukemia because your land has been turned into a chemical waste dump, these propagators of the slave morality expect that you will write letters, to them, the local media and twitter accounts, in the hope that your outrage over your violation succeeds at stealing attention from some other outrage. If you’re really audacious, you’re even allowed to start a lawsuit against them and settle out of court, trading your dignity for thirty pieces of silver in the process.
As Nietzsche noted, the monster really doesn’t mind when you fight against it by its own rules because that helps it to assimilate you. In the process of your Pyrrhic victory you have taken on its culture and its values and became personally invested in its success because it is now what guarantees you victory. Look into the mirror, see the monster staring back at you. When you’re checking on your cell phone how much further the SP 500 has to rise before you can retire to your permaculture farm, you might just notice a tiny little smirk in the mirror.