Empty Planet

This post looks at the basic premise of Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson’s Empty Planet (2019), that the human population, now at 7.5 billion, will peak at 9 billion, before declining rapidly, later in the 21st century. The question addressed is how different nations/ regions will cope with a collapsing population.

All advanced and many emerging market economies, to use International Monetary Fund slang, have fertility levels below replacement, considered to be 2.1 offspring per woman. The Total Fertility Rate (TFR) in Norway in 2018 was 1.56, the lowest on record. In her New Year’s address in 2019, the Prime Minister of Norway, Erna Solberg, encouraged Norwegian women to have more children. The PM has had 2.0 children, while the two other women party leaders in her government have not had any children. Being generous, these three have a combined TFR of 0.7.

Is Canada the world’s first post-national country? Despite my Canadian heritage as well as Bricker and Ibbitson’s suggestion that this is the case, I would have to answer, not yet. Yes, Canada features individualism, combined with urbanism, low TFR and high immigration. Twenty percent of the population are immigrants. That is higher than any other country, including the United States of America. Yes, this contrasts with the stereotypical image of Canada as the vast, unpopulated, ice-encrusted North. But these characteristics are not sufficient to make a country post-national.

For a country to be post-national, it has to be multi-cultural. This means that it cannot display preferences for one culture to the detriment of another. Canada does this, by continuing to have a British monarch of German heritage, as head of state. The fact that it uses a first-past-the-post electoral system also puts limits on representation in parliament. Amazingly, the Liberal Party currently in government as of this writing in 2019, first promised a more democratic voting system, then reneged on this promise. Currently, cultural minorities have to find their place within a three party system. Rather than having a group of people from an assortment of political persuasions representing citizens over a larger area, one person from a specific political party represents everyone in the riding, including those who did not vote for that person.

Despite the book’s Canadian chauvinism, it offers important insights. In urban societies, women become better educated, have better knowledge about contraception, this results in fewer children and leads women to better jobs, which makes women more financially autonomous. Ties to family, clan and religion deteriorate. The ties that are left are cultural.

Immigrants to Canada generally teach their children their original language, so that these children can continue to be entrenched in two cultures – Canada and something else. My daughter, who took her secondary education in Canada, had Norwegian as her second language. My old elementary school, named after gold prospector, journalist, some time New Westminster resident and former British Columbia Premier John Robson, has been demolished. It has been replaced with Ecole Qayqayt Early Education Centre. It is named after the Qayqayt First Nation, who originally lived in New Westminster, and offers French immersion classes.

While most of the world is at or below replacement fertility, 2.1 children per woman, the one major exception is Africa. The 2019 African Economic Outlook reports economic prospects and projections for Africa and for each of its 54 countries. It offers short and medium term forecasts for the main socio-economic factors, noting challenges and progress.

The report states, “Africa’s economic growth continues to strengthen, reaching an estimated 3.5 percent in 2018, about the same as in 2017 and up 1.4 percentage points from the 2.1 percent in 2016.”

But also cautions, “Africa’s labor force is projected to be nearly 40 percent larger by 2030. If current trends continue, only half of new labor force entrants will find employment, and most of the jobs will be in the informal sector. This implies that close to 100 million young people could be without jobs.” African fertility has halved to 4 since 1975 due to better female education and empowerment. However, this is still about twice replacement levels.

While declining population is a benefit, in terms of relieving pressure on the environment, it will also swing economic power from capital to labour, reducing inequality.

There are four approaches that can be taken to the world population challenge. Approaches 1 and 2 both accept a perpetual decrease in population. Approach 1 is to continue relying on humans as before.

Approach 2 is to replace workers with robots. Japan is the poster child for working with this. There are many areas of the economy where robots can be used, especially in the transport sector and manufacturing. Some progress can undoubtedly also be made in terms of construction.

With these first two approaches, there will come a point when having a nation-state will become impractical. There will be so few people living in them, that land could be freed for other groups to use.

The third and fourth approaches allow increased immigration. There are a number of situations that have to be understood, when dealing with immigrants. One term bandied about is integration. Quite often it is understood to be something that someone else has to do. Many people in the host population confuse integration with assimilation, and expect immigrants to assimilate themselves into the wider society. That task is, of course, impossible. So, Approach 3, is a situation in which the host society/ culture envisions itself as superior to anything/ everything on offer from migrants. It also expects them to give up social and cultural values, for something these immigrants may not quite understand.

Approach 4, the last approach here, is to accept that society will ultimately become multicultural. This is the official Canadian approach. Apart from a disdain for radicalism, Canada is willing to accept large numbers of well educated and young immigrants, capable of engaging with other Canadians of divergent backgrounds. At the same time these immigrants are allowed, even encouraged, to preserve their original culture, so they can function as a link between the two societies. Immigrant children to Canada are taught that they have two feet, one planted in Canada, the second in the culture they come from. Both are equal, and both are relevant.

Society changes

If anyone were to enter a time machine, and go fifty years back in time, they would discover a completely different world. With respect to my own situation, it would be a world filled with cheap gasoline, smokers, mini-skirts, vinyl records, beef steaks and corporal punishment. Since then, that culture has become unrecognizable. Like everyone else born before the new millennium, I didn’t grow up with cell phones, and had to learn how to use them – as an adult. Dress codes prevented women from wearing trousers at school and at work. In fact, some women had to quit work if they married. I was strapped for turning around in my desk at school.

Corporal punishment is illegal in Norway today, but listening to Norwegians my age, it seems to have been quite common fifty or sixty years ago. Transitions to a new culture can be difficult and while I don’t approve of people hitting their children, I don’t think jail sentences are the correct response either, in many cases. Suspended sentences are a cost-effective way of expediting behavioural change, both for the individual and society.

Yet, prophecy is a tricky proposition. With hindsight, it is easy to see that pizzas are more than a passing fad. The same cannot be said of fondues.

This weblog post was originally written 2019-03-06, but not published until 2019-07-08. It continues a discussion begun in Workshop Activism (published 2018-02-03), and continued in Lotta Hitschmanova (published 2019-02-14).

Cut/Copy and Paste

The most influential computer ever made, original Xerox Alto featuring bit-mapped black and white display sized 606×808 (the same dimensions as a regular 8.5″x11″ sheet of paper, aligned vertically; 5.8 MHz CPU; 128kB of memory (at the cost of $4000); 2.5MB removable cartridge hard drive; three button mouse; 64-key keyboard and a 5-finger key set. It was on such a machine that Bravo and Gypsy were developed, and cut/copy and paste invented. (Photo: Xerox PARC)

Larry Tesler (1945 – ), invented cut/copy and paste. Between 1973 and 1976, Tesler worked at Xerox PARC (Palo Alto Research Center), in Palo Alto, California, on the programming language Smalltalk-76, and especially the Gypsy text editor, referred to then as a document preparation system. It was on this project, he implemented a method of capturing text and inserting it elsewhere.

Xerox PARC was initiated by Xerox Chief Scientist Jacob E. “Jack” Goldman (1921 – 2011) who previously worked at Carnegie Tech and directed the Ford Scientific Laboratory, who hired a physicist, George Pake (1924 – 2004) to create it in 1970.

Xerox PARC was largely responsible for developing laser printing, the Ethernet, the modern personal computer, the graphical user interface (GUI) and desktop paradigm, object-oriented programming, ubiquitous computing, electronic paper, amorphous silicon (a-Si) applications, and advancing very-large-scale integration (VLSI) for semiconductors.

For a more complete story, see: Larry Tesler, A Personal History of Modeless Text Editing and Cut/Copy-Paste (2012)

While most people focus on the cut/copy-paste tool, the concept of modeless software had even greater impact. A mode is a distinct setting within a computer program, in which the same user input will produce different results, because of other settings. Caps lock when pressed puts the user’s typing into a different mode, CAPITAL LETTERS. If it is pressed a second time, the original made will be reactivated, resulting in lower-case letters.

Most interface modes are discouraged because of their potential to induce errors especially when the user is expected to remember the mode state the interface is in. The situation is somewhat better if there is an on-screen state/ mode indicator, such as a change in the colour of an icon, when a mode change is made.

If the user is unaware of an interface mode, there may be an unexpected and undesired response. Mode errors can be disorienting as the user copes with a transgression of user expectations. Not all mode changes are initiated by users,

Mode changes can be initiated by the system, by previous users or by the same user who has disremembered the state change. In such a situation, an operation with the old mode in mind, will disrupt user focus as the user becomes aware of the mode change. This is especially important when a user cannot find how to restore the previous mode.

Prior to Gypsy, Butler Lampson (1943 – ), Charles Simonyi (1948 – ) and others developed Bravo at Xerox PARC in 1974. It was a modal editor where characters typed on the keyboard were usually commands to Bravo, except when in “insert” or “append” mode. Bravo used a mouse to mark text locations and to select text, but not for commands.

Although similar in capabilities to Bravo, the user interface of Gypsy was radically different. In both, a command operated on the current selection. But Bravo had modes and Gypsy didn’t. In Bravo, the effect of pressing a character key depended on the current mode, while in Gypsy, pressing a character key by itself always typed the character.

In the Wikipedia article on Gypsy, the difference between Bravo and Gypsy is illustrated by three examples:

  1. Insert In Bravo’s Command Mode, pressing “I” entered Insert Mode. In that mode, pressing character keys typed characters into a holding area (“buffer”) until the Escape key was pressed, at which time the buffer contents were inserted before the selection and the editor returned to Command Mode.
    In Gypsy, no command or buffer was needed to insert new text. The user simply selected an insertion point with the mouse and typed the new text. Each inserted character went directly into the document at the insertion point, which was automatically repositioned after the new character.
  2. Replace In Bravo, to replace existing text by new text, the user pressed “R” to enter Replace Mode. That mode was just like Insert Mode except that the buffer contents replaced the selection instead of inserting text before it.
    In Gypsy, to replace text, the user simply selected the old text and typed the new text. As soon as the user began to type, Gypsy deleted the old text and selected an insertion point in its stead.
  3. Copy In the then-current version of Bravo, the user selected the destination, pressed “I” or “R” to enter Insert or Replace Mode, selected the source (which highlighted differently from the destination), and pressed Escape to perform the copy and return to Command Mode. While in Insert or Replace Mode, the user could scroll and could select a source, but could not invoke another command, such as opening a different document. To copy text between documents was more complex.
    In Gypsy, the user could select the source text, press the “Copy” function key, select the destination text or insertion point, and press the “Paste” function key. Between Copy and Paste, the system was, as usual, not in a mode. The user could invoke other commands, such as opening a different document.

Fewer modes meant less user confusion about what mode the system was in and therefore what effect a particular key press would have. Gypsy and Bravo both used a three-button mouse, where the second and third buttons were intended for experts.

New users could learn to work with Gypsy in only a few hours. Drag-through selection, double-click and cut-copy-paste were quickly adopted elsewhere, and have become standard on most text editors.

This text was originally written in June 2009 as a draft for a weblog post. It was removed from the weblog, but subsequently revived without the original date and time stamps. New text was added at irregular intervals, including 13 May 2016, 23 April 2018, and 06 May 2019. The publication date of this weblog post celebrates the 10th anniversary of this weblog.

Doggerland

Some of my ancestors were living as First/ Tribal Nations people in the Mid-Atlantic states, 10 000 years ago. Others, were most likely living in Doggerland, at the same time. At least that is the story according to 23&Me, and their interpretations of my Y-chromosome haplogroup’s DNA, (I-M253/I-Z58).

Here is some conjecture about Doggerland’s past.

Extent of the Last Glacial Maximum in Eurasia source: Mangerud et al 2004, Quaternary Science Reviews 23 (2004) 1313–1332, doi:10.1016/j.quascirev.2003.12.009

During the Last Glacial Maximum, which ended around 18 000 BP = before present, the North Sea, Scandinavia and much of what is now coastal northern Europe was covered with glacial ice. The sea level was about 120 m lower.

Land bridge between the mainland and Britain – Doggerland and Dogger Bank. Comparison of the geographical situation in 2000 to the late years of the Vistula-Würm Glaciation. (Illustration: Francis Lima, 2016)

After the ice melted, a watershed emerged. The Seine, Thames, Meuse, Scheldt and Rhine rivers joined and flowed west along the English Channel as a wide slow river before eventually reaching the Atlantic Ocean. At about 12 000 BP the north-facing coastal area of Doggerland had a coastline of lagoons, salt marshes, mudflats and beaches as well as inland streams, rivers, marshes and lakes. Many regard it as the richest hunting, fowling and fishing ground in Europe in the Mesolithic period.

As sea levels rose and the land began to tilt in an isostatic adjustment as the huge weight of ice lessened. Gradually a large tidal bay emerged between eastern England and Dogger Bank by 11 000 BP. This was followed by a rapid sea-level rise, leading to both Dogger Bank and Great Britain becoming separate islands. Doggerland eventually became submerged, cutting off what was previously the British peninsula from the European mainland by around 8 500 BP.

Soon after about 8 200 BP the remaining coastal land was flooded by a megatsunami, caused by the Storegga Slide, a submarine landslide off the coast of Norway. This would have had a catastrophic impact on the contemporary coastal Mesolithic population It has been suggested that the only remaining parts of Doggerland at the time of the Storegga Slide were low-lying islands, and that the area had been abandoned. However, the Dogger Bank, an upland area of Doggerland, remained an island until at least 7 000 BP.

An alternative view speculates that the Storegga tsunami devastated Doggerland but then ebbed back into the sea. Lake Agassiz was a very large glacial lake in central North America. Fed by glacial melwater at the end of the last glacial period, its area was larger than all of the modern Great Lakes combined although its mean depth was not as great. When it burst releasing so much fresh water that sea levels over about two years rose to flood much of Doggerland and make Britain an island.

Archaeology

The prehistoric existence of Doggerland was established in the late 19th century. However, it was Bryony Coles in the 1990s, who named the area Doggerland and produced speculative maps of the area.

Non-Fiction literature

Coles, B. J. (1998). “Doggerland: a Speculative Survey”. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society. 64: 45–81. doi:10.1017/S0079497X00002176.

Gaffney, V.; Thomson, K.; Fitch, S., eds. (2007). Mapping Doggerland: The Mesolithic Landscapes of the Southern North Sea. https://www.academia.edu/2480682/Mapping_Doggerland_the_Mesolithic_Landscapes_of_the_Southern_North_Sea: Archaeopress.

Gaffney, Vincent; Fitch, Simon; Smith, David (2009). Europe’s Lost World: The Rediscovery of Doggerland. Council for British Archaeology. ISBN 1-902771-77-X.

Moffat, Alistair (2005). Before Scotland: The Story of Scotland Before History. Thames & Hudson. ISBN 978-0-500-05133-7. Discussed in depth in chapters 2–4.

Morelle, Rebecca (4 April 2017). “Evidence of ancient ‘geological Brexit’ revealed”. BBC News. Retrieved 5 April 2017.

Spinney, Laura (December 2012). Robert Clark (photog.); Alexander Maleev (illus.). “The Lost World of Doggerland”. National Geographic. 222 (6): 132–143. Retrieved 30 November 2012.

Julia Blackburn, Time Song: Searching for Doggerland (2019). Roger Cox, reviewing in The Scotsman, writes: “To describe Time Song as a non-fiction book about the history of Doggerland makes it sound dry and academic, but Julia Blackburn’s approach is anything but. At one point, she describes her modus operandi as “trying to learn prehistory hand to mouth as I go along” and that’s a more-or-less accurate description of what it feels like to read her writing. There is certainly no handy potted chronology of Doggerland to hang onto; instead, the author describes a series of encounters she has with some of the people who have devoted their lives to searching for traces of this long-gone landmass, from archaeologists to obsessive enthusiasts, and uses these as jumping off points to help her imagine what life must have been like in the flat, open country that once stretched all the way from East Anglia to Holland.” See: https://www.scotsman.com/arts-and-culture/books/book-review-time-song-searching-for-doggerland-by-julia-blackburn-1-486859

Fictional Accounts

H. G. Wells referred to it in his short story, A Story of the Stone Age (1897). More recently,

Stephen Baxter, Stone Spring (2010) is a science fiction novel set in prehistoric Doggerland (renamed, Northland). It focuses on attempts to adapt to the rising sea levels slowly eroding Northland’s coastline. It is the first part of a trilogy detailing an alternate history in which human efforts were able to prevent Doggerland from being flooded. It was followed by Bronze Summer (2011) and Iron Winter (2012).

A more modern and dystopian story was written by Ben Smith, Doggerland (2019). Alan Warner, reviewing in the Guardian writes, “Ben Smith’s powerful debut novel takes us offshore into a polluted future and to a singular seascape – a vast wind farm of more than 6,000 turbines somewhere out on Dogger Bank. Jem, who is presumably in his mid-teens, and “old man” Greil, who is clearly unwell and weakening, live in serfdom aboard an abandoned, dilapidated accommodation rig; they use an electric boat to maintain the decaying wind turbines that extend for up to 80 miles around them. It is a losing battle against limited tools, bad weather and ill health. These custodians of rust are visited at unpredictable intervals from the coast by the menacing Pilot, who moves freely on a small supply vessel, delivering vital but unappetising tinned food. The Pilot resembles a jailer who also barters for extras.” See: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/apr/11/doggerland-ben-smith-review

Rednecks

Rednecks (Sébastien Thibault, 2018, appearing in The Guardian, 2018-04-14)

I have just added a new item to the shopping list, a clean, but second-hand, red bandanna, after reading an article in the Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/apr/14/redneck-pride-west-virginia-protests-strikes

I am unaware of any family links to West Virginia, genetic or adoptive, but I do have family links to coal mining, and occupational links to union membership, being a retired member in good standing of “norsk lektorlag”, sometimes translated as the Norwegian union of master teachers.

My paternal grandfather was secretary of the Nanaimo Local of the United Mine Workers Union of America. Here, coal miners were independent, tough, and proud and became among the most radical and militant labourers in an extremely polarized province. They were the core of the socialist movement; their strikes were frequent, long and bitter. John Hinde (2011). When Coal Was King: Ladysmith and the Coal-Mining Industry on Vancouver Island. UBC Press. p. 4.

The most violent labour clash in B.C. took place in the coalfields of Vancouver Island, 1912–13. The initial cause of the 1912 strike was a gas explosion that killed 32. When two miners reported gas in another mine, they were dismissed. Fellow workers demanded that they be reinstated. The company retaliated by locking out the miners. Miners all over the island downed their tools in solidarity. Management resorted to tactics they had used in the past to break the strike. In Cumberland, Chinese miners were threatened with eviction and even deportation if they didn’t return to work. In that bitter environment, riots, gun battles, burnings, and clashes between strikers and scabs escalated. The government sent in special constables and the 72nd Regiment to aid the company. Over 250 were arrested, including Labour MLAs and the leader of the newly established British Columbia Federation of Labour. The  strike continued for over two years . Eventually the United Mine Workers of America, after providing $16,000 a week to a total of more than one million dollars, ran out of money. The workers, faced with this reality, called off the strike. The settlement guaranteed improvements, but the employers reneged on the agreement.

The labour movement in B.C. is famous in Canada for its militant and socialist roots. British Columbia by the 1880s had the highest proportion of unionist to general population. In company mining towns where class differences were easily observable, unsafe working conditions, low wages, easy communication, and the necessity of solidarity led to a labour history that at times verged on class war. Division between workers based on race, industrial unions or craft unions, socialist vs. non-socialist, often divided workers and weakened their common objectives. Nevertheless, many of the great demands of labour were eventually met: eight- hour day, safety conditions, old-age pensions, universal suffrage, minimum wage, and an end to child labour.

Back to the Guardian. In West Virginia, the term “redneck” dates back to the early 1900s. In 1921, black, white and immigrant mineworkers took up arms to battle the coal companies that controlled and exploited every aspect of their lives. United, they wore red bandannas to identify each other in battle. They called themselves the “Redneck Army”.

The West Virginia mine wars were the bloodiest labor conflict in American history. It was 10 000 mine workers against a private army of more than 2,000 mercenaries and multiple airplanes equipped to drop bombs on workers, American federal troops armed with gas and more planes. See: https://www.redneckrevolt.org/single-post/2016/07/24/BATTLE-OF-BLAIR-MOUNTAIN

By the 1910s, the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) was fighting for pay equality, and requiring an oath from every member not to discriminate against any fellow member by “creed, or color, or nationality”. Its first paid organizer in West Virginia was a black man, and an early planning committee consisted of three officers: one white person born in West Virginia, one Italian immigrant and one black person. See, James Green (2015) The Devil Is Here in These Hills: West Virginia’s Coal Miners and Their Battle for Freedom, Atlantic Monthly Press.

Other struggles featuring West Virginia:

In 1774, Point Pleasant. The first battle of the revolutionary war.

In 1863, Western Virginians formed their own state government in Wheeling. It rejected slavery and defended the Union.

Mine wars continued until the 1930s when the laws finally changed, union ranks swelled and mine protections improved.

Today, West Virginia is in the midst of another revolutionary moment. Since 2016, Volunteer-led resistance groups have arisen: RiseUp (Charleston), Mountaineers for Progress (Morgantown), and Huddles and Indivisibles (both State wide) across the state.

In March 2018, teachers in every one of West Virginia’s 55 counties went on strike, at the same time dozens of volunteer feeding and childcare programs cropped up. A citizen-led strike fund raised and distributed US$ 332 000. Thousands of teachers, janitors and bus drivers won 5% raises for all public employees. Then, a week later, West Virginia communications workers went on strike and won their own fight for job security. Now, teachers’ strikes are spreading nationwide.

The Guardian article concludes with, “These hills were once home to one of the most powerful and diverse working-class movements in American history. That legacy lives on.”

Childhood houses

For the past few weeks, I have been contemplating the purposes a residence can be put to. During this time, I have studiously avoided propaganda from real estate agents, and others with a vested interest in maximizing property values.

People who do the actual residing, the residents, populate these buildings. Household is probably the most generic and non-discriminatory term for a group of people living together, and occupying a residence. There can be single person households, as well as those consisting of couples, families with young children, families with older adults, and many others.

Residents are not always owners of the building where they reside. They may be renters, even squatters. Even owners are not always owners, as the building may be mortgaged, meaning that the nominal owner actually owns a small fraction of the value of a property, and may lose that investment if payments are not made. Even if payments are met, their may be ways for mortgage owners to gain control.

Yet, these terms all suggest something more is going on than just the provision of shelter. Undoubtedly, primordial needs dictate much of the content of a house: sleep, food consumption and personal hygiene.

Food has to be prepared and, depending on the culture, clothes may have to be made, repaired, or at least washed. A number of maintenance activities are also required. This may involve refurbishing the building, repairing or cleaning. Gardening may be required, indoors, outdoors or in a greenhouse. Subsistence agriculture, may not be an economically optimal use of time. Yet, houses have been and are used as a locus for this, and for other economic activity. If residents commute to work or school, vehicle maintenance, repair and cleaning may be regarded as a legitimate household activity.

Social needs will also be met, sometimes there may be social-sexual needs that results in children, who – after their birth – will have socialization needs. Beyond the social, individuals have other more reflective, and even spiritual needs that have to be addressed. While schools offer a better environment for socialization and education, there may be some forms of home schooling that supplement that provided by the state.

Many of these purposes to which a residential building is put depend on the noun used to describe that building. The term house is more natural for me to use generically, than any other, such as home, residence, dwelling or living quarters. It is a building in which people live, a habitat, although this simple fact may have to be modified to express situations where a building is shared with other groups of people, as is the case of an apartment building, or with other purposes, such as the traditional corner store, with a residence on the upper stories, with a store below.

It is time for a new persona to enter center stage, the infamous “We”. Life is complicated, and not all decisions are made at express speed, or on the most direct route. We, in terms of married life, is not a precise 50.000/50.000 relationship between two partners. Some days it may be 99/01 and others 01/99. If one of the partners is too dominant, then there is a great chance that  “we” will soon replaced with “me and my ex”. In the discussion below, events sometimes reflect decisions and sometimes the absence (even dereliction) of decisions. There may be some prime mover spearheading a decision, or a more amiable, joint process.

While some activities remain the same throughout one’s life, others will change over time. For many, perhaps most, one will live in a sequence of houses. However, I am not a believer in a rapid transition of ownership, or serial ownership if it can be avoided. Personally, we have purchased precisely one house. I have no intentions of ever selling it, but will leave it to my children because this location was the focal point of their childhood.

My mother has throughout her life spoken warmly about her childhood home in Kelowna, and regretted it passing out of her family. Please note the change of noun. It reflects her usage. Yet, one wonders if she understands that other people might also have an affection for their childhood houses. When I speak with her about it, she seems to believe her childhood house and community was so special, that she cannot believe that other people, including her own children, could have similar feelings about their childhood houses.

I was given no opportunity to purchase my childhood house. The house where my wife and I currently live, and where our children grew up, belongs – at least in spirit – to our children, even if they do not formally own it yet. I never want them to regret that their childhood house has been sold.

Filmmaking with a social conscience

Over the next few weeks Unit One will share exclusive comments by Jade Marmot on the V&P film project. Today’s topic is low-cost filmmaking approaches.

Jade

To understand filmmaking a person has to watch a variety of film types. A good place to start are these four films: Citizen Kane (1941), Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971), The Celebration (1998) and Sicko (2007). These go over more than 65 years. Admittedly some are more low-cost than others, with Sicko costing $9 million.

François Truffaut (1932-1984) devised auteur theory in the mid-1950s. It stated that the director was the “author” of his work. Great directors, such as Jean Renoir (1894–1979) or Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980), have distinct styles and themes that permeate their films. While this invokes a filmmaking style that focuses on artistic intent, it concentrates on a director’s personal creative vision, denying the other participants (cast as well as crew) artistic integrity. Orson Welles’ (1915-1985) Citizen Kane (1941) is a textbook example of an auteur film. Truffaut made his feature film debut with Les Quatre Cents Coups (1959) [The 400 Blows].

 

Citizen-Kane-Welles-Podium
Kane (Orson Welles) makes a campaign speech at Madison Square Garden. Citizen Kane

 

In 2006 David Kipen wrote The Schreiber Theory: A Radical Rewrite of American Film History. He argues that auteur theory has wrongly skewed analysis towards a director-centred view of film. Kipen believes that the screenwriter has a greater influence on the quality of a finished work. Much of Scandinavian television production uses this approach in their 10 episode thrillers, with a number of directors being responsible for one or more of the episodes, but with a co-operating script-writing team.

Many low-budget film colleagues refer to themselves as guerrilla filmmakers. Guerrilla filmmaking involves corporate independence, low budgets, skeleton crews, and simple props. They shoot scenes quickly in real locations without permits, permission or warning. Corporate independence means that the filmmakers are not accountable to anyone but themselves.

“Guerrilla filmmaking is driven by passion with whatever means at hand”, said Mark Hill, Yukon Film Commission Manager. Guerrilla filmmaking focuses too much on technique, rather than on content. For pacifists, there are also problems with the military connotations of the title. Film critic Roger Ebert described Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971) written, produced, scored, directed by, and starring Melvin Van Peebles (1932-), as “a textbook on guerrilla filmmaking.” If you cannot find this film, an equivalent example is Robert Rodriguez’ (1968-) El Mariachi (1992). It cost about $7,000 to make, with money partially raised by volunteering in medical research studies. While originally intended for the Spanish-language low-budget home-video market, it received international distribution. Rodriguez described his filmmaking experiences in his book Rebel Without a Crew. The book and film continue to inspire filmmakers to make no-budget films.

Sweet-Sweetbacks-Baadasssss-Song
Sweet Sweetback (Melvin Van Peebles). Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song

 

The Dogme 95 approach to filmmaking turns auteur theory upside down. It codifies filmmaking in a 10-point Vow of Chastity written by Lars von Trier (1956-) and Thomas Vinterberg (1969-) that prohibits expensive and spectacular special effects, post-production modifications and other technical ploys. Filmmaking concentrates on content: the story and actors’ performances. Here the director is a nameless servant; at best a coordinator. One of the most powerful films is Vinterberg’s Festen (1998) [The Celebration]. Note: It can be a bit too powerful for people with assorted family issues that can be triggered. For those people Italiensk for begyndere (2000) [Italian for Beginners] a Danish romantic comedy, written and directed by Lone Scherfig (1959-) is more appropriate.

Festen

Political cinema may refer to films that do not hide their political stance, but this does not mean that they are pure propaganda. Most films are political, including escapist films offering entertainment. In Nazi Germany, the authorities organized a large production of deliberately escapist movies. Today, Hollywood cinema misrepresents black, women, gays, working-class people, and others frequently in the form of stereotypes. Michael Moore (1954-) is one of many political filmmakers, with Sicko (2007) being one of his most popular, and lucrative. It investigates American health care, with a focus on health insurance and pharmaceuticals. The movie compares the for-profit, non-universal U.S. system with the non-profit universal health care systems of Canada, the United Kingdom, France and Cuba. Moore rejects the label of political activism as redundant in a democracy, “I and you and everyone else has to be a political activist. If we’re not politically active, it [presumably USA] ceases to be a democracy.”

That’s it for today!

Come back next time, when Jade Marmot writes about the institution of cinema itself, and its mission to pacify spectators, and how Joyful Marmot Productions aims to change this. Until then, think about the cinema, and how people congregate but do not to act together or to talk to each other, but sit silently, and isolated from each other.