On the Psychosis of The Love Witch

The Love Witch05/19/15

The love witch at tea time

The Love Witch is a meticulously constructed throwback to 1970s B-movies. From the first frame to the last, it is clear just how much work went into this film. Indeed, the film opted to use 35mm in lieu of filtered video and the director has stated that she made many of the costumes herself and that the film’s total time to completion was about 7 years. In an aesthetic sense the film is thus a total success and, despite the occasional use of modern technology via cell phones or computers, I hardly felt as if I was anywhere but the 1970s.

There are other ways in which the film is able to reproduce the feeling of watching, specifically, a B-movie which comes from the generally wooden acting, over-the-top emotional expressions, and facile script. Ultimately, it seemed to be an open question whether the film was attempting to be ironic in its presentation of these other aspects of the genre in the same way that someone might disavow a tasteless joke that nobody laughs at after the fact. Nevertheless, there is a great richness in what unfolds within The Love Witch although one wonders why certain episodes within in weren’t more condensed once the pattern of how the love witch functions had been established.

Spoiler Alert

The main protagonist of The Love Witch is Elaine, a woman obsessed with perfect love to the exclusion of all other things. In fact, this obsession with having perfect love is what led her to become a witch in the first place having come to the conclusion that more powerful tools were necessary in order to achieve her romantic goals. The comedy of the film comes mostly from her single-minded, unrelenting pursuit of this objective which repeatedly backfires because of its puissance. Every man she involves herself with eventually dies due to the overpowering effect of her spell; a fact which is somehow completely lost on the love witch herself. In lieu of analyzing her strategies and correcting them or reassessing her expectations of how love functions, she simply continues implementing the same strategy and achieving the same results over and over again. This total ignorance of the effects of her actions along with what appears to be a complete lack of discernment in choosing the men she involves herself with speaks to the fact that the love witch wants nothing more than a vessel to fill her fantasies with, a pliable vessel that will not die or leave her. In other words, the love witch does not appear to have any relationships in any meaningful sense throughout the entire film with the possible exception of her first relationship.

We can thus contextualize the film according to its prehistory. When we first meet the love witch, she is driving to a new place to start a new life. She is fleeing the police who she believes have been unfairly harassing her for what they believe to be her involvement in the death of one of her previous lovers. However, we later learn that this is only part of the picture. The genesis of the love witch is actually from the ashes of a broken marriage. Her husband leaves her for another woman and her inability to accept this fact and move on with her life causes her to obsess over how she might get him back which eventually leads her to adopt witchcraft as her method. The ex-husband thus becomes the first target and victim of this new person, the love witch.

The birth of the love witch may be viewed as Elaine’s psychotic break from reality. In other words, her inability to accept and integrate into her reality the fact that her husband has left her causes her to detach from that reality instead and to live perpetually in her fantasy. In this other place, perfect love is possible with the right tools (in this case, being those of witchcraft) and any failure of love is to be blamed on not having found the perfect partner yet. As she moves from one man to another, she always blames the deaths of these men on innate weaknesses that they have that make them unsuitable for the power of her spells. Virtually without batting an eyelash, she continues onward to the next person as if her plan were to seduce every single man, one by one, until arriving at the perfect partner.

Just as the love witch lives in her own fantasy realm, she also appears as fantasy to others. From all the men she encounters to her sole female friend, Trish, she refuses to allow any depth to develop and goes through her life interacting on a level of total superficiality. This point is particularly emphasized in the sequence in which her neighbor, Trish, goes into the her apartment to return a ring and decides to dress up exactly as her. Having been fetishizing the love witch as a perfect woman from the first time she exclaimed, with surprise, that she was beautiful, this dress up is irresistible to Trish who clearly sees herself as inferior, far too mundane, far too much a real person.

In fact, one of the interesting things about this film is that the entire universe of the film appears as artifice with all characters having little depth or development. The few moments when some depth begins to show through are quickly shut down (and it is interesting to note that these moments are always coming from characters besides the love witch). However, as the main protagonist you would think that the love witch would change or develop in some way. Instead, the conclusion of the film has to do with how she obstinately refuses to leave her fantasy.

Although the trail of dead lovers does not seem to bother the love witch, the man who refuses to submit to her spell does and it is this conflict on which the conclusion of the film hinges. The police officer, Grif, investigating the mysterious death of one of her lovers is eventually lead to her. As expected, he becomes interested in her and they begin a relationship wherein he begins to experience strong romantic feelings toward her. However, the usual arc of her relationship goes awry when  the mounting evidence of her involvement in the death of her previous lover makes it impossible for Grif to continue participating in the romance. He refuses her spell and disengages from her completely; an action which clearly infuriates and perplexes the love witch.

At this point, Elaine enters into the same sort of challenge that precipitated her detachment from reality and transformation into the love witch and, once again, she chooses fantasy and detachment. Whereas in all the previous situations, the man died because of the power of her spell (manifesting through unexpected but possible physical ailments such as a sudden heart attack) thus allowing her to live with the idea that the man was madly in love with her until death while also allowing her to disavow any direct responsibility for their deaths, in this instance neither is possible. Grif sits there stone-faced and emotionless. He flaunts his rejection of her spell and, by extension, of her while he waits for the moment in which she will give in to reality and allow him to arrest her. But this does not happen, instead the love witch stabs him in the heart having been inspired by a painting on her wall. She refuses his call to return to a reality that she sees as harsh and meaningless and instead kills him with inspiration from a magical mural. We can only assume that she will rationalize this murder as being yet another necessary or tragic consequence of her love magic and that she will continue on to the next person. With the murder of Grif, she decides to never return again and eliminates the last vestiges of the person the love witch once was.

The extraordinary lack of character development in the film may thus be seen as an expression of the fact that from the beginning to the end of the film, Elaine is stuck in her psychosis. Only at the very end is there but an instant in which she could leave it, a possibility she decisively rejects. Ultimately, Elaine decides that fantasy is preferable to reality even if it means getting blood on your hands.

Jeff: The Literal Obsessive

Quick Context Summary: Jeff is a documentary about the notorious serial killer, Jeffrey Dahmer. It features interviews that are intercut with a re-enactment of what one would call a day in the life of Jeffrey Dahmer.

Already from the title, you have an idea that this documentary is not going to be your average sort of history channel documentary and it isn’t. The chief point of departure for Jeff, structurally speaking, is the extensive use of the “historical re-enactment.” The film in fact begins as a narrative film would with the main protagonist found in a pet store buying some fish after which you begin to get the talking heads. This serves to produce a sense of sudden disjunction at the beginning as it moves from a grainy, film-like texture to the hypercrisp video interviews. There is also archival footage but this is framed in the way that archival footage is usually framed inside of the speech from the talking heads. It can thus be said the the film is split into two parallel lines. Another important point to be made is that the “re-enactment” does not take much care to be period specific. This may or may not be intentional but, nevertheless, serves to produce the sense that this could have happened at any point in time including the present. This was especially felt to me when The Books were played in the background of the apartment at one point. Another point of interest in the composition is that the interviewers were not always shot statically, often there were, what I would call, unmotivated pans. These served to spice up the montage but were somewhat distracting due to their arbitrary nature.

The interviews focus mainly on one of Dahmer’s neighbors, the chief investigator, and the forensic pathologist. These are all people who were involved with the case and/or knew Dahmer personally. As such, the focus of the interviews is on who he was, the relationships these people had with him, and the details of the case. The chief interest of this film lies here yet this is also where the film encounters certain problems.

Overall, the explanation of the case and its details is pretty thorough, however, knowing that Dahmer had boxes and boxes of severed penises does not really attempt to explain anything about what motivated him. On the one hand, the film seems to be trying to bring Dahmer down to Earth through all these accounts of people’s personal experiences and the re-enactment shown and yet, on the other hand, his character profile is left empty so that we can maintain his Otherness as a freakish monster who need not be explained on account of his inexplicable evil essence. This emptiness might be due tot a desire to maintain him not so much as a specific individuality but as an “average guy” whom we can project ourselves on to so that we might horror at his normality. In any case, this omission seemed glaring to me but there is some room here for redemption.

The most thought-provoking parts of the film were the ones where the question of Dahmer’s sexuality or his celebrity were addressed in some way. There is a section where a voiceover speaks of the horror and fascination that people have towards killers and this sense that their material artifacts are somehow infected with their essence. The idea of wearing Dahmer’s jacket is revolting even though there is nothing wrong with the jacket but what does this mean exactly? Dahmer, via his acts that have brought him celebrity, has established himself as otherwise than human and yet painted in human colors. If this can happen, then the realm of the Other is not discrete but can invade and overflow being and I think it is this sense that there is no clear separation that produces an anxiety of falling into the void. The big questions of the film are: Is it Dahmer’s similarity or alterity from society that disturbs us? Is the act of making Dahmer as evil and inexplicable as possible useful or just facile? Is the act of humanizing Dahmer better?

As for sexuality, this is another issue that was mostly ignored in the film. It was hinted at that Dahmer had homosexual proclivities but this was never explored in any way. What was most interesting for me was the segment where Dahmer’s amateur lobotomy procedures were described. It was said that Dahmer drilled holes in the heads of his victims in an attempt to lobotomize them so that he could have a dumb passive body to use for sex but that this procedure always failed resulting in death. This is why I now think of Dahmer as the literal obsessive as his murders could be seen as the logical conclusion of the obsessional neurotic tendency to ignore or destroy the other. In most cases this is done through self-isolation, domination, or aloofness but, in this case, it was done literally. Dahmer’s desire for control over sex lead him to this physical mutilation of his sexual object of desire in an attempt to deny the subjectivity of the other and take it for himself. This can also be seen in the subsequent breaking down of the identifiable body into constituent parts destroying the specificity of the other. Dahmer had disembodied penises and skulls turning the other subject instead into a collection of parts for his use. And as a grand final act, he ate his victims thus absorbing the other into himself.

Schooling the World Review: How Many Elephants Can You Fit in One Room?

Schooling the World is a documentary against the Western educational style system that is often brought to indigenous communities around the world. Its basic argument is that these systems help to alienate the youth of a community from their own culture and change them into capitalist automatons who must now participate in the global capitalist system for they have now not only become instilled with the values of that system but they have also been made unskilled in their former subsistence economy, having not learned how to farm, slaughter, forage, and so on. As a sort of case study for this, they use the region of Ladakh in northern India.

As with most documentaries with a very clear opinion that they are trying to convince you of, this documentary is also full of manipulative editing and simplifications of reality. The clearest examples of these come with the cutting during the interviews with the World Bank and with the people who run the various Western schools in Ladakh. During each interview, they intercut the talking heads of people enumerating their goals and achievements either with images that purport to show how much the children have been stripped of identity or with images of the terrible misery this education has wrought upon them by forcing them into the capitalist system. This blanket condemnation of Western education, however, produces a few problems for the film itself in terms of its structure and its authority. A segment in which statistics are enumerated about how the American educational systems fails is also confusing inasmuch as one is not sure if this is bad, seeing as the film is against this sort of educational system. This segment is also extremely problematic in that it seems to be trying to blame all the ills of American youth on the educational system that induces them into consumerism and hierarchy but there are way more problems with American society than these which could be affecting American youth negatively.

The first main problem is what I would call the question of authority. That is, in the film the implication is that hierarchical systems of education produce people who lose all personal identity and value for themselves except inasmuch as it is defined by the system in which they are processed into, in this case, capitalism. The hierarchy is where authority is both produced and respected and where we can produce the Master who imparts knowledge to the Student. This film, however, is performing this same function inasmuch as it has its panel of experts who act as masters imparting knowledge to we, the audience. Considering that Western education is the problem and all these authorities are the product of Western education, what are we to make of this simultaneous respect for and disavowal of the Western education system? The fact that the film is so very clear in what its opinion is and its belief in the rightness of this opinion also produces this same kind of disjunction as the education that they are critiquing is an education that imparts master narratives to others as self-evident fact and yet, here the film is also producing a master narrative that it wants to impart to you as the correct interpretation of reality. The montage and the quotes all work to serve this purpose.

The second problem is the problem of ideology. The film produces a binary in which the West is evil, ideological and consumerist while indigenous cultures are peaceful, self-subsistent, noble savages. The West is seen as the exterior contagion which is always coming to destroy the peace and beauty of these natives but the real picture is not as simple and unproblematic as they would have you believe. One of the problems with this binary is the implication that the natives exist in a sort of continuous beautiful harmony that no one would ever want to leave and that this order is  more natural than the Western order. While I agree that many forager cultures do have a much healthier and more sustainable relationship to nature, this does not mean that they live in some heaven on Earth and this does not mean that their culture is not also “ideological.” The implication throughout is that Western education destroys an individual’s identity and processes him/her into a goon for the capitalist system. This, however, seems to imply that there is a pre-existing natural self that is being corrupted. However, every cultural system is processing and interpolating people into their cultural system through the production of subjectivities so to imply that only the West does this makes no sense. Every culture is ideological because every culture produces naturalized social relations. Furthermore, this also implies that people have no choice in their lives but, considering the fact that all the experts in the film are products of Western education, clearly you can be processed for capitalism and then rebel against it. Conversely, you can imagine someone being processed for the Ladakh culture and then rebelling against it as well. There is also no consideration of native cultures with practices that would be difficult for even enlightened Western liberals to endorse (such as female circumcision). How are we to treat examples like this?

Technology ends up being another important but unconsidered issue in this film. Technology is what allowed this film to be made and to consequently broadcast this message. Technology is what made me aware of this screening in the first place. What role, then, is technology to have in native culture? It seems that Western education is lumped together with everything Western as being contagions for the native cultures, however, it is hard to deny that some technologies can be useful and desired in more than simply an indulgent, consumerist way. This film, after all, is using a Western technology in order to “educate” people about the evils of education. It seems that there is a lot more to consider here than what is shown in the film in terms of how native cultures should be interacting with the rest of the world.

A lot of this critique comes down to the implication that we should just leave these natives alone. Fair enough, but it’s not that easy because the world has become globalized whether you like it or not and this has to be dealt with. An isolated community will sooner or later butt heads with the global capitalist system whether by development, pollution, or what have you and what is to be done when that happens. If no one in the community has any understanding of what global capitalism is and what it means then it will be very easy for them to be used and exploited. There is no solution provided for this question of how indigenous communities are to interface against capitalism to protect themselves. And, what about us? What does all this mean for the Westerner who is automatically processed into being a worker? This is also not discussed at all even though the idea that capitalism needs to be eliminated is clearly the thread that underlies this entire documentary. It’s not just about the imposition of Western educational systems on non-Western cultures but about the imposition of Capitalist educational systems on everyone, including those in the West. Overall, an interesting and worthwhile documentary with a lot of issues but, hey, that’s film for you.

The Skin I Live In: A Story of Disavowals (spoilers)

Quick Context Summary: The Skin I Live In is a film about an obsessional doctor (Robert) who kidnaps the boy who raped his deceased daughter (Vincente, later Vera) and keeps him captive while he transforms his body into that of a female’s through various surgical procedures.

Even from the title you begin to get a grasp of the ontology of this film. Skin is separated from self, being merely a quality of the self. You inhabit a skin yet you are not that skin. This is, in essence, what ultimately saves Vincente and kills Robert for it is Robert’s obsession and misrecognition of Vincente as Vera that allows for Vincente’s plan to function and allow his escape.

Let me say that this film by Almodovar is perhaps the clearest expression of Almodovar’s own obsessions directly dealing with important questions of sexuality and gender that in previous films have functioned more on the side than at the forefront. In particular, the unraveling of the story is done in such a way that your categorization and understanding of the characters radically changes after one has already begun to form a judgment about them thus producing a space of reflection between these two points.

The film begins with a relationship between a doctor and a woman who appears to be his prisoner. Little by little we recognize that this woman has become his pet project testing his transgenic experiments but we know nothing about her except that there is some sort of  eerie resemblance to an absent other which we eventually learn is the doctor’s dead wife. As the film develops we become aware of the fate of his deceased wife and deceased daughter and what they have to do with the production of Vera with the daughter providing the alibi and his wife the model. We thus see a sort of conflation of these two forces in the figure of Vera who is both made to look like his wife while being the same age as his daughter. She fulfills a fantasy of a ghostly return of his wife in perfect form before her accident. This psychic investment will later betray him.

The conflict between Vincente and Robert is present throughout the entire film up to the point when Robert expresses his desire for the reconstructed wife in Vera at which point it becomes visible to Vincente that he can perform for Robert what Robert expects in his fantasy of his reanimated wife and in this way be able to escape. This allowance  can only happen by Robert disavowing the origins of Vera as Vincente. First of all, as Vincente is turned into Vera we see him given various feminine accoutrements as if he is being told that the physical change is not sufficient, now you must also perform the social role of woman even in the absence of others. This appears to be simply naturalized from the perspective of Robert so that Vera’s need for make up and dresses appears self evident. This self evidence is also what makes Vera’s avowal of desire for him completely acceptable for him for Vera looks like his wife and even if Vera used to be a male with a female sexual object choice, now that he’s a she the change of sexual object choice to male is accepted as obvious for him. This simplistic gender schema that Robert accepts as self evident allows for Vincente’s trick to function and gets to the heart of the title of the film.

If we can think of sex, gender, and sexuality separately then we can understand that a person is biological male or female yet acts socially as a man or woman and has a sexual object choice and that these are all independent though we push certain normative bundles such as the female woman with a masculine object choice and the male man with a feminine object choice. These standard bundles allow for people to believe in more simplistic gender schemas such as the conflation between sex and gender and the idea that aberrant desire denotes an incomplete formation of sex/gender thus showing inauthenticity of being. That is, the gay man as defective thus preserving the idea that maleness is tied to heterosexual desire because you are not fully male if your desire is “wrong.”

In regards to the film, Robert appears to accept the simplistic gender schema so that, for him, Vincente, by virtue of having his body transformed from have male organs to female organs, must also naturally want to “act like a woman” and also desire men as women are supposed to do. Because this is obvious to him, there is no cognitive dissonance or confusion when Vera tells him s/he wants him though there is also the misrecognition of Vera as his returned dead wife functioning which is also  compelling him to forget Vera’s origins. These two things may help explain his total trust in Vera as well as his mother’s distrust. She has nothing at stake in regards to Vera so she can always already see Vera as the transformed Vincente.

The title thus describes the fact that Vera does not exist. Vera is a mask as well as a fantasy that covers over and obscures Vincente. Vincente lives inside of Vera and ultimately uses Vera to escape his prison. The relationship between Robert and Vera/Vincente in the latter part of the film is thus articulated on many registers. We have Robert’s fantasy with Vincente playing the part of Vera, the naturalized woman, but beneath this, we also have Vincente as the master using the body of Vera in this capacity. It’s interesting to consider, then, that within the Vincente/Vera persona we have a sort of depth structure. Outwardly, we have a female body who also performs feminine gender (for now) being controlled by Vincente. Within this one being we have an interesting articulation of Lacanian concepts since Vincente (as subject and master) is using Vera (as form and fantasy) in order to be the desire of Robert (the other). As such, Vincente exploits the assumption of his having feminine subjectivity in order to dupe Robert into a sexual relationship (which incidentally always fails (even technically); every time Vera and Robert have intercourse, Vera experiences too much pain to continue).

The end of the film produces an interesting moment in its subtext vis-a-vis the start of the film. When Vincente finally returns to his mother’s store, he first speaks to his former co-worker referencing the earlier encounter they had in the film where he flirted with her and she denied him citing an incongruity between his gender and her sexual object choice (she’s a lesbian). Now, of course, he could have a lesbian relationship with his co-worker since his body is now congruous with her sexual object choice. This moment is interesting because it serves as a way of problematizing the simplistic gender schema that Robert seemed to have. If Vincente is Vincente in all ways except body then that means he still feels like a man in essence and he’s still attracted to women as before so that his expression of himself now, in the absence of surgery to return him to something resembling his former body, would entail lesbianism. This plus the moment where his mother learns that her son has been physically transformed into a women ends the film allowing for the audience to consider where this incredibly charged moment might lead.

Thoughts on Melancholia: Control Flanked by Depression and Anxiety (spoilers)

Quick Context Summary: Melancholia is a film about a failed wedding on the eve of the end of the world to be caused by a head on collision with another planet.

The organization of Melancholia is interesting. It is strictly divided into a prelude and 2 parts with lots of foreshadowing and Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde acting as a motif of doom. The first part details the failed wedding of Justine while the second part deals with the lead up to the end of the world. The film is not necessarily enjoyable but it is an experience.

I found the camera work and lighting to be very destabilizing and anxiety producing being composed of a lot of close ups as well as shaky handheld camera work and visible focusing of images. This was the style of filming for the majority of the film though not all of it. Several sections, notably the prelude to part one that shows what shall be the conclusion of their reality, are meticulously composed and glacial in their motion. The end of the world is beautiful while life is empty and repugnant as Justine more or less expresses in the film.

Anyway, the wedding. What does a wedding symbolize? The construction of a new socially sanctioned unit, it is the birth of a new state of being. And yet, here, this wedding is constantly collapsing upon itself with the anxiety of its own pressure to perform happiness and unity. The first problem comes immediately and ridiculously with the limo being too long to be properly driven up to the reception. A problem that somehow delays the couple two hours and begins the film with the first of many partial collapses until the final collapse. The camera work performs the internal anxiety and sense of facade that later becomes manifest in the figure of the bitter mother whose enunciative statements during the toast seems to transfer to Justine her pessimism about the viability of marriage. In a matter of fact way she tells Justine to enjoy this farce while it lasts, and in saying so hastens its destruction. This negative energy seems to possess Justine after this moment no longer allowing her any enjoyment in the fantasy which must now be destroyed because it can no longer be sustained. Consequently, Justine destroys her hours long marriage by betrayal as well as her promotion to a new job.

The first part thus seems to perform the destruction of a birth and brings Justine into the fullness of a depression. In part two, we see her no longer able to do much of anything for a little while, so detached and broken that her sister is now caring for her.

In part one, we see Justine’s sister Claire as the strong and competent sister. The one who knows what she’s doing or the “normal” one as some reviewers have put it. Her husband is the supremely rich controller who knows. In part two, these characters are developed further to the point where I believe they become clear concepts as opposed to full characters. This is why I find it interesting that Claire would be characterized as “normal” for in part two she is nothing if not the embodiment of total anxiety while the husband is the embodiment of the fantasy of control. Claire is always already running around worrying and trying to fix problems, many of which can have no solution while her husband is always ready to reassure her with money or information as modes of control. When the end of the world finally comes we get to see clearly that Claire cannot let go and cannot accept the end of everything, frantically running around as if something could be done. Meanwhile, her husband kills himself once the reality of the demise becomes clear to him as if unable to tolerate this total loss of control in reality except by, at least, controlling his own death. Justine can accept it, having already shrugged off her life earlier, she already performed her end of history and has nothing much to lose any more.

We thus seem to see a juxtaposition of strategies of living versus dying. The depressive Justine has lost her ability to live but has gained an ability to die meanwhile her sister and brother-in-law have invested so much in life that they cannot tolerate death though inevitable it may be. The rational actors in the wedding become the irrational actors on doomsday, showing the empty terror that underlies the way they live their lives in anxiety and control.

Movie Review: Planeat

I saw this movie at the same Whole Foods™ film festival as the previous film reviewed, however, this one has very little merit as it is pure propaganda for the “plant-based diet” that is part of the Whole Foods agenda and it is completely transparent in this mission from the very first scene at the beginning of the film so this review will be chiefly composed of descriptions of how this movie is attempting to skew data and manipulate the audience towards its goal. This is not to say that other films are completely objective or anything ridiculous like that, however, because of my familiarity with many of the topics that this film purports to represent “truthfully” I am in a unique position to see exactly how it is that this film attempted to manipulate me versus a film on a topic I know nothing about or where I am sympathetic to the position represented from the beginning.


This film is essentially an attempt to be the movie version or companion to T. Colin Campbell’s “The China Study” book. As such, it relies mainly on him, his studies, and his conclusions though not exclusively. In addition to Campbell, a fair amount of time is also given to this Israeli scientist who attempts to construct the environmental argument against meat and dairy and Dr. Esselstyn who follows the line of cardiac event prevention.


The arc of this film is more or less character driven with T. Colin Campbell playing the role of the determined truthseeker going against the grain for what is right. However, in addition to this, you have an alternate line which has to do with how delicious a plant-based diet can be. The montage of the film is thus an intercutting between interviews that instill fear into the hearts of omnivores and shots of chefs preparing complicated, high end vegan food. The tack is obvious, the first line makes you want to give up meat while the second line shows you how delicious it can be to do so.


All right, so already from the way in which the montage is organized we can already see how transparent this film is about its agenda to get you to give up meat. At the beginning of the film you have a dinner scene which begins promisingly by describing how we all have a complex relationship to food and from there decides to focus on meat and dairy exclusively which I find very interesting. Food qua food has an impact on health, the environment, and so on and yet no reason is given for why we must investigate animal products and not plant products. This is the first instance in which cultural assumptions and just-so stories are used so that nothing is actually explained.

T. Colin Campbell presents his moving story of a boy from a dairy farm realizing that he needs to give up animal products based on his research but what isn’t explained to the audience are experimental design, the difference between a whole food and an isolated substance, and the problems with epidemiological correlations. So, when Campbell describes his experiment where cancer growth is promoted by feeding mice isolated casein, he generalizes this to mean that dairy is cancer promoting, a jump which is not feasible yet this is the implication from the film. Dairy, however, is not isolated casein and we cannot treat it like so. For instance, there have been experiments in which actual dairy has been used and an association has been found between low-fat milk and colorectal cancer while no association has been found between colorectal cancer and whole milk. Obviously, there is more to the story here. More that is not even hinted at by the movie which instead prefers to simplify and generalize.

The film, however, presents Campbell as someone who understands that he needs to prove that animal protein is bad in a human study or no one will take him seriously. He decides to do this by engaging in an epidemiological study in China. Of course, the film doesn’t explain anything about what epidemiology is or what its limitations are because that would create a few problems for the idea of “proving” anything. Epidemiology by its nature is observational and so epidemiology can present correlations which  may be used to produce hypotheses which may then be tested in an experiment to see if it is, in fact, a causative factor or not. For instance, if it is snowing and everyone outside is wearing a coat, you have a correlation between snow and coats. You cannot, however, conclude from this that coats cause it to snow. This is the problem endemic to epidemiology and why it cannot actually prove anything. This is why it is very interesting that this film presents the data from the China Study as Campbell’s attempt to prove that meat is bad. This is also the problem with Dr. Esselstyn. Apparently, the intervention trials he performed with his patients had no control group and a high dropout rate which makes concluding anything from them very difficult. You need a base in order to compare how much of a difference your intervention made, furthermore, when you have dropouts the group you are studying stops being random and becomes selected. Maybe everyone who was doing badly on the vegan diet dropped out giving the impression that the vegan diet was 100% effective for preventing heart attacks since only those for whom it was effective actually stayed on the diet until the conclusion of the study. None of this is explained in the film, however, so that the impression is simply given that meat causes cancer and heart attacks and that Dr. Esselstyn and T. Colin Campbell have found the answer.

Gidon Eshel performs this same procedure for his environmental argument against meat. He produces a bunch of statistics without explaining how they were formulated and then uses mathematical equations that remain hidden in order to tell us that meat has the worst carbon footprint ever. Very little attention at all is paid to production methods except for one small section of the film which I shall get into later. In other words, he acts as an authority we must trust, after all, he’s a professor. The problem with all the information that he presents is that, even if he is completely correct, he has provided no argument whatsoever against meat consumption. He’s only provided an argument against the production of meat in the mode of the factory farm. I can get behind that. There is no question that the factory farm is environmentally destructive but this cannot be generalized to mean that all methods of producing meat are environmentally destructive. This contradiction, however, does become apparent in a small section of the film where Eshel visits a small scale farmer who raises grass-fed cattle. While earlier, Eshel says some jargon that isn’t explained clearly about how c-reactive protein is a marker of pollution in water produced by effluent from raising livestock and that the levels of c-reactive protein are the same whether it is a conventional or organic operation, once he gets down on this small scale, grass-fed farm he admits that there is no c-reactive protein being produced here. This is the only admission of this extremely large and important caveat to what he is advocating and this section doesn’t last long. If we examine more closely then this type of diversified smallholding operation, we can see that no waste is produced and marginal land is made use of and carbon is sequestered. When you have a closed loop farm you have cows that produce manure that fertilizes crops, the cows also eat the grass that spurs growth that sequesters carbon, and the cows provide meat and dairy for the farmers from land that would otherwise not be very useful. This alternative that allows for meat consumption without environmental degradation is hastily dismissed as being impossible on a large scale. It is simple enough to say such things but no explanation is given as to why it is not viable to have more of these sorts of smallholdings. Let us not forget that conventionally produced food is no more efficient than organically produced food and yet many still believe this is the case because it seems so very “obvious.” Global problems will not be solved by imposing from the top global solutions. We must think beyond linearity and numbers. Something which Eshel seems to be unable to do, obsessed with data manipulation as he is.

Another issue I have with this film is that the confounding of variables is not explained at all. People who are at risk for a heart attack are put on a vegan diet by Dr. Esselstyn after which they are able to live out the rest of their years heart attack free. Now, did these people avoid the heart attack because they stopped eating meat, because they stopped eating dairy, because they reduced sugar intake, because they reduced refined grains, because they reduced fats and oils, because they increased vegetable intake, because they increased nutrient density, because they decreased caloric intake, or because they increased fiber intake? It’s hard to attribute a cause because all these changes tend to travel together and considering how many of the cooking examples in the film involved people sautéing in liquids and not oils, you can bet that the amount of polyunsaturated fats consumed fell. In one part, Campbell tells an audience that if they become vegan but only eat processed vegan foods, they will not be healthy. This is a very interesting statement because if disease is unequivocally caused by meat and dairy then a vegan diet, even if that diet is just processed wheat and soy, should still protect you against heart attacks and cancer. Whether it is a whole foods diet or not should not matter so long as meat and dairy are excluded. This statement gives away a ton of information. First, the implication is that most people are coming from a diet high in processed food to his unprocessed vegan diet. So is the main change that protects against disease the absence of meat and dairy or the absence of processed foods? Considering that Esselstyn and Campbell have produced no convincing results about meat and dairy being harmful, I’m betting that the main benefit is from getting rid of processed foods. This would make a lot more sense considering that heart disease has increased only in the last hundred years, the same hundred years in which processed grain, sugar, and vegetable oil intake has gone up. This would also explain why a lot of indigenous groups who have diets high in meat and dairy like the Masai have no heart disease or cancer and this would also explain why a lot of indigenous groups start to get cancer, heart disease, and diabetes once they switch to a western industrial diet. In any case, the correlations that Campbell drew from his China Study data set do not even show his conclusions. There have been critiques done of his data which show that, for instance, where meat is correlated with colorectal cancer, chronic schistosomiasis infections are common. Once you look at areas that have high meat consumption where there are no cases of chronic schistosomiasis infections, you completely lose any correlation between meat and colorectal cancer. If you’re curious about how much Campbell’s own data does not support his conclusions, you should take a look at some of the links I have listed at the end of this review.

The prescription given by this film that if you change your diet, you’re done with your responsibility to the environment is also quite limited as it constrains an individual into only being allowed to express him or herself via consumer action. We can do more than just manipulate our buying choices but this is a very useful message for Whole Foods to promote of course since it wants to sell you more stuff especially expensive stuff that you want to buy because buying it makes you feel less guilty about being alive. Another thing to consider is how little the problem of grains is given air-time in this film. I believe there is one small part in which factory farming’s environmental degradation is tied to the fact that we have huge grain monocultures done for the purpose of feeding livestock and therein lies the bigger problem: grains. We subsidize them so that they are cheap enough to be put in virtually everything processed that they can be put in and used for animal feed. Without subsidized grain, I am not sure how feasible factory farming would be, not to mention that if animals actually ate the food they’re adapted to eat they would not be getting sick all the time and require the amount of antibiotics we give them. Without grain monocultures we could raise livestock on marginal grasslands, sequester carbon, and then recycle their manure to grow more vegetables and other higher quality plant foods on those lands that used to grow grain monocultures. A vision to strive for but difficult to achieve with the corporate control of the government this country now has.

Incidentally, soymilk and seitan were featured quite often in this film and who benefits from the sale of these products? The food processors of course. So whether you eat meat or not, Monsanto doesn’t care just so long as in some way, shape, or form you eat their crops. You can eat Monsanto via bread, soymilk, seitan, conventional beef, tofu, cake, or chicken nuggets and they don’t care which you choose just so long as you choose.

In conclusion, this is an interesting film to watch as far as seeing how propaganda works in its full spin but do not be fooled by it. Nothing is ever as simple as a film purports to make it, especially diet. You just have to make your own decisions and don’t trust anybody’s slogan or trust any so-called “authority” to tell you the truth.

http://planeat.tv/ (official site)




Movie Review: Vanishing of the Bees

In case you haven’t heard, Whole Foods™ is running a film festival that they’re distributing throughout the country by partnering up with local cinemas and some of the films actually look interesting including the one I’m reviewing here which I saw two nights ago at Real Art Ways. Some of the films are pure propaganda which I may or may not get into in a separate review later.


“Vanishing of the Bees” is essentially an attempt to explain the how and why of colony collapse disorder (CCD) in the United States. The main culprit according to the film is the use of systemic pesticides though there are also some analyses done of the differences between holistic, organic beekeeping and conventional beekeeping. By way of France, they attempt to demonstrate that CCD is preventable and reversible when systemic pesticides become illegal.


The film essentially follows a bunch of beekeepers through their journey learning about CCD, trying to figure out its cause, and then their attempts to reverse it. Along this path, you have the usual suspects: interviews with pathos and caring for their bees and interviews of concern and despair of the government’s indifference to their plight. There is also an explanation of the importance of bees to the food supply and the dangers of monocultures for them. All this is mixed together and unified into a narrative logic that goes from describing a mysterious problem, figuring it out, and then trying to solve it with the work left undone and for you to finish at the end. This is moved forward through the voice of Ellen Page and the film is segmented according to a corny storybook device. That is, each segment begins with a shot of a CG storybook and a quote and continues into the segment as the page of that storybook turns.


So was this a good film? It was certainly interesting and I did learn a few things from it but the storybook device and some of the graphics used in it served to undermine the importance of the issue at hand by relating it with elements that I associate with fantasy, childhood, and superfluity. In this sense, the filmmakers appear to perform the same action that they are critiquing in the film, that is, the marginalization of the importance of bees through these devices meant perhaps to lighten the mood or to produce a sensation that this is a story that will end tidily with a resolution authored by the viewer as in storybooks.

The way the film is structured, it ends with prescriptions at the end for how you, the individual, can help fix this problem. In this case, it seems to be that buying organic honey, increasing the habitat area for bees by planting flowers, not using pesticides in your own garden, and becoming amateur beekeepers are what you should be doing. This focus on individual guilt and change as individual action, especially consumer action, I find to be the film’s greatest fault and a great fault for many films of this same mold.

The individual has not caused this problem, voting with your money is incredibly self-limiting and classist in the possibilities it provides. Solving a problem requires solving it. This means that if your car’s motor is broken you should fix the broken motor and not paint the car, fill up the gas tank, and improve air pressure to the tires with the hopes that all this will somehow make it easier for the motor to spontaneously fix itself. You actually need to fix the motor or that car is not going to run. So after showing quite clearly that the biggest threat to bee colonies is the use of systemic pesticides produced by corporations like Bayer in huge monoculture operations, we are told that all we can do is plant a few flowers and buy organic. Of course, what we should be doing is getting GM out of our food supply, forcing the government to outlaw systemic pesticides, and eliminating the huge monocultures of wheat, corn, and soy (the big three) that dominate this nation’s food supply and are subsidized by government policy. The problem is a problem caused by corporations and governments being in bed with one another and not by the naughty consumer. Once again, the myth of the bad individual is used to deflect blame off of the corporation who makes money by selling GM crops that destroy habitats, increase pollution, destroy small producers, and cause colony collapse disorder in bees all at great cost to the American taxpayer. Considering that the film holds up the example of France where direct action lead to the banning of systemic pesticides produced by Bayer and has lead to the bouncing back of bee colonies, you would have thought that the film would have ended with a call to direct action but instead it ends in a tepid call to consumerist guilt. Near the end of the film, one of the beekeepers describes how now when he trucks his bees across the country for pollination purposes, he ensures that he does not get anywhere near monoculture operations for fear of contamination of his colonies. This is not the situation we want to be in and buying organic is not going to change it. However, trying to figure out how to cripple some corporations and force legislation to pass in the government is a bit harder to describe and put into soundbites not to mention it’s  a lot more complicated and requires much more work than is possible for most people who also have jobs and families to attend to.

The prescriptions at the end of this film thus are able to act as an empowering form of non-action that allows individuals to feel less guilt in their lives all while not having to change anything substantial about the way they live their lives. This is good for Whole Foods since it’s a prescription that implies buying things at Whole Foods especially since Whole Foods has gotten so big that in most areas there are no longer any other local natural foods stores that provide the same variety that Whole Foods does.

“Vanishing of the Bees” is an interesting movie worth watching but weak on solutions.

http://www.vanishingbees.com/ (official site)