In praise of documentaries

October 30, 2016

If, like me, you are a fan of the documentary format, then you really are spoilt for choice. The BBC, HBO, PBS AND YouTube are such wonderful sources of the genre. Looking online, I found these rather unsatisfactory definitions of documentary:

A film or television or radio programme that provides a factual report on a particular subject. Oxford

A movie or television program that tells the facts about actual people and events. Merriam Webster

According to the latter definition, David Attenborough hasn’t been making documentaries for over half a century. And does the use of words like facts and factual really apply to Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, Michael Moore’s entire oeuvre or indeed Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation Kazakhstan?

While it is true that if you look at the biggest-grossing films of the last twenty years, you will not find any documentaries, they have become increasingly successful at the box office. Fahrenheit 9/11, Bowling for Columbine, March of the Penguins, An Inconvenient Truth and Super Size Me have all enjoyed some success.

Documentaries have come in for a number of criticisms. The most damaging are those about their relationship with the truth. There have been famous cases of manipulation and staging. In nature documentaries Close-up shots may actually be of zoo animals, or rented animals in a pen. IN 2011 it emerged that BBC’s Frozen Planet had included footage of a captive polar bear cub at a Holland zoo. What must surely be the most notorious incident occurred in Disney’s 1958 White Wilderness, which was given an Oscar. They bough some lemming for 25 cents each and forced them to jump. The camera angles cleverly covered up any involvement by the filmmakers. Not content with that, they also pushed a polar bear down a steep snow-covered hillside in order to get a few laughs.

There is also the question of bias. I find the films a bit too much, although there are some memorable scenes. Who can forget him being offered a gun for opening a bank account in Bowling for Columbine? The Netflix true crime docuseries, Making a Murderer is said to have left out important incriminating evidence against Steven Avery out. In this sense I like Andrew Jarecki’s Capturing the Friedmans, a controversial documentary about Arnold and Jesse Friedman, father and son, who were accused of child molestation during the 1980s. Although Jarecki believed that the two were innocent, he chose to present the material in an objective manner.

Another common criticism is that of dumbing down. It’s a difficult line between popularising and vulgarising. There are times when I feel a bit patronised. For example if you watch Discovery, which I am not wont to do, they spend most of the time telling you telling you you’ve just seen or what’s coming up next. It is very irritating. And if you have only one hour, it is difficult to avoid oversimplification. These days sprawling series like Jacob Brownoski’s Ascent of Man or Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation seem to be less prevalent. Nevertheless for the discerning viewer I think there are excellent documentary series. And, thanks to YouTube, many classic can be seen online.

I know there are some wonderful nature documentaries, but I have to say that I am more drawn to the ones involving humans. I do have some favourites. Ken Burns makes some spectacular programmes. He does not cater for the short attention span. His biographies of Frank Lloyd Wright and Mark Twain really bring their subjects to life. And his three-part history of prohibition illuminates the madness of the short-lived eighteenth amendment. Then we have Adam Curtis. His documentaries include The Century of the Self, The Power of Nightmares, The Trap, All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace and Bitter Lake. I have just seen his latest, HyperNormalisation, which is about “how we got to this strange time of great uncertainty and confusion where those who are supposed to be in power are paralysed and have no idea what to do”.  I love the way he gets you to engage with some off-the-wall ideas and I don’t where he finds the archive footage, but he is a singular talent. I could have mentioned Louis Theroux or the BBC’s wonderful Storyville series. There is just so much great stuff out there.

One thing I have realised while doing this post is the documentaries that I haven’t seen. These include Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line or a number of Ken Burns works. Luckily, I have You Tube, although I’m not sure where I’ll be able to find the time. I will finish with a list of my favourites. Here they are in alphabetical order:

Capturing the Friedmans



Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room

Exit Through the Gift Shop

Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief

Making of a Murderer

Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine

Tales of the Grim Sleeper

The Century of the Self

The Jinx

Waltz with Bashir

When We Were Kings


Documentary Now

October 30, 2016

While researching this week’s blog I came across this piece from the series Documentary Now, a mockumentary series  featuring Saturday Night Live’s Fred Armisen, Bill Hader and Seth Meyers. This episode is “A Town, a Gangster, a Festival“. It follows the inhabitants of a small town in Iceland as they prepare for an annual three-day celebration honouring notorious Chicago gangster Al Capone.

Ads, damned ads and online advertising

October 22, 2016

This week I heard a fascinating interview with Columbia Law School professor Tim Wu on NPR’S Fresh Air. An open Internet advocate, Wu is increasingly worried about the direction in which the World Wide Web is heading – advertising just keeps getting heavier and heavier and heavier. Wu has just written a history of advertising: The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble To Get Inside Our Heads.

Many of the founders of Internet were utopians. According to Stewart Brand, we owe it all to the hippies:

Forget antiwar protests, Woodstock, even long hair. The real legacy of the sixties generation is the computer revolution

But as time has gone on it has gone what has taken place has diverged from this vision. The internet has lost its innocence.  Yes, a lot of content is free, but this comes at a price. We are constantly being bombarded with advertising. Not only is it ubiquitous, it is becoming increasingly difficult to close. We like the idea that that we can get stuff for free. This is a notion that is particularly prevalent on the internet. Newspapers are caught in this dilemma. Going behind a paywall doesn’t seem to be a particularly viable option. You lose a lot of influence this way; newspapers have traditionally wanted to be at the heart of the debate. But giving everything away doesn’t work either. Advertising just doesn’t bring in enough revenue for newspapers. There are some companies making money from online advertising – the Internet powerhouses Google, Facebook and Twitter.

Wu describes Google as the most profitable attention merchant in the history of the world. They began as a very idealistic company, but what they didn’t have was a business model. Their route to wealth would be with advertising. What is particularly ironic about this is Google’s founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin actually hated advertising, which they thought would corrupt the goal of the search engine, which is to try to give you the most important information, not what someone paid to be there. They wrote all this in a paper, The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine, which they wrote while studying at Stanford in 1998.

We are in what is known as the attention economy. Human attention is indeed a scarce commodity. As we have such digital overload, companies struggle to get into our brains. To attract interest one of the online marketer’s most potent weapons is clickbait. Merriam Webster defines this as:

online material (such as headlines) designed to make readers want to click on hyperlinks especially when the links lead to content of dubious value or interest.

The earliest citation on the Wordspy website goes back to 1999. In reality what they are doing is using many of the techniques perfected by tabloid journalists. All we have is a 21st century version of The Sun’s notorious Freddy Starr ate my pet hamster.

Wu’s central idea is that if we really care about content, we should be willing to pay for it. He gives food for thought. An ad-free version, he claims, would cost $12 a year. I don’t take such an alarmist view. True, it can be irritating when you are on the mobile phone. But I don’t find Facebook ads particularly irritating. I see it as a reasonable trade-off. I’m still in awe at everything that you can get on the web. There has been a loss of idealism, but I have never been a cyber-utopian. I know that they are looking to find my weaknesses, but I don’t think that we are such passive victims.

20 Diversion Tactics Highly Manipulative Narcissists, Sociopaths And Psychopaths Use To Silence You

October 22, 2016

No, you’re not going to learn these diversion tactics. This is just clickbait, which I got from the ContentForest clickbait generator I found online. Here are some others:

People Are Tweeting Their Most Awkward Moments And It Is Cringingly Hilarious

The pope’s lunch plans tomorrow are exactly why we love the dude so much.

Auto Mechanics Hilariously Recreate Renaissance Paintings

A Woman Is Posting Feminist Messages Written On Period Pads All Over Her City

16 Things We Forget To Thank Our Moms For

24 Pictures That Will Make You Feel Better About The World

A Scottish boy couldn’t stand a preacher’s homophobic rant, so he whipped out his bagpipes.

26 Poses Every Single Person Will Immediately Recognize

Corgi Puppies Running In Slow Motion Will Overwhelm You With Cuteness

Young Couple Aged 70 Years With Make-Up To See If They’d Still Love Each Other

A Dog, 8 Birds And A Hamster Are The Most Unusual Best Friends Ever

This Is For Everyone Suffering From Freezing Office Syndrome

Remember that pizzeria that was feeding the homeless? See what happened when you shared their story.


Third parties in the USA

October 16, 2016

Although the Founding Fathers had a deep suspicion of political parties, a two-party system is what would emerge in the USA. Third parties have a difficult task in a first-past-the post system. Nevertheless there is a strong tradition of third-party candidates. Indeed, according to the website Ballotpedia, as of October 15, 2016, a total of 1,910 candidates had filed a Statement of Candidacy with the Federal Election Commission. Many of those are not standing in every state and there are some non-serious candidates, such as Zorro the Cockroach, Tronald Dump Deez Nuts, Osama Bin Liftin. Tens of thousands of voters in Texas want Harambe, the gorilla shot dead in the Cincinnati zoo in May, to become the next leader President. In some polls he was even ahead of Jill Stein, the Green candidate. There is a candidate for the Prohibition Party. Even the more serious candidates have their issues. Gary Johnson, of the Libertarian Party, had his Aleppo moment – What is a leppo? Here you can see him being satirised by Stephen Colbert:

We are just over three weeks from the vote and Clinton is the favourite, but who knows what might happen. I might be buying shares in bananas.

Trump Supporters React to Outrageous Campaign Ads

October 16, 2016


Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, the creation of American comedian Robert Smigel organises a focus group with diehard Trump supporters, where they are shown increasingly outrageous fake campaign ads to see how far their support for “The Donald” goes.

The outrageous Ann Coulter

October 9, 2016

Ann Hart Coulter, who was born on December 8, 1961, is an American conservative social and political commentator, bestselling author and newspaper columnist. Her books have titles such as How to Talk to a Liberal (If You Must), If Democrats Had Any Brains, They’d Be Republicans, and Adios, America: The Left’s Plan to Turn Our Country Into a Third World Hellhole. This last book is said to have inspired Donald Trump’s immigration policy. In fact, she makes Trump appear moderate. Recently I came across this quote:

I don’t care if Donald Trump wants to perform abortions in White House after this immigration policy paper.

I thought that I would include a selection of her outrageous quotes:

There’s a cultural acceptance of child rape in Latino culture that doesn’t exist in even the most dysfunctional American ghettos. When it comes to child rape, the whole family gets involved.

If we took away women’s right to vote, we’d never have to worry about another democrat president. It’s kind of a pipe dream. It’s a personal fantasy of mine.

I think the government should be spying on all Arabs, engaging in torture as a televised spectator sport, dropping daisy cutters wantonly throughout the Middle East and sending liberals to Guantanamo.”

Not all Muslims may be terrorists, but all terrorists are Muslims — at least all terrorists capable of assembling a murderous plot against America that leaves 7,000 people dead in under two hours.

Linda Vester: You say you’d rather not talk to liberals at all?

Coulter: I think a baseball bat is the most effective way these days.

Liberal soccer moms are precisely as likely to receive anthrax in the mail as to develop a capacity for linear thinking.

 We should invade their countries, kill their leaders, and convert them to Christianity.

 My only regret with Timothy McVeigh is he did not go to the New York Times Building.”

 God gave us the earth. We have dominion over the plants, the animals, the trees. God said, ‘Earth is yours. Take it. Rape it. It’s yours.'”

 I would like evolution to join the roster of other discredited religions, like the Cargo Cult of the South Pacific. Practitioners of Cargo Cult believed that manufactured products were created by ancestral spirits, and if they imitated what they had seen the white man do, they could cause airplanes to appear out of the sky, bringing valuable cargo like radios and TVs. So they constructed “airport towers” out of bamboo and “headphones” out of coconuts and waited for the airplanes to come with the cargo. It may sound silly, but in defense of the Cargo Cult, they did not wait as long for evidence supporting their theory as the Darwinists have waited for evidence supporting theirs.

We just want Jews to be perfected, as they say.

I am personally opposed to shooting abortionists, but I don’t want to impose my moral values on others. On the murder of Kansas abortion doctor George Tiller

Where are the Bernie supporters tonight? Did Hillary have them gassed?

I hear Churchill had a nice turn of phrase, but Trump’s immigration speech is the most magnificent speech ever given.

Here she is in action. I love the bit where she talks about Trump’s “love and respect for women”:

Post-factual democracy and other new words

October 9, 2016

Here is another selection of new words I found on the Wordspy website:

binge learning

Compulsively or obsessively watching online lectures or taking online courses.


A fake romance, particularly one used to generate publicity for the participants.


An English dialect chiefly characterized by the use of accents and words, particularly slang terms, that borrow from or mimic Jamaican English


To use mathematics, logic, or a similar rational argument to make something inherently subjective appear to be objective.


An adult who is, and appears likely to remain, emotionally or intellectually immature.

post-factual democracy

A democracy in which ignorance and irrationality hold sway over facts and reason.


To conduct a text message conversation while walking.


tip creep

The gradual increase in the standard tip percentage as well as the number of service workers who expect or request tips.


zombie statistic

A false or misleading statistic that keeps getting repeated no matter how often it has been refuted.

Patty Hearst: the urban guerrilla with a shih tzu

October 1, 2016


Captivity tales in fiction and real life fascinate us. In John Ford’s classic western The Searchers Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) a middle-aged Confederate veteran, spends years looking for his abducted niece, Debbie (Natalie Wood). It is said to have been inspired by the 1836 kidnapping of nine-year-old Cynthia Ann Parker in a Comanche raid on her family’s home at Fort Parker, Texas. She had three children with the Comanche Chief Peta Nocona. After nearly a quarter of a century with the Comanches she was recued, against her will, by the Texas Rangers. The fictional stories of Emma Donahue’s 2010 Room and the TV series Homeland have the real-life parallels. Natascha Kampusch was held in a secret cellar by her kidnapper Wolfgang Přiklopil for more than eight years, until she escaped on 23 August 2006. Bowe Bergdahl was a prisoner in Afghanistan and Pakistan by a group linked to the Taliban from June 2009 until his release in May 2014, as told in the second series of the podcast Serial. The case of Patty Hearst is surely one of the most notorious cases. Hearst is the subject of the latest work of Jeffrey Toobin, American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst. Toobin also wrote The Run of His Life: The People v. O. J. Simpson, the inspiration behind the hit TV show American Crime Story: The People v. O. J. Simpson

The 60s are famous as a period of rebellion, but the 70s were also a complicated decade, a time of political turmoil. The last throes of the Vietnam War and the impeachment of Richard Nixon led to a polarised climate. We don’t tend to associate the United States with domestic terrorism, and if I think of terrorism in the 1970s I remember the IRA, the Baader-Meinhoff Gang or the PLO, but in the early and mid-’70s, there were a thousand bombings a year in the United States. What would Fox News have made of this had it existed then? Terrorist groups included the Weather Underground, the Black Liberation Army and the Symbionese Liberation Army, the group behind the kidnapping of Patricia Hearst.

The Symbionese Liberation Army was the creation of delusional African-American, Donald DeFreeze, a man on the run, having recently escaped from Vacaville Prison, a California state prison. He was joined in the endeavour by a ragtag bunch of recent college graduates and dropouts, middle-class kids attracted by the half-baked Marxist theory and what they thought was the authenticity of a convict leader.

The name itself, while certainly being memorable is rather removed from reality. I am going to unpack it. Symbionese is not even a word, but comes from symbiosis. In his manifesto DeFreeze defined symbiosis as “a body of dissimilar bodies and organisms living in deep and loving harmony and partnership in the best interest of all within the body.” The SLA stated that capitalism was parasitic. What they wanted was all races, genders, and ages all united in struggle and living together in peace. But who did they actually liberate? DeFreeze liked to be known as General Field Marshal Cinque, but army is an exaggeration for an organisation which never topped twelve members. They did not have a particularly coherent agenda and what they sought above all was media attention. The group’s slogan was “Death to the Fascist Insect that Preys upon the Life of the People!” They proclaimed a Symbionese Nation and adopted Way Back Home by The Crusaders as their national anthem.

Their chosen target, Patricia Hearst, the granddaughter of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst (the real Citizen Kane), was a 19-year-old college student in Berkeley, living with her 25-year-old boyfriend, Steve Weed, who was a graduate student. On March 4th 1974 they kidnapped Patty Hearst without a clear idea of what their ransom demands would be. Ronald Reagan, the governor of California, was never going to agree to release the two SLA members accused of murdering school superintendent Marcus Foster. They tried to get her father to spend $4,000,000 buying food for people. That didn’t quite work out as they planned, but he maybe spent $2,000,000 on food.

Gradually Hearst began engaging with her captors.  After a couple she had been transformed into Tania, the revolutionary. Her choice was inspired by the nom de guerre of Tamara Bunke, the martyred Argentinean guerrilla and lover of Che Guevara. This conversion was reflected in the iconic photo of Patricia standing with a machine gun in front of the SLA flag, a seven-headed cobra.

Then came a series of incidents. The first was the robbery of the Hibernia Bank in San Francisco, made famous by video of Hearst toting a machine gun. After DeFreeze and five other members of the group were killed in a SWAT raid in a Los Angeles flat where they were holed up, Patricia remained on the run for another 13 months. During these months, she participated in two more bank robberies. In one of these, Myrna Opsahl, a 42-year-old mother of four children, who was in the bank to deposit receipts from her church, was shot in the abdomen by the SLA’s Emily Harris bled to death. Hearst was driving the getaway car. She also helped set off bombs in Northern California, but these produced no fatalities. She was finally caught on September 18th 1975, along S.L.A. members Patty Hearst, Bill and Emily Harris and Wendy Yoshimura. When asked for her occupation, Hearst replied “urban guerrilla.”

The 1976 trial was of course a media spectacle. Hearst was represented by F. Lee Bailey the colourful lawyer, who would later be part of O.J. Simpson’s “Dream Team.” His efforts were in vain and the heiress was sentenced to seven years in federal prison. Bailey actually made Hearst sign a release for his book, which he was planning to write about the case. In reality, she served a total of 22 months in prison, until her sentence was commuted by President Carter. Twenty years later, Bill Clinton on his last day in office issued her a pardon, making Patty Hearst the only person in American history to receive a commutation from one president and a pardon from another.

The debate during the Patty Hearst trial and one that remains contentious today is whether she was she brainwashed or radicalised? Toobin is convinced that it’s not that she was brainwashed but that she actually believed the SLA rhetoric and became one of them. He avoids using terms like brainwashing or Stockholm syndrome. Those are terms beloved by journalists, but which lack scientific rigour. I think Toobin is right to argue that she responded rationally to the circumstances she was confronted with at each stage of her captivity. Hearst was undoubtedly vulnerable and in a state of total dependency on her captors. She had multiple opportunities to escape over a year and a half. She didn’t escape because she didn’t want to. Toobin describes her as an impressionable young woman, rebelling a bit against her parents but who was still looking for an authority figure in her life. Then after claiming that she was an urban guerrilla, a few weeks after her release she went back to her old class. Toobin is critical of the way she was pardoned. He sees it as an abuse of privilege.

Her relationship with SLA member Willie Wolfe reflects how difficult it is to describe what happened. According to the other members she was in love with him. Nevertheless, it is difficult to conceive of consent in the context of a kidnapping. Hearst claims that he raped her. When she was arrested she had an Olmec relic in the shape of a monkey face that had been to her by Wolfe. That doesn’t sound like the behaviour of a rape victim. But in a 2009 interview for NBC she described the prosecutor’s accusation that she had been in a consensual relationship with Wolfe as an insult to rape victims and “outrageous”.

Hearst is now 62 years old. Two months after being released from prison, Hearst married Bernard Shaw, a policeman who had been part of her private security detail when she was on bail. The marriage lasted until his death in 2013, and they had two children, Gillian and Lydia. She published a memoir, Every Secret Thing, in 1981. She also became a muse for director John Waters, who cast her in such films as Cry-Baby, Serial Mom, and Cecil B. DeMented. Now, a grandmother she is living the life of the wealthy socialite showing her shih tzu at New York’s Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show.

Patty Hearst videos

October 1, 2016

Here are a couple of videos about the case: