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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On Netflix Now: Days of Heaven

Continued from On Netflix Now: Henry Ford: American Experience 

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Starring a young Richard Gere in the lead role as the itinerant worker “Bill”, Days of Heaven tells the tale of him and two companions who, whilst performing seasonal agricultural labour in the Texas Panhandle, meet a wealthy commercial farmer who develops romantic feelings for Bill’s girlfriend “Abby” (Brooke Adams). After finding out that The Farmer (his name is never revealed) is terminally ill, Bill convinces Abby to trick him into marrying her, so she can inherit his money once he dies.

Abby does so, but things become complicated when she begins to fall in love with The Farmer. A jealous rivalry erupts between the two men with deadly consequences.

Days of Heaven is famous for its magnificent imagery: the work of the late master cinematographer, Nestor Almendros (1930-1932). Each shot feels deliberate and meditative, composed artfully like a painting. Wide angle shots of the open plains of frontier America accurately evoke the pioneer spirit of the time.

One of the most distinctive features of the film is the toneless narration by Linda Manz who plays Bill’s fifteen year old sister “Linda”. Speaking in a thick Chicago accent, Linda invites the viewer to peer into the world as she sees it, an indigent life filled with dreary tasks and daily efforts to survive.

Indeed Linda, Abby and Bill seem closer to the earth than The Farmer whose efficient operation uses their bodies to ruthlessly extract from it. Throughout the film, they are often pictured alongside wild animals who inhabit the grasslands with them. Malick hints at the savage context of their being, which seems closer to the want and desperation of beasts than the comfortable affluent life of The Farmer who has left that struggle behind.

But even so, despite his cool, enlightened personality, when challenged by a covetous Bill, The Farmer finds he is not above violent means of survival.

The films examines the sharp disjunct in modern life between the sacred and the profrane. The better angels of our nature compromised constantly by the brutes.

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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: Henry Ford: American Experience

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

Scientific progress has wrenched us from our shackles to nature. Though human beings are of the earth, we are not entirely subject to it. In fact, we make every effort possible to transcend it.

Over the course of the last one hundred years we have advanced ever further from the pastoral lives of our agrarian forebears, whose simplicity appears quaint and remote to the urbanized mind of today’s homo urbanus. Mechanised systems and structures govern his thought processes and moral landscape. Thomas Hobbes’s brutal state of nature, where “all battle all”, has been carefully concreted over with rational systems of law, commerce, politics, transport and medicine.

However, as stubborn green weeds occasionally force their way through the cracks in the pavement, so the antediluvian aspects of the human psyche resist all attempts to subdue such.

Mankind may have replaced galloping hooves with faster forms of transport powered by combustion engines, but he can never fully outpace himself. He is forever pursued by his own animal lust, the desire to compete, to kill and to exercise dominion over the weak.

Two films on Netflix now explore this frustrated tussle with nature.

Both set in the early twentieth century, Days of Heaven (1978) and Henry Ford: American Experience (2012) examine the origins of our displacement from a pastoral existence to a metropolitan one.

It was men like the entrepreneur Henry Ford who directed humanity along this inexorable course of action.

PBS’s documentary of his illustrious life is both extensive and informative. An honest analysis of a brilliant but complicated man whose creative abilities were matched only by his tyrannical tendencies.

The two hour film follows a traditional biographical format, comprising archival footage and voice over narration; beginning with his early life and career to his later successes and failures.

Ford’s death at eighty-four makes this a long, complex story, which requires a significant time commitment from the viewer, but it is deftly told and doesn’t drag at all, with surprising bits of information that keep your attention.

Though forward thinking in many ways, Ford was primitive in his dealings with others. He thought little of draconian displays of pure bestial force.

Implacably convinced of his moral superiority, he attempted to impose his puritanical ideas on society. He published and distributed anti-Semitic material, devised real life sociological experiments with poor Brazilian villagers in the jungle and cruelly berated his son Edsel Ford, President of the Ford Motor Company, whose drinking and smoking habits Ford abhorred.

As a business owner, he created a steep pyramid structure at the Ford Motor Company with himself in sole position at the top. He answered to nobody and everybody was answerable to him. During times of labour unrest at the factory he condoned violent putdowns of strikes and refused to negotiate with unions or employees.

He also believed his iconic Ford Model T to be the pinnacle of automotive innovation and viciously blocked attempts by his son to modernize the company.

This tension between the two Fords: futurist inventor and primal subjugator is the most fascinating theme explored in the documentary.

It ends with a thoughtful pause in the Brazilian jungle, the camera poring over dense thickets of wild vegetation, the inscrutable natural world that Ford did so much to tame, but was unable to conquer in himself.

Terence Malick’s critically acclaimed drama Days of Heaven (1978) covers roughly the same period of history, but is located at the other end of the economic spectrum: the uncertain world of American labour in 1916… (read more)

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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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