Monday, December 20, 2010

Living On Blood

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in August 2009)

Signs the world is getting worse #5,673: the increasing fact that serious and important documentaries are all as depressing as hell, and the only uplifting ones are about spelling bees or singing retirees or other such marginalia. I wrote a few weeks ago about Food Inc., and to be honest, The Cove prompts a largely similar reaction. Maybe that’s just me, but on the other hand, shouldn’t every engaged diagnosis of our dilemmas lead to the same handful of causes: grotesquely expanded lifestyles, based on assumptions unrelated to any sane theory of entitlement or sustainability; a degraded popular culture that keeps us high as kites on brain-freezing distractions, etc. etc. Have I been here before – absolutely…and on that earlier day 15,000 people died of hunger, as they will again today, and the permafrost melted a little more, as it will today, and the debt and deferred reckoning piled up…

The Cove

The Cove’s cove is a spot of water just off a small Japanese town, where the locals butcher some 23,000 dolphins every year, despite the low global demand for dolphin meat (it’s high in mercury contamination, and can frequently only be sold in the guise of something else). Richard O’Barry is an aging activist who forty years ago trained the dolphins in the TV show Flipper, something he now regrets for how it boosted the global trade in the creatures (they look so cute and happy doing tricks in those little pools, regardless that it drives them nuts); since then he’s devoted his life to freeing and fighting for them. O’Barry’s premise, sparking the movie’s main action (filmed a couple of years ago) is that if he can get the organized killing on film (something never accomplished, given local sensitivity and hostility), public pressure will put an end to it, and things can only improve from there.

As reviewers have noted, this project gives The Cove the air of a thriller, leading to a conclusion that’s satisfying in terms of the immediate objective (if not perhaps in terms of O’Barry’s broader objectives). Built around this, the movie (directed by Louis Psihoyos, one of the team who worked with O’Barry), digresses to briefly essay the broader degradation of the oceans, and to place the dolphin trade in some political and social context. These elements, if more conventional, are for me its most powerful. I’ve heard before the statistic that fish stocks at the current rate of depletion will collapse completely in a few decades, depriving 70% of humankind of its primary source of protein, but a brief speeded-up montage of the action at Tokyo’s fish market makes the scale of what we’re talking about chillingly clear.

Japan’s main policy response to this, incredibly, consists of stepping up its efforts to resurrect the whaling industry, including blaming excess numbers of whales and dolphins for eating up too many fish. The film’s expose of the International Whaling Commission, on this evidence an egregiously useless organization even in a world that’s full of them, is bleakly comic; for example in highlighting how Japan bribes third-tier nations into voting its way (who knew those Caribbean islands held such strong views?). Absurd as it is, we’ve all seen or read enough to know this is the masquerade of leadership: sleek boards who go through the motions of “governance” while understanding nothing about the steam building up in their organizations’ frail entrails; government panels and summits brandishing as progress their frail climactic statements of the vague and obvious, while meanwhile the machinery of collective slow death grinds away.

The Call Of G.I. Joe

For me, the easiest ones to let off the hook are the local Japanese who perpetrate this slaughter. I mean, what do they know, what have they ever been taught? The whole world over, you have people following the only choice they have, too frightened or beaten down to accept the reality of their actions or to test their own long-tutored assertions (keep the government away from my Medicare!). People are only so smart (and surely getting dumber), that’s why we need structures and leaders. And that’s why we should be angrier when they fail us so persistently and complacently. And yet, the possibility of that anger might be the most frightening thing of all I guess, because the immense weight and complexity of what we’ve built and what we think we possess, for all its obvious wretchedness, has a sense of necessity and knowability, sanctioning our moronic discounting of future exposures and risks. We can’t deal with uncertainty, so basically we ignore it.

I guess we’ll never know how intelligent dolphins really are, but when The Cove shows them in their unhindered natural state, covering sometimes 40 miles a day in the (absent humanity’s intervention) inexhaustible ocean, powered by their immense auditory capacities, they seem as sensuous and blissful and justified as anything you’ll ever see. It’s a disgrace how we feel entitled even to meddle with them, let alone uselessly kill them, but of course it’s just a variation on our approach to everything, even to ourselves. Honestly, the more I stew over all this, I almost understand the mentality of someone who’d rather throw their money at GI Joe and never think about anything again.


No need to sink quite that low, because there’s still plenty of life left in the old genres, especially if you don’t hitch your viewing wagon purely to Hollywood (and God knows you shouldn’t). Last year’s Let The Right In was a highly respectable contribution to the vampire annals, touching most of the genre requirements in the novel setting of a dingy Swedish housing complex. Park Chan-wook’s Thirst, from South Korea, injects even more fresh blood into the old corpse (I may need to rethink that metaphor). The protagonist this time is a priest, who gets the affliction after volunteering for a medical research program. In no time at all, he’s got his blood-supply infrastructure set up (easy access to a hospital helps, and – via the Confessional – to a steady stream of suicidal locals), and since vampirism is always great for the libido, he’s also got a major hot and heavy thing going with an under-appreciated young woman.

This last strand provides the film’s visceral highpoint, through some highly distinctive and rigorously staged sexual encounters, and Park also delivers on any reasonable individual’s expectations for blood and violence. But the film is also a very effective dual character study, carefully and broodingly following the implications of a condition that bestows both God-like powers and horrific, debased urges. If you apply that to what I said about The Cove, you realize vampires are merely a super-charged version of the chaotic creator/destroyer dichotomy that marks how we’ve chosen to conduct ourselves as a species. Thirst’s protagonist seems to think for a while he can reconcile heaven and hell, but it’s not giving much away to say it all breaks down.

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