The Village at the End of the World

The Village at the End of the World (2012) (Available on UK Netflix) is set over the course of a year in the remote village of Niaqornat in Northern Greenland with only 59 inhabitants (and more dogs than people). The role of the wandering seeker is played by the audience and we are given a more intimate portrait of the people whose lives we are peering into, their quirks, aspirations and their anxieties about being left behind in a world that is changing around them. Young people in this place are faced early on with the realisation that their options in in the wider world are limited unless they leave their traditional life behind and the older generation are faced with an increasing reliance on industry over subsistence.

It is a common set-up, almost clichéd, and milked by Hollywood in such saccharine piffle as Avatar, but Niaqort is a real village and the people there have real lives, they are not empty vessels moulded into a simple morality tale that will tug at our guilt-ridden first-world heart-strings. We are also invited to confront our own hypocrisies about our romanticisation of the ‘simpler’ life. Ominous music plays as the chief hunter of the village pulls a slain narwal from the water and we are shown hunters pulling a polar bear pelt from their sled and proudly showing it off. Our instinctive disapproval of this treatment of these animals (particularly iconic ones for the green movement) tells us perhaps more about ourselves than it does about those who conduct this practice with far more respect and restraint than we do at the local supermarket where we buy more than we need and throw away disturbing quantities of useable food. One hunter remarks “in the city you cannot get anything without buying it” so it is worth questioning which practices deserve more disapproval.

These two films, one about escaping to a simpler world, the other about trying to maintain it and, for some, having to reluctantly leave it behind, are worth watching in tandem. Our romantic notions of simplicity, admirable though they may be, are just as valuable as a form of self-analysis, a way to check our own naiveties and understand where we fit into a world more interconnected than our lofty notions of escape give it credit for.

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On Netflix Now: Print the Legend

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Every generation manufactures a new batch of revolutionaries, some are built to last, and most are not.

Print the Legend captures this harsh truth well, demonstrating just how fraught with peril the odyssey of following your dreams is, the threat of failure and obsolescence a constant menace.

The 2014 documentary, recently released on Netflix, explores the much exclaimed “next revolution”: 3D printing.

Instead of focusing on the technology itself, Print the Legend chooses to examine the companies and individuals competing with one another for supremacy within the industry: the big incumbent, 3D Systems; creative upstarts, MakerBot and Formlabs; and fringe operator Cody Wilson of Defense Distributed.

Viewing the topic from this angle shows just how much ambition, media hype and illusion are tangled up together in the emerging world of 3D printing.

Entrepreneurs have entered popular mythology as folk heroes, largely as a creation of a media narrative, which doesn’t just characterise them as capable business people, but as individuals who “change the world” – a grandiose phrase already overripe for satire.

3D printing has not escaped this theme: Bre Pettis co-founder and former CEO of MakerBot has been heroically featured on the cover of technology magazines as the courier of a new era, and anti-hero Cody Wilson, who manufactures 3D printed guns has been named as “one of the most dangerous people in the world”.

Print the Legend calmly peers beyond these manic depictions of infallibility and instead reveals just how fragile the players in this nascent industry really are.

The entrepreneurs profiled in the documentary are hardcore dreamers, their minds in constant negotiation with reality, as they try to realize their visions, obstructed by technological setbacks and often each other.

Success is certainly not assured and they all know it.

Are friendships and ideological principles strong enough to survive the brutal struggle for survival?

Not necessarily, as Print the Legend astutely observes.

The film will, as the filmmakers intended, serve as a valuable time capsule of the early days of 3D printing.

And as a mausoleum for the deceased dreams of the future.

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Featured Image Credit: Flickr

On Netflix Now: Happy

On Netflix Now is a new series, which reviews dramatic feature films and documentaries currently on Netflix.

There can be few subjects for a documentary more fundamental than human happiness and how to achieve it. While the exact conditions that promote happiness are different for every human being on the planet, the concept itself (whatever it represents to the individual) and the neurological processes that it entails are universal. Happy (2011) dares to tackle all of these facets, examining the psychology and neurology, as well as introducing us to a variety of individuals across the world and pointing a microcosmic lens at their lives to reveal some (perhaps unsurprisingly) consistent truths about this often elusive state of being.

The scientific aspect is quite fascinating and it is strangely comforting to see that, after centuries of focusing on pathology and the many and various causes of unhappiness, an increasing number of psychologists and researchers are focusing specifically on happiness. This newer shift in focus comes across as a repudiation of the Epicurean principle that happiness is the absence of pain and the maximisation of pleasure, a now very antiquated take on the subject which suggests all that is necessary to be happy is to prolong a state of idiotic blissful abandon, be it through drugs, food, sex or other means (unsurprisingly Epicurean communities were defined by a certain kind of simplistic hedonism).

Happy – A Documentary Trailer from Wadi Rum Films on Vimeo.

This raises a minor weakness of the film which is that no real attention was given to what exactly we mean by happiness. Though it focuses on very specific neurochemical processes, it lacks a philosophical unpacking of the term ‘happy’ (despite the title of the piece!). If there had been it could have raised an interesting discussion around the difference between happiness, joy and fulfilment (not the same things). This is a minor quibble, as it is fleshed out to an extent by the focus on individuals.

Another important aspect is the promotion of “flow”. We spend many waking (and sometimes sleeping) hours ruminating on problems and lost in thought but, as any Buddhist will tell you, the way to escape from this is to separate yourself from your thoughts. Meditation is a well-known means to achieve this, but, as the film explains, and as is intuitively obvious to anyone who has experienced it, this state can be achieved by any challenging or enjoyable task that requires us to focus on it, be it exercise, art, cooking. Even filing, it doesn’t matter – but we all need to quiet our minds somehow.

The real beauty of this film lies in the vignettes of disparate individual lives across the world, from the Bayous of Louisiana to the island of Okinawa, and the subtle synchronicity that builds up between these people who have never met one another. I first watched this film around the time I was undergoing an enormous transition from a hectic urban lifestyle in London to a simpler existence, so the philosophical continuity between these different lives resonated a great deal for me. Happiness itself is achieved through fairly simple means; family, friends, exercise, nature and activities that promote flow, but fitting all these things into our lives that have become so complex can itself be, ironically, a complicated task.

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Featured Image Credit: “Lyrisches” by Wassily Kandinsky

On Netflix Now: Pandora’s Promise

 

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(Available on US and UK Netflix)

You need only scan through the Netflix documentary section to find films predicting, warning of or suggesting preparations and interventions against impending catastrophe, be it environmental, celestial, military, economic or just plain silly (e.g. “When Aliens Attack”). The rarer breed is the investigative piece that implores the viewer to cool their boots about a normally loaded topic that so many people worry about already.

Pandora’s Promise (2013) opens with the testimonials of a series of environmentalists, academics and minor celebrities who formerly aligned themselves with the anti-nuclear lobby, describing how their minds came to be changed. Largely, their previous vocal anti-nuclear convictions were informed by emotions and cultural biases about all things ‘atomic’ or ‘nuclear’. It goes on to describe what went wrong at Three-Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima, how modern reactors work and their relative safety and efficiency with regard to older reactor designs and other forms of power generation.

The film subverts cultural norms in several respects. First, we are invited to consider that ‘environmental’ movements are not saintly and beyond reproach by default. The increased recognition of global warming and the seemingly noble sentiments of movements such as Greenpeace have created a culture where pro-environmental lobbies (in this case in its anti-nuclear incarnation) are given a free pass when it comes to who is more likely to be in possession of the true facts and/or which side is more likely to manipulate them for their own ends. While Pandora’s Promise does not attack environmental causes per se (indeed it aligns itself with a certain element of them) it does encourage you to take a deeper look at the personalities and egos involved. Australian activist, Helen Caldicott, for example is called to task in the film for her exaggerated death-toll figures among other factual blunders, which go largely accepted as they appeal to the cultural zeitgeist around nuclear energy.

Second, we are encouraged to reflect on our own convictions about nuclear power and how we came to them. There is such a wealth of cultural symbolism evoked when somebody uses words like ‘nuclear’, ‘atomic’, ‘reactor’ etc. Images of radiation signs, mushroom clouds, missiles and post-apocalyptic wastelands flash before the eyes. When we consider that the power to split the atom was discovered at the end of the Second World War, just in time to weaponize it and use it on two Japanese cities, and the start of the Cold War, setting the scene for several decades of eschatological anxiety. The conflation of nuclear energy with nuclear weaponry was not helped by the meltdown at Chernobyl, an antiquated reactor that used unstable technology designed for weaponry. The popular culture hype machine perpetuated this further with films such as China Syndrome (1979) (the buzz around which is given considerable attention in Pandora’s Promise), which was based on a theory that a reactor could melt through the Earth all the way to China, a ludicrous notion (not least because China is not actually on the opposite side of the world from the US). Nuclear energy has no real cultural identity in itself beyond its association with apocalyptic weaponry.

I am limited in my ability to comment on the scientific aspects of Pandora’s Promise as I am not an expert in particle physics, but it makes for compelling viewing even if only to broaden the mind and cause you to question your own anxieties and convictions and even, perhaps, to level the playing field for a more rational discussion.

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On Netflix Now: BoJack Horseman

On Netflix Now is a new series, which reviews dramatic feature films and documentaries currently on Netflix.

BoJack Horseman defies precise anatomical description, not just the titular character who appears to be some kind of undefined anthropomorphized equine species, but also the broader universe he inhabits with similar biological oddities; within a unique thematic hybrid of psychosis, jest and self-loathing.

BoJack HorsemanIn this surreal, animated world, which uncannily resembles modern-day Hollywood, non-humans and humans mingle together as equals. BoJack Horseman, a washed up actor, has a feline agent with sharp claws and pink fur called “Princess Caroline”; BoJack’s love interest, Diane Ngyuen, is a shy, caustic human dating BoJack’s arch-nemesis, an eager, slightly dim-witted labrador who goes by the name “Mr Peanut Butter”.

Devising the characters as such is an inspired piece of comedic innovation. It’s fantastically funny to observe the bizarre human/animal combinations which serve as constant visual accompaniments to every scene: at a glamorous party, the viewer’s amused eye slips over a tsetse fly in a cocktail dress, and worker ants dutifully carrying equipment on a film set.

It’s also a device by which to make perceptive social commentary. In one scene, a hectoring news anchor takes the form of a sperm whale with a cavernous, flapping mouth.

Though the characters’ external appearance may be unusual, their interior lives are all too familiar. In the first season, BoJack’s is consumed with anxiety and self-doubt. His acting career has plateaued since he played the starring role in a hit television series in the 80s called Horsin’ Around. In the eighteen years since the show’s cancellation he hasn’t been up to very much. Caught between two competing personas: BoJack, the much-loved television star and Bojack the idle has-been, he struggles to define himself and his place in the world. The twelve episodes of season one chart his often ill fated attempts to court public admiration and reestablish himself

Slightly unusual subject matter for comedy, although comparisons with Woody Allen wouldn’t be amiss.

It is perhaps this melancholy element, however, that lifts Bojack Horseman above more obvious comparisons with the gag-like humour of Family Guy, for instance.

It has Family Guy’s sharp wit, but unlike Family Guy it doesn’t quite go in for the kill with its lead character and instead chooses to hang back sympathetically.

The overall result is more tragic-comic ballad than just plain drollery.

Perhaps the only real criticism that can be leveled at BoJack Horseman is that for all its character novelty, the moral conclusion it arrives at (and I won’t reveal it here) by the end of the first season is not particularly new or interesting. The predictability of it feels a little flat.

But not fatal.

The originality of the show still leaves a pleasant afterglow. All of the other brilliant quirks lingering happily in the mind afterwards

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Featured Image Credit: Netflix