Theranos and the Big Lie

On Alex Gibney’s The Inventor

From NYT obit, 3/29/2019

“ I try to keep a certain level of quality of my films. I don’t do commercials, I don’t do films pre-prepared by other people, I don’t do star system. So I do my own little thing.”

–Agnes Varda

For someone to provide Errol Morris’ extraordinary footage of Elizabeth Holmes and her Theranos dream of blood-based lab work easily done in every home to Alex Gibney has resulted in the best Errol Morris film Morris never made. This gift to Gibney is not unlike the gift to Werner Herzog of the remarkable footage shot by Timothy Treadwell before he died, attacked by a grizzly bear. Herzog’s Grizzly Man distances itself from the self-serving intentions of Treadwell’s footage to question the very premise Treadwell lived by (namely, that he could live among wild grizzly bears as one of them, protecting them from harm.) It is also reminiscent of the gift of CBS videotapes of the McCarthy/Army hearings in the late 50s I believe that arrived at Emile de Antonio’s studio and became his brilliant Point of Order, a reedited version that exposed Senator Joe McCarthy’s ruthless, senseless, vicious style of personal attack, aimed, of course, of saving us from Communism. Gibney does the same. Morris’ initially prestigious assignment to bring an extra measure of glamor to Holmes and Theranos very well be vanishing from his resume at this very moment. His Theranos footage doesn’t gibe with his reputation for bringing out the self-deceptions his feature doc subjects have grown accustomed to as Gibney makes abundantly clear.

All the lovely portrait footage of Holmes inevitably exposes her as a poseur, intent on selling an unworkable and probably impossible idea to those naive enough to believe all the hype about Silicon Valley’s myths of miracle working. It merits close watching for the warning it issues to beware of snake oil salespeople, whatever their pitch. Hard questions needed asking and not Henry Kissinger, George Schulz, or other Board members, not the venture capitalists, not Walmart, which installed her grossly defective machines, not Errol Morris who took the money and added the charm as biden, asked them. Gibney does and the result is a powerful reminder of the power of power to corrupt.

Advertisements

Agnes Varda

Varda’s passing has been well noted already and I just want to add that her Les Glaneurs, The Gleaners and I, is one of my all-time favorite films. The gathering of left-overs and the parallels with creative endeavor, with bricolage in general and editing as well, resonates through that film beautifully, as do her reflections on mortality. She uses a hand-held digital camera to return to the era of oil painting and original work of art with its unique aura, a very clever way of undermining the magic and miracles wrought by technology which she clearly appreciates but insists on placing in a larger perspective. Varda was an original and she is missed.

Anniversaries

Everyone has a birthday every year but we save anniversaries for yet more special occasions, from long-term survival in marriages and jobs, to the continued existence of vital institutions, documents and countries.
And even Film Departments.
In this case, the Film Department, now, of course, the Film and Media Department, at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario.
Founded in the late ’60s by the noted Canadian scholar Peter Harcourt, it was quickly off and running, hosting distinguished faculty, turning out grads who went on to considerable success, and becoming a fixture in the staid landscape of a venerable but quite traditional university.
Now fifty years later, it’s time for an anniversary and I have a chance to attend and make a small contribution. I haven’t been back but once since spending the first thirteen years of my career there and I am looking forward to offering a report on what the intervening time has wrought.
It seems, at the very least, that the Department has managed to age gracefully and to mature into a major player on the national stage.

Ray and Charles Eames in Oakland

A Sunday afternoon at the Oakland Museum of Art isn’t quite like going to one of the big tourist destination museums in the Bay Area but it should be.

There is a current exhibition devoted to Ray and Charles Eames, the couple who invented Chairs,designed houses, invented splints and stretchers (in WWII), and made films. They have never left the never left the design landscape given how massive their influence has been.

Is it art or is it a splint for an injured leg?

The object on the left, of shaped plywood, was manufactured in the 1000s for the military during WWII. the object on the right is a spin off, a free form figure by Charles based on the splint.

In a Q&A posted on walls of the exhibit, Eames gives one sentence answers to a series of essay questions. Some take up the question of the splint:

Art and usefulness: more than meets the eye

to fulfill a purpose may be to create art

Isn’t a purpose of art, a form of its usefulness, pleasure?

The Eameses, designers by their own admission, remind us that they, like Picasso or Rembrandt, are useful and purposeful but in a more subtle way than an industrial, use-value oriented culture might appreciate. Art and great design affords pleasure. Pleasure is not only useful but essential. It is one of the two great “principles” described by Freud but we don’t need Sigmund to tell us what life without pleasure would be like. That is a purpose fulfilled by great design and great art alike.  Design may also solve industrial problems, problems of commodity production and consumption, but at best, as here, it does more than that.

Consider the Eames chair:

A pricey item today, and a true classic, but also–is it not?–a source of pleasure. It fulfills the need for pleasure by the grace and beauty of its design even as it supports the human body in a seated position. (I confess: I have one. But only one.)

The exhibit includes several of the Eames’s films as well, including the famous Powers of Ten and  Think. They built their films as ensembles, bits and pieces hanging together by the thread of an idea and the form retains its power and beauty to this day.

The exhibit is on for a few more months.

 

Sublime Seas

John Akomfrah comes to SF MOMA with his Vertigo Sea, coupled with JMW Turner’s The Deluge, to create Sublime Seas, the title of the exhibit.
Akomfrah, who had a knack for the evocative and poetic even in his pointedly Black Audio Collective Days, has given us a very big 3 screen triptych on which play images of the sea, slavery, whale hunting and strangeness. It possesses the mesmerizing quality of IMAX in its size and beauty but also the disturbing quality of a dark nightmare in its images of victims of the middle passage being cast into the sea or of whales being sliced into gigantic slabs of meat and waste. As art, it makes no polemical calls, offers no agenda, sees no solutions, but it disturbs and reminds us of the tangled knots between beauty and destruction quite powerfully.
Each screen is about 20 feet across in a narrow shoe box room so that viewers are looking at the long side of the room from the other side, too close to see all three screens at once easily. Our eyes scan L to R and back to pick up what is happening. What happens is amazingly stunning images of the sea, its waves and swirls and currents; the creatures of the sea moving with easy grace through this apparently pristine medium; strange images of scores of clocks standing on a tidal flat and other surreal images with no obvious meaning; reenactments of aspects of the slave trade, especially of the middle passage with Africans bound in shackles and stowed like firewood in cramped cubbyholes below deck or cast into the sea for no obvious reason, and both rapturous images of whales gliding and breaching through the sea and of harpoon guns firing, repeatedly, and snaring these creatures who are then hauled aboard floating slaughterhouses to be hacked to pieces.
Akomfrah tells us nothing about the history of the slave trade or whale hunting, or hardly enough, in any case, to call this work educational in any real sense, or polemical either. The sea possesses great beauty, and man (white, card carrying capitalist white man, and his minions, it seems), willfully violates the beauty to conduct appalling forms of trafficking and trade. It is hard, though, to leave knowing whether I’ve been more amazed by the stunning imagery or appalled by the implicit narrative. It’s hard to know what to do with this work. Praise the cinematography or condemn the practices? Believe the sea remains pristine and sublime, or question what remains of its once great beauty (global warming does not seem to find a way into the story Akomfrah sketches).
I’m glad I saw it; the images will remain with me but it may also be an example of one, somewhat uncertain direction political thought and activist art and artists have taken in the last few decades.

3rd Edition is Published

It’s here: The 3rd edition of Introduction to Documentary, first published in 2001.  Lots of updates and photos from new and older films, but the biggest changes is a brand new chapter, “I Want to Make a Documentary: How Do I Get Started?”  It covers key aspects of preproduction from the pov of what funders tend to look for and what a filmmaker needs to convey.

The book size is a bit larger and that makes for a really nice lay out of tables and photos.

The Cover

13th and I Am Not Your Negro

Along with three fiction films–The Birth of a Nation, Moonlight and Hidden Figures–these two docs explore the African-American experience, past and present. All but Birth of a Nation are up for Oscars and Birth would be, too, if Nate Parker hadn’t been pilloried for his response to questions about his involvement in a rape while an undergraduate (he was acquitted of all criminal charges). That is another story, one that deserves more discussion, but the two docs are my focus here.
Raoul Peck, director of I Am Not Your Negro, a compilation of reflections on race by James Baldwin, gives us an extraordinary film. Peck has a remarkably international background and his earlier film on Patrice Lumumba makes clear, his focus on social injustice is wide spectrum, such as the role of the United States in not just propping up but installing business friendly dictators like Joseph Mobutu around the world.
James Baldwin is a perfect vehicle for exploring race in America. As he himself says, he does not speak for any one position, be it Martin Luther King’s, the Black Panther’s, or Malcolm X’s, although he recognizes the value of all those who stand up for racial equality and social justice. Baldwin’s comments are sharp, incisive and more thought-provoking than sloganeering. He reminds us, for example, Patrick Henry’s rousing call to “Give me liberty or give me death” has become a centerpiece of the story of the American colonies in their struggle to throw off the yoke of British domination. And yet, the equivalent words, spoken by Black Panthers, are seen as a dire threat to national security. Baldwin saw the big picture. When a Yale philosophy professor tries to get him to agree that he has more in common with white intellectuals than working class blacks, Baldwin does not take the “let’s all get along; beneath skin color are common qualities,” bait. He rips into the professor, on the Dick Cavett show, with a litany of racist practices that underscore how institutions, like liberals, may not profess to be racist, and yet act in ways that perpetuate racist practices.
Weaknesses: Samuel Jackson reads text by Baldwin in a flat, ponderous tone. He lacks the lightness and sharpness of Baldwin’s own comments. And Peck sidesteps Baldwin’s gay identity despite the ways in which it factored into his place in the civil rights and Black Power movements.
But as a time bomb of precise, memorable insights into what it means to be black in America, I Am Not Your Negro is definitely the film of the year.
13th comes in second. It feels like a film distrustful of its own medium since it is one of the most talk heavy documentaries this year, with voice after voice telling us about the bitter irony of how emancipation led to incarceration. None have the eloquence of Baldwin although all are valuable. 13th gives short shrift to its most original insight: the arrest and sentencing of blacks in the Reconstructionist South to create a work force for the plantations and industries that no longer to rely on slaves. Prisons gave them a new form of legal slavery. But the film, determined to hold to a chain link historical progression, does not return to this point when it touches on the commercialization of the prison industry today, in which many prisoners perform virtual slave labor that profits not only well-known corporations but the private businesses that now run so many of our prisons.
The film compensates for its wordiness with hip hop “breaks” that seem to come from a different sensibility. Powerful, and thematically apt, they seem less like a primary way to make experience embodied and impassioned than like a pit stop before the litany of experts resumes their commentary. Placing most of the speakers in settings that evoke a carceral environment has the feel of a forced metaphor.
Skipped over is the key question of how Nixon, Reagan, Clinton and others (might I add Leader Trump?) used the code of a “war on crime” and a “war on drugs” to serve as a war on African-Americans. They did, successfully. It was a racist move in every way but accepted. What made it work? The film seems to assume that there was an equivalence between crime, drugs and race but doesn’t show how this idea was itself racist. Why sweep through black communities especially, using brutal, often murderous tactics, to root out criminals and drug dealers? Were crime rates and drug use higher there than anywhere else? Or were white collar drug use and white collar crime seen as less a threat, even though crimes in the ghetto seldom spilled beyond the ghetto? (See O.J.: Made in America for a vivid refresher course: residents in South Central L.A., destroyed their own community in the wake of the Rodney King trial and didn’t set foot in Brentwood and the other white enclaves where folk like O.J. lived.)
13th is a more flawed analysis of racial issues but it brings to light, in a focussed and compelling way, how the American prison system has perpetuated the racial biases that the 13th Amendment set out to eliminate. Jails are the new plantations. Prisoners are the new slaves, and the overwhelming preponderance of those slaves belong to minorities, most vividly African-Americans. in saying this, it sharpens the insights of Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, and gives racism is proper place in understanding the role of prisons today.
It is hard to envision greater progress in race relations and civil rights without a ruthless dismantling of a prison system that reinforces the underlying fears and hatreds that have nourished racist ideologies for centuries. As powerful works of social justice both films fully deserve their Oscar nominations as well a long and useful life after that particular showbiz distraction comes and goes.