I watched Radical Wolfe right after reading Tom Wolfe’s very first book, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby. Considering I lived through all the decades in which he wrote, I’ve had surprisingly little contact with his work. This documentary is a good introduction into a journalist and writer who was often controversial and who helped people to understand many of the most important cultural movements of the 1960s and beyond.
Radical Wolfe, directed by Richard Dewey, written by Michael Lewis, is 75 minutes, relatively short for a piece covering someone with such a long career. I actually prefer this condensed approach, though someone could easily have made a 2 or 3 hour documentary on such a character.
Although it shows Wolfe in a mostly favorable light, it doesn’t ignore the fact that he was controversial and often provoked censure, as when he published a piece in New York Magazine in 1970 called Radical Chic ( which obviously inspired the doc’s title), targeting Leonard Bernstein and other liberal intellectuals who defended the Black Panthers. This helped to set the stage for Wolfe as a provocateur who would later offend people with The Bonfire of the Vanities among other works.
Towards the end, someone observes that no one in the future could ever replicate a career like Wolfe’s. The reason for this, sadly, is that someone as outspoken and controversial as Wolfe simply wouldn’t be tolerated today. I suppose this is debatable in the social media age, but it raises some interesting questions. People far more extreme than Wolfe have platforms on Twitter and YouTube for example. However, it’s not likely that anyone very controversial or extreme would be able to attain the mainstream popularity of Wolfe.
Radical Wolfe is a good introduction to a writer who captured some essential scenes and cultures of mid-20th century America. It’s currently streaming on Netflix.
The Hatchet Wielding Hitchhiker is Netflix’s latest in a long series of true crime documentaries. This one is about Caleb McGillivary, better known as Kai, a homeless nomad who became famous in 2013 for allegedly saving someone’s life by hitting an assailant over the head with a hatchet.
Kai immediately became a media sensation as he came across as a benevolent free spirit who just happened to be at the right place to perform a brave deed. His story, however, takes a dark turn.
The Hatchet Wielding Hitchhiker, directed by Colette Camden, is about many things beyond Kai himself. It’s about homelessness, substance abuse, childhood abuse, mental illness, and, perhaps most of all, a celebrity-hooked culture desperate to find the next reality TV star.
The Next Reality Star
In an attempt to cash in on Kai’s popularity, there was a feeding frenzy to get him booked on TV shows from Jimmy Kimmel to the Kardashians. Through all of this, Kai is revealed to be an unstable character with many facets to his personality. In between TV appearances, he indulges in binge drinking, urinates in public, and makes statements that reveal a troubled past and a tenuous grip on reality.
From Hero to Convicted Killer
Kai is accused of killing a lawyer in his 70s who gave him a place to sleep. According to Kai, the older man sexually assaulted him and he was acting in self-defense. The brutality of the attack makes this hard to believe. Even if there is some truth to Kai’s version, it seems unlikely he couldn’t have escaped the man’s home without killing him.
A Not-So-Speedy Trial
Another issue that the doc casually brings up near the end is how flawed and inefficient the justice system is. All of the events took place in 2013 but Kai’s trial did not occur until 2019. If had been innocent, he would have spent 6 years in jail awaiting trial, which clearly goes against the Constitutional right to a fair and speedy trial.
Fabricating a Celebrity
Kai as a heroic figure was questionable from the start. After all, he was in the very car of the assailant he ended up clobbering. There is also the question of how he happened to have a deadly weapon ready at hand.
The real message of this movie, whether intended or not, is more about the pathology of a celebrity-centric culture. Even if his initial actions were justified, he was clearly a troubled young man, homeless and with a history of abuse. However, he became surrounded by people who focused only on his surface-level charisma and were eager to turn him into the next big thing. Were they to blame for Kai’s eventual act of violence? Probably not, but they certainly didn’t do anything to help him either.
Is The Hatchet-Wielding Hitchhiker Worth Watching?
Unlike many docu-series on streaming services lately, this one is a stand-alone film. In some ways, this is a relief, as many such series are stretched out beyond what the material justifies. In this case, however, the movie could probably have been split at least into two episodes. The quick transition from Kai being embraced by the media to his murder conviction is fairly abrupt. Nonetheless, the story itself has so many compelling elements that it remains interesting, mainly as a sad commentary on celebrity culture.
The world of high-priced art, including auctions, art theft, and forgeries has captured the public’s attention over the last decade. Several popular documentaries and dramas have covered art-related themes. One of the latest is The Lost Leonardo, a documentary about a painting called Salvator Mundi, which may or may not be a recently discovered masterpiece by Leonardo da Vinci, the most famous Renaissance artist best known for the Mona Lisa.
When I turned on The Lost Leonardo, written and directed by Danish director Andreas Koefoed, I wasn’t clear if it was a drama or documentary and I suspect this vagueness is deliberate as more viewers might be likely to tune into a mystery drama about the art world. Although it is compelling, it is a doc after all, with interviews of art experts, dealers, and investors.
A minor spoiler alert is that, after watching The Lost Leonardo, you still won’t know whether or not the painting is authentic. Experts still debate the matter. Authenticity is what drives value but in so many cases, items are difficult to authenticate. As dealers and appraisers explain, provenance, the traceable lineage of ownership, is a key factor for authenticating art. With Salvator Mundi, the painting’s history can only be traced back to recent times, the first few hundred years of its existence remaining a complete mystery so far.
Restoration or Forgery?
The Lost Leonardo involves many characters who may or may not be trustworthy. Dianne Modestini is the restorer who first declared that Salvator Mundi was indeed painted by Leonardo da Vinci. However, others have accused Modestini of doing more than just restoring the painting, saying that she essentially took a work from a minor artist who was a mere Leonardo follower and forged it to make it look like Leonardo’s original work.
A Rivalry Between Billionaires
Another side plot is the bizarre rivalry between two billionaires, Swiss art dealer Yves Bouvier, and Russian “oligarch” (for some reason, only Russians are described as oligarchs) Dmitry Rybolovlev. Bouvier acquired the painting, was less than transparent about how he acquired it and how much he paid, and sold it to Rybolovlev, taking a profit of many millions. While this practice is fairly common in many deals, from real estate to any type of collectible or antique, Rybolovlev was outraged and launched a global campaign against Bouvier. This is all fairly silly and sheds more light on the greed and egotism of the ultra-wealthy than it does on Renaissance art, but it’s all part of the world of the high end art market. Alexandra Bregman, who is interviewed in the film, has written a book called The Bouvier Affair: A True Story, that goes into more detail about this conflict.
The Painting is Acquired by a Saudi Prince
Salvator Mundi ended up being purchased at Christy’s for a record high price of $450 million by Saudi prince Mohammed bin Salman. The Louvre negotiated with him to display it at a large Leonardo exhibit, but the negotiations fell apart. As the film explains, the Saudis wanted Salvator Mundi displayed next to the Mona Lisa to dispel any controversy about its authenticity. The Louvre apparently refused and the painting hasn’t been publicly seen since.
Art: What is Authentic?
Aside from being of interest to art lovers and art historians, The Lost Leonardo raises some interesting questions about how we value art. After all, it’s the same painting, no matter who actually created it 500 or so years ago. Of course, the same can be said for any work of art or collectible. Whether it’s a painting or a celebrity’s signature, we want an assurance that the item we’re buying or just admiring is “real.” If you love and admire a work of art for years and then find out that it’s “fake,” do you suddenly stop appreciating it? If so, does this mean that abstract issues are more important than the sensual experience of viewing the work? Difficult questions to answer, highlighting the uneasy relationship between art and reality.
The Lost Leonardo is currently streaming on multiple sites, including Amazon Prime, Hulu, and YouTube.
The Deep End, directed by Jon Kasbe, is a documentary about the spiritual teacher Teal Swan, who has been a controversial figure for years. While she has consistently attracted a large number of “haters,” this is the first mainstream coverage/expose of her work. It raises at least as many questions about the intentions and integrity of the media and documentarians as it does about Teal Swan and her organization.
I don’t have strong feelings about Teal Swan one way or the other. I subscribe to her YouTube channel and have watched probably 10 or so hours of her content over the last few years. Some of it is insightful, but I don’t have any urge to attend a live workshop. I watch many people but don’t really “follow” anyone. The word “follow” is relevant here because, in The Deep End, they insisted on labeling almost anyone who attends an event a Teal Swan “follower,” which is a loaded word typically applied to cult members. Just to be clear, this is mainly a discussion and review of the documentary The Deep End, and not of Teal Swan and her work. I’m not nearly familiar enough with the latter to have an informed opinion.
Documentarians as Narcs
If you are going to watch The Deep End, I highly recommend going to Teal Swan’s YouTube channel and watching her responses. She claims that the producers, who filmed her for 3 years, misrepresented the intentions of the project, at first assuring her that it would be portrayed in a positive light. While this may seem like a case of “they said, she said,” I doubt that she would have given permission to do such intensive filming if she knew that she would be portrayed as a cult leader. It seems like the director Kasbe and his crew approached the project with the mentality of narcs or undercover agents, infiltrating the organization and pretending to be allies.
Teal Swan points to the many ways that the documentary distorts reality, including the spooky music that often plays ominously in the background. Most notably, when you have hundreds of hours of footage and edit it down to a few hours, it’s easy to paint just about any picture you want. Cults are very popular right now and they make for sensationalistic TV.
This isn’t to say that Teal Swan is beyond reproach. When someone reaches her level of influence, it’s inevitable that “followers” will have good and bad experiences. One area that her critics (including the makers of The Deep End) have always focused on was her attitude towards suicide. While Swan doesn’t advocate suicide, she does talk openly about it, recognizing that it’s an option. Unfortunately, a certain number of people (a growing number) do take their own lives. This includes people who watch Teal Swan, as well as people who are under the care of psychiatrists and psychologists. However, the point of a program such as The Deep End is to point an accusing finger at Teal Swan.
Just about any popular self-help or spiritual teacher could be labeled a cult leader. Right now, this would include Anthony Robbins, Sadhguru, GaryVee, Abraham Hicks, and many others. if you applied a microscopic view to any organization and applied selective editing, you could alternately make anyone seem like a true savior or a complete charlatan.
By the last couple of episodes, The Deep End devolves into pure melodrama and cheesy horror movie effects, casting Swan as a demonic figure. Clearly, the intention here is to push a certain narrative and the intended audience are viewers who accept such narratives at face value.
The Media: Exposing Cults or a Cult In Itself?
The Deep End is a fascinating example of how media and art forms such as documentaries can construct reality. Personally, I am more interested in this general concept than I am in the doc itself or even Teal Swan and her teachings.
For anyone who shares this kind of bizarre obsession with the cultoid, propaganda, and how the media creates and distorts perceptions, I’d recommend watching The Deep End along with Teal Swan’s reactions (there are 4 videos, one in response to each episode).
It’s usually too flip and simplistic to say that the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle, but in this case, it truly seems like the most likely scenario.
Bisping: The Michael Bisping Story is a documentary about a popular mixed martial arts fighter who became the UFC Middleweight champion. It’s an exciting look at a fast growing sport as well an engaging biography of an athlete who was determined to overcome all obstacles to achieve his dream.
I started out as a boxing fan and am only a rather casual and recent fan of mixed martial arts and the UFC (if you read comments on YouTube or forums, “casual” is one of the worst insults anyone can deliver), so I never knew about Michael Bisping until fairly recently when I discovered his YouTube channel.
Bisping looks at the fighter’s origins growing up in a working class area in England, where he frequently got into fights in the street and at pubs. He also started training in martial arts at an early age and began competing in tournaments. After a brief period in jail following a fight, Bisping resolved to turn his life around and began pursuing a martial arts career in earnest.
This documentary provides some great footage, not only of Bisping’s notable fights but also many other UFC stars with whom he fought or otherwise crossed paths. Featured in the film are his arch rival Luke Rockhold, Dana White, Joe Rogan, Micky Rourke, Rashad Evans, and even actor Vin Diesel, who was in a movie with Bisping.
The trajectory of Bisping’s career, which had many ups and downs, has the dramatic feel of a fictional movie. Some of the exciting matches covered in the film include Bisping vs. Luke Rockhold (twice), Anderson Silva, Dan Henderson, and George St. Pierre. One dramatic plot is how Bisping was injured and ended up losing an eye following a brutal knockout at the hands of Vitor Belfort, who, it turned out, was using steroids. Bisping continued to compete, hiding the fact that he was blind in one eye, and still managed to win the Middleweight championship.
Bisping is an inspiring story of one man’s journey to excel and overcome challenges. It’s a must see for UFC/MMA fans. It will also appeal to anyone who appreciates a real life “Rocky” story.
Bisping is currently available on Amazon and other streaming services. For more information see:
A documentary by Hayley Garrigus, You Can’t Kill The Meme explores the bizarre and controversial Pepe The Frog meme that became infamous during the 2016 election. Based loosely on the ancient Egyptian god Kek, the cartoon frog Pepe spread online, especially on 4Chan and many “alt-right” message boards.
If you search for Pepe The Frog, you’ll see that, somewhat absurdly for an innocuous-looking cartoon animal, it’s widely considered a “hate symbol.” With so much political controversy, mixed with mysticism and fairly obscure online subcultures, it’s hard to approach this topic with any kind of objectivity. Hayley Garrigus, however, manages to maintain a detached focus on the many unusual belief systems and eccentric characters she interviews. She herself stays in the background, barely appearing in front of the camera at all.
Garrigus isn’t so much concerned with Pepe The Frog itself, but the underlying ideas and movements that latched on or appropriated the symbol. She was inspired by the book Memetic Magic: Manipulation of the Root Social Matrix and the Fabric of Reality, by R. Kirk Packwood, a now out of print book. Packwood is interviewed and expresses an ambivalent attitude about the movement he unintentionally inspired.
Memes (including the word “meme”) Have a Life of Their Own
The terms meme magic and memetics go back to the original definition of meme rather than the more limited modern idea of memes as simply images shared on social media. Richard Dawkins coined the term as the cultural equivalent of a virus that spreads quickly through society. Of course, Dawkins is a rather dogmatic atheist and would most likely cringe at some of the ways the term has been used. But this is, somewhat ironically, the very way memes work: they evolve or mutate in unpredictable ways. Pepe The Frog is the perfect example.
If you want to follow the bizarre evolution of Pepe, you may be more interested in another doc called Feels Good Man, about Pepe’s actual creator, cartoonist Matt Furie who disowned his creation after it was appropriated by underground movements.
The ADL has labeled Pepe a hate symbol. Yet, the ADL website says, “In the fall of 2016, the ADL teamed with Pepe creator Matt Furie to form a #SavePepe campaign to reclaim the symbol from those who use it with hateful intentions.” So they are somewhat ambiguously calling it a hate symbol and trying to redeem it. The whole history of Pepe, including its creation and abandonment by Matt Furie, R. Kirk Packwood’s own distancing of his book on memetic magic all show how slippery memes can be and how they take on a life of their own.
Fortunately, Hayley Garrigus doesn’t get bogged down in the controversy of Pepe and the simplistic right vs. left conflict and gets into more esoteric territory. She interviews a self-described lightworker in Las Vegas named Carole Michaella as well as other eccentric magicians, including Billy Brujo, whose getup includes white face paint and a cross on his forehead. All of this seems practically designed to scare away “normies” to dismiss all this as woo-woo or the ravings of political extremists desperate for a way to feel empowered.
When memetic magicians (if that’s the correct term) claim they were responsible, not only for Trump winning the 2016 election but even for causing Hillary Clinton to collapse in the street, skepticism is understandable. However, Garrigus seems open to the ideas that are presented, however farfetched, or at least lets the characters express themselves without judgment (at least that she expresses). She seems more interested in the underlying possibilities of memes than in the particular idiosyncratic way certain characters have interpreted these memes. After all, versions of magic (or magick) have been around a lot longer than American politics.
I think some viewers and reviewers were frustrated by the film’s apparent lack of a clear message. If this topic was handled by, say, a network TV show such as 20/20, the focus might have been on exposing the characters as lunatics or dangerous extremists. On the other hand, I never had the sense that Garrigus blindly believes anything anyone says. Her detached style lets you judge for yourself and, if you’re so inclined, to do further research.
You Can’t Kill The Meme will probably be most appreciated by people who already have some knowledge of alternative belief systems, if not memetic magic itself. It at least helps to have an open mind. Our world is far richer and more complex than is portrayed by conventional institutions and this documentary sheds some light on one loosely defined subculture that is exploring certain aspects of human potential.
You Can’t Kill The Meme is not a movie for everyone, and it received more than its share of negative reviews. Most of these are from “normies,” people with either no background or interest in the occult and fringe movements who are often outright hostile to anything outside the mainstream. In this case, there’s additional pressure to distance oneself from a movement that’s been so closely associated with Trump and the “alt-right” (whatever that really means). However, Garrigus isn’t endorsing any political or cultural movements here but simply exploring a fascinating phenomenon. Memes are always with us and can have a profound, and often hidden, impact on society, whether we like them or not or whether we’re aware of them or not.
You Can’t Kill The Meme is currently streaming on Hulu.
Are we living in a computer simulation? Are alternate realities bleeding into our own, causing multiple interpretations of the same events, also known as the Mandela Effect? How can we even know what is real? If these sorts of questions fascinate you, A Glitch In The Matrix, a documentary currently streaming on Hulu might be for you.
Directed by Rodney Ascher, who also directed Room 237, which explored strange symbols and synchronicities associated with The Shining. While the unifying topic of Room 237 keeps it relatively reigned in, A Glitch In The Matrix is an unfocused romp through various loosely related topics concerning science fiction, philosophy, and technology.
Philip K. Dick provides the closest thing to an anchor for the film. Specifically, we see portions of a lecture he gave in Paris in 1977, where he refers to reality glitches and basically describes the popular idea of the Mandela Effect without naming it (obviously, as Nelson Mandela, in any timeline, was still alive back then). Beyond anything else, the doc establishes Dick as one of the founding influencers on modern simulation theory as well as The Mandela Effect.
As the title suggests, The Matrix is also a major theme. The Matrix films actually introduced an ancient concept into popular consciousness —the notion that the world we perceive isn’t the real reality, but some type of projection. Of course, it’s only in the digital age that we came up with the idea of a computer simulation.
Some of the documentary’s more interesting speculations remind us that philosophers from Plato to Descartes have examined these themes. Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, in particular, is an obvious influence on the Matrix.
The 17th century philosopher Descartes, posed the idea of a demon who fools everyone into believing in a false reality. This connects to his famous adage, “I think, therefore I am.” While self-identity is fairly persuasive most of the time (I don’t think Descartes was familiar with psychedelics), it doesn’t necessarily prove that the world around us is real.
The film doesn’t mention Gnosticism, an early Christian heresy, which was strongly influenced by Plato and various schools of ancient mysticism. Gnostics believe the world we see was created by the Demiurge, a kind of false god (who may also be the God of the Old Testament) and usurper. The goal of gnosis or knowledge is to find our way back to the true creator.
Buddhism and other Eastern religions also helped to set the stage for simulation theory. Of particular relevance is the concept of Maya, which can be translated as illusion or deceit. If we don’t perceive reality as it is, it’s not so farfetched to believe we’re inside a simulation.
When not focusing on Philip K. Dick and ancient philosophy, A Glitch In The Matrix features a group of seemingly random interviewees. These are all guys dressed in bizarre sci-fi outfits. I’m not sure if these costumes are from cosplay events, comic books, or computer games, but the effect doesn’t exactly add to the film’s credibility. To me, it has the effect of pigeon-holing the topic into the realm of sheer geekiness. To be sure, these are geeky, intellectual topics, but they didn’t have to go overboard to drive home this point.
I’m not sure if the interviewees wanted to remain anonymous or if they just thought it was cool or entertaining to have these get-ups. They sounded intelligent enough, but didn’t seem to have any special credentials apart from having some interesting anecdotes regarding synchronicities. I found some of these stories a bit underwhelming, at least as far as providing any real insights into simulation theory. Arguably, they could have better spent the time by delving more deeply into the history and philosophy of these ideas.
Aside from Philip K. Dick and the costumed characters, the film quotes various other opinions on simulation theory, including Elon Musk to Neil deGrasse Tyson, who both believe it’s likely we are indeed in a simulation. A couple of the talking heads bring up the statistical probability of this being true. Personally, I don’t find statistics convincing with this type of metaphysical argument. It’s either true or it isn’t.
A Glitch In The Matrix also reveals the potential dark side to simulation theory. In the 19th century, Dostoyevsky explored the idea of nihilism in novels such as Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov. A famous line from the latter novel, spoken by the atheist Ivan, states, “If God does not exist, everything is permitted.” Of course, Dostoyevsky meant this in the worst possible way, meaning that people have no reason to follow any type of moral code. In the 21st century, simulation theory can be seen as posing a similar moral dilemma. A Glitch In The Matrix explores this in depth.
One character who gets lots of air time is Joshua Cooke, who came to be known as “The Matrix killer.” He also used The Matrix Defense in court, a variation on the insanity plea. We hear Cooke himself describing in detail how, after repeatedly watching the films (along with listening to various hardcore music soundtracks), he murdered his parents with a shotgun. This eerie and unnerving sequence reveals a dark side of simulation theory, the possibility that, if our lives aren’t even real, we don’t have to worry about the consequences of our actions.
On a similar note, they cover a case of someone who randomly decided to steal a plane because he’d done so in computer games. Before fatally crashing, he is heard over the airwaves saying that it’s just like a video game.
A Glitch In The Matrix is not the most coherent presentation of ideas such as the Simulation Hypothesis and the Mandela Effect. On the other hand, these topics are intrinsically confusing, paradoxical, and multidimensional, so a logical linear approach may not be ideal or even possible.
It’s not likely there will ever be a definitive study of this infinitely complex and unprovable theory (which is equally impossible to disprove). A Glitch In The Matrix, despite its unevenness and the distracting costumes, does contribute something of value to the discussion and certainly provokes further thought.
Nomadland, directed by Chloé Zhao and starring Frances Mcdormand, is a fictionalized rendering of a book by Jessica Bruder. The book is a nonfiction study of the emerging subculture of nomadic people who, mainly due to economic necessity, adopted the nomadic lifestyle of living in vans.
The movie focuses mainly on a woman named Fern (McDormand) who sets off in her van after her husband dies and the town in Nevada where they lived literally shuts down after losing a factory. The movie, while fictionalized, follows a documentary format. Indeed, it stars many actual nomads who are discussed in the book such as Bob Wells, who acts as a mentor for people new to the van lifestyle.
Since around the financial collapse of 2008, many people in late middle age and even older, became van-dwelling nomads. Some subsist on social security or savings but many work at a variety of temporary jobs all over the country. Amazon warehouses are a major employer of these folks, which is portrayed in the film and, much more comprehensively, in the book.
The movie was recently awarded a Golden Globes Award for Best Drama. While the acting (such as it is, as many characters are simply playing themselves) and cinematography are flawless. The lonely beauty of the American Southwest plays a major part in setting the mood. However, compared to the book, Nomadland tends to water down some important aspects of this lifestyle.
A Self-Reliant Loner
Frances McDormand expertly portrays low-key, earthy characters such as Fern. Her character here is still recovering from the heartbreak of losing her husband and home. The movie mainly depicts the challenges of life on the road and the creative ways nomads cope with everyday issues such as staying warm, going to the bathroom, and cooking.
The closest thing to a plot is that a fellow nomad is obviously interested in Fern and pursues her while she keeps him at a distance. There’s also a scene in which Fern visits her family and tensions from the past arise. These scenes all depict the conflict between the “normal” domestic way of life and the nomadic one. It suggests that living on the road for a long time makes one feel imprisoned by conventional life.
Led by Bob Wells, we see how the nomads form temporary yet close-knit communities. Many, like Fern, are fiercely independent loners who, nonetheless, take pleasure in one another’s company and who help each other out as much as possible.
Nomadland Downplays the Harsh Realities of Gig Work
In Jessica Bruder’s book, the modern nomadic lifestyle is explored as a kind of sociological study, with an emphasis on how economic hardship is forcing people to find new ways to survive. This is certainly obvious in the film as well. When Bob Wells makes his pitch to novice nomads, he preaches an ultra-individualistic philosophy of self-reliance and realizing that society isn’t going to take care of you.
The movie, though insightful about the motivations and personalities of its subjects, avoids looking too closely at what its subjects have to do to survive economically. This is most apparent when we see the nomads working in an Amazon warehouse. My first thought was, “Amazon actually let them film this?” The book, after all, pointed out how hard and exploitative these temporary gigs are, especially on older adults. Bruder describes, for example, how injuries on the floor are common.
In the film, however, we only see brief snippets of people working. And, significantly, the only words actually spoken about Amazon are positive, when Fern tells someone that the pay is good. The film, similarly shows a variety of mostly brief scenes of nomads working in different environments, such as a campground. In this manner, the film underplays one of the most significant facts about this lifestyle —it compels people to work very hard for relatively low wages and no benefits. In this manner, the living in van lifestyle of these contemporary nomads who rely on temp jobs can be seen as one branch of the emerging gig economy.
Vulture discusses this at length in an article, What Nomadland Gets Wrong About Gig Labor. Of course, it’s doubtful Amazon would have permitted filming in their facilities if it was portrayed in a less positive light. Or, perhaps, Zhao preferred not to focus on these issues, which would have made the film more political. As it is, the film is more about the expansive landscapes of the American West and the resourcefulness and community-mindedness of the nomads.
An Emerging Nation of Nomads?
Bruder’s book came out several years ago, and explains how many of the new breed of nomads were victims of the 2008 economic crisis. Today, many of the conditions of that decade have only worsened, made even more severe by businesses closed and jobs lost due to COVID. Even before the pandemic, issues such as homelessness and economic inequality have been steadily worsening. Thus, it’s likely that the lifestyle depicted in Nomadland will become more and more common.
Nomadland is currently streaming on Hulu. I recommend it, but you should definitely read the book to get a fuller picture.
Social media dominates our lives more and more. The Social Dilemma is a persuasive documentary that looks at some of the ways sites such as Facebook may be manipulating us, even beyond what’s obvious. The doc features a panel of speakers, mostly tech industry insiders or ex-insiders.
The main point of The Social Dilemma isn’t really that controversial. The algorithms of sites such as Facebook are designed to target, influence, and reinforce certain patterns in users. While the most obvious example of this is retargeted advertising, that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Retargeting, if you’re not familiar with the term, is when you click on a link, say for a product on Amazon, and then you suddenly start seeing ads for that product everywhere you go.
The retargeting principle also applies to things like YouTube videos as well as the types of posts you interact with on Facebook. In areas such as politics, this contributes to the so-called echo chamber effect. People get increasingly categorized and segregated into subcultures and see fewer and fewer alternative or opposing viewpoints. As the film points out, it’s actually profitable for these sites to do this, as people are creatures of habit. If you’re addicted to conspiracy videos, for example, it makes sense to encourage you to watch more of these. You’re also more likely to click on ads and just spend more time on the sites, which is part of the plan.
The Social Dilemma dramatizes the algorithm process by Anthropomorphising AI into actual people who scheme to manipulate an unstable teen into staying online, which leads to tragic results. The movie avoids getting overtly political, so there’s no tangible movement or group he joins. But the implication seems to be that social media sites may encourage people to join extremist groups and possibly turn into terrorists, school shooters, and such.
The main points made by The Social Dilemma are hard to dispute. At the same time, I’d advise watching this doc with a healthy degree of skepticism. For one thing, what we have here are powerful, influential people warning us about other powerful, influential people. In some cases, the two groups overlap quite a bit. The film’s narrow focus is on social media but some of the underlying issues apply equally to the mass media in general -which certainly includes Netflix.
If we’re talking about manipulation, the film itself uses a fair amount of it to make its points. The creators and the people they interview are clearly part of an elite intellectual class whose views are constantly heard in books, TED Talks, conferences, and docs like this one. Jaron Lanier, declared the “Founding Father of Virtual Reality” has become one of the official spokespeople for exposing the dangers of the digital age. Tristan Harris worked at Google, Jeff Seibert, at Twitter. Shoshana Zuboff is the author of the popular book, Surveillance Capitalism.
So what are the solutions they are proposing? While the movie isn’t putting forth an actual plan, the implication seems to be that we need more regulation and oversight. There’s also the option of unplugging, of course. Towards the end, it’s mentioned that several top executives of social media companies don’t let their own kids use these sites.
Slate published an interesting critique of The Social Dilemma by Pranav Malhotra, where he points out that the film overlooks many key issues such as privacy and how social media depends upon and contributes to economic inequality. He also points out that many scholars and other experts not directly affiliated with the tech industry don’t get a voice. There is a sense here that we’re supposed to trust these tech industry reformers to clean up the damage they’ve done.
With a documentary on social issues, you always need to consider the source as well as what’s being said between the lines. This is most certainly not something put together by an indie filmmaker. It’s a slick production, complete with a website that tells you how to organize, promote it, and take further action. Okay, nowadays, even a kid who made a $1500 doc would most likely have a website and links to more content. But, in this case, it’s Netflix, and the creators are well-connected with the corporate media. So it’s worth questioning their motives.
The Social Dilemma can be seen as a severe critique of the social media age but equally as a pre-emptive action to ensure that entrenched forces remain in control of the narrative.
John Edward Szeles, better known as The Amazing Johnathan, is a high-profile renegade magician who’s appeared in numerous venues as well as in movies and various celebrity shows. In 2014, Johnathan was diagnosed with a heart condition called cardiomyopathy and given a year to live. Several years later, however, he was still around. Director Ben Berman decided that an infamous magician on borrowed time would be a good subject for a documentary.
Of course, The Amazing Johnathan Documentary turns out to be a lot less straightforward than the above introduction suggests. It seems that it’s not enough to make an ordinary documentary these days. It helps if there’s an air of mystery and a heavy dose of “meta,” where the documentarian and his work is at least as important as the alleged subject. Exit Through the Gift Shop comes to mind, and The Amazing Johnathan Documentary, while not quite as fascinating as that one, has some similarities.
There are a few twists in the doc that it’s probably better not to reveal. One, however, must be mentioned. As the filming got underway, several other documentary makers began to surface. One, allegedly, was the production company behind hits such as Man on a Wire. Then another, and yet another, documentary maker appeared, turning Berman’s own doc into a kind of hall of mirrors.
At this point, Berman, as well as the viewers have no idea what’s really going on. Is Johnathan playing him (and us) or is he himself being used by multiple filmmakers cashing in on his impending death. Speaking of which, is he even sick at all?
One backstory is that Szeles is a heavy drug user, which possibly explains his heart condition. In fact, if he really uses meth every day, it truly is a miracle that he’s still alive. At one point, Berman offers to take meth with Szeles as an act of “Gonzo journalism.” He goes as far as to consult with a lawyer on the possible legal ramifications. This episode is an example of how the doc drags in spots. In 2019, it isn’t really shocking or necessary for authenticity to watch people take drugs. Yet this is treated as a major ethical and aesthetic issue.
There are other places where the action slows or feels repetitive. While it’s interesting to contemplate who’s telling the truth and what’s really going on, most doc viewers have already seen this kind of thing before. Just as Berman doesn’t know how far he can trust Szeles, so the viewer is in the same position in regards to him. Do we even know, for example, that there really are multiple documentary makers? The main focus is on the notorious second group. Berman doesn’t let us see or hear anything they do, either for his own purposes or because they don’t want to be filmed.
There’s one scene, in a Vancouver theater, where the second doc is allegedly playing, but we don’t get to see any of it, only a sparse crowd that includes an actor Berman pays to crash and ask a question. If we want to get in the spirit of suspicion and paranoia, there’s little evidence that this doc actually exists. Of course, I haven’t taken the trouble to research it and perhaps others have verified it. The point is that the whole film puts one in this state of mind where everything can be doubted.
Whatever other docs may or may not have been made, The Amazing Johnathan Documentary has obviously broken through. It was showcased at Sundance, has been shown in art theaters and is now on Hulu. I’d recommend this film to anyone who’s fascinated in The Amazing Johnathan and/or who can’t get enough of murky doc/mocs where it’s never quite clear what is and isn’t real. It’s not my favorite example of this genre but it did hold my interest.
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