Making sense of movies and the world
Here are three DVDs propped up in a bookshelf in a small office on the University of Canterbury campus. Two are classics, and the other? Not so much.
Alien? Sure, the Ridley Scott space-horror masterpiece has a whole new life now that the prequel is in cinemas. The Man Who Fell to Earth? Yes, the 1970s sci-fi movie starred a perfectly cast David Bowie as a homesick extra-terrestrial. And, er, Born in East LA?
Film professor and documentary maker Daniel Bernardi, who is occupying this office for four months as holder of the university's Erskine Fellowship for visiting academics, leans back in his chair and explains.
"One of the classes I teach is called 'Signs of aliens'," he says. "It deals with any incarnation of the alien. Religious aliens, self-alienation, body modification and mutilation. Everything from breast implants to pectoral implants to having metal bars put in your face."
Okay. So, Born in East LA? In this movie from the 1980s, directed, written by and starring Cheech Marin from Cheech and Chong, a Mexican American finds himself on the wrong side of the border. Comedy ensues.
"It's hilarious," Bernardi insists.
But he's not teaching it because it's hilarious. He's teaching it because it is topical and revealing. It has things to say. Why study film rather than something supposedly "useful" like law or science? That question is not put directly but Bernardi more or less answers it.
How are received ideas about race, gender and sexuality structured and transmitted, he asks. How are the "isms" of our society perpetuated? What can be learned by bingeing on reality shows like Married at First Sight or Botched?
To put it relatively simply, Bernardi asks: "How does film and TV advance or undermine racism, misogyny and homophobia?"
He once wrote a book about this, using Star Trek as an example. Like his other books, Star Trek and History: Race-ing toward a White Future was intended for academic readers and students but it was inevitably discovered by fans, many of whom hated it. "I read about half of this idiot's book and finally had to toss the piece of garbage in the trash," said one Trekker in an Amazon review, accusing Bernardi of "ultra-PC sensitivity".
Bernardi shrugs it off. In short, he explains, Star Trek is about European-American destiny into the future.
"But I think the new Star Trek movies are better than the Star Wars movies. More interesting, more dynamic, more engaged in contemporaneous issues."
Speaking of race, the new Star Wars films have become famous for the diversity of their casting. It can seem like an over-reaction to the incredible whiteness of the original George Lucas trilogy and prequels, where any non-white characters were stereotypes. Think of the pimp-like Lando Calrissian or, worse still, Jar Jar Binks.
"I don't think George Lucas is racist," Bernardi says, although he thinks those characters are.
"The most insidious form of racism is that which doesn't know it's racist."
US President Donald Trump doesn't think he is racist or misogynist either, "but I don't think any thoughtful person can say he's anything but racist or misogynist".
There is a gulf between how we see ourselves and how we act. The important thing is to own your mistakes and make amends, as Lucas has done. Bernardi has been there too. When he was much younger, he made a short film called Ramrock, that parodied Sylvester Stallone's "constructed masculinity" in Rambo and Rocky films. In doing so, he made the Stallone character gay and perpetuated stereotypes. He has learned and repented.
As that small example shows, Bernardi does not just talk about films – he makes films. As the director of the Veterans Documentary Corps at San Francisco State University, he has produced or directed more than 20 short films about US military veterans. He is screening four of them at the RSA in Christchurch this week. Subjects range from a US soldier who liberated a Nazi concentration camp to the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy on gays and lesbians to the stories of a combat cameraman and a conscientious objector.
The conscientious objector film captures some of the disillusionment about how the military was used after the September 11, 2001 terror attacks. As a Navy Reserve, Bernardi experienced the same disillusionment. He did a tour in Iraq in 2009 and 2010 but "found the Iraq War shameful and based on a lie".
That enduring lie is why he could not support Hillary Clinton, who he saw as dishonest, highly flawed and unfit to be president as she voted for the war. He was a Bernie Sanders fan but he understands why Trump won. There was a drama vacuum under Barack Obama and Trump filled it: "He out-Clintoned the Clintons. They have no shame and he doubled down on no shame."
The Navy Reserves have given him a second military stint. He joined the Navy when he was 17 but was discharged for "fighting and smoking weed". He went into academia and also hosted an online show about science-fiction for the Sci Fi Channel, titled Future Now. Going into the Reserves in his 30s was a way, again, of making amends.
"I found the Navy more diverse, more tolerant, more flexible than academia. It was easier to be a person in there. Academia in the US is very conservative, very intolerant."
It will be interesting to see how flexible and tolerant the military is when Bernardi's next film appears. He spent a month in Vietnam before heading to Christchurch and interviewed Viet Cong veterans for a possible feature-length documentary about the Vietnam War from the North Vietnamese side. The working title is Veterans of Da Nang but it may change to The American War.
Even the short trailer is harrowing. There is the woman describing torture by the South Vietnamese, approved by the US. There is a man talking about the prison guard who wore a necklace of human teeth. There is the Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder survivor who collapses and starts to convulse while the camera is running.
The 85-year-old woman he interviewed had been a Viet Cong guerrilla.
"She was intense," Bernardi says. "I'm a pretty tough dude. I've served with Special Forces, including Kiwi, and I know how they look. She gave me that look, like 'You're the enemy and I would have no hesitation in killing you'. You could see she was going back to that.
"I got sick that night. I felt all the pain and anger and history coming back and I represented it."
Cinema has had a lot to answer for. Journalist John Pilger talked about how The Deer Hunter reduced the North Vietnamese to "barbaric commie stick figures". Most US films about Vietnam were that racist.
"The best out there is Hearts and Minds from 1975," Bernardi says. "It looks at our construction of the Vietnamese as 'gooks' and subhuman."
But even that did not explain why they fought so hard.
"One of the things I didn't know is that they won the war largely thanks to women. The women, called 'Long-haired army', built substantial portions of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. These tiny people, weighing 100 pounds (45 kilograms), carrying 150 pounds on their backs. And we got to know a couple of them."
He would like to have the film ready for festivals by October or November.
"It will be very sad. The good part is they won and their country's thriving. But you have to tell their story and it's not a good story."
Call it the sadness of being a responsible American. He says the Canterbury students were shocked when he showed them Standard Operating Procedure, the Errol Morris documentary about the Abu Ghraib prison scandal.
As well as teaching a science-fiction class, he teaches a documentary class. And here is another purpose of cinema studies: knowing how to interpret and demystify a documentary is a vital skill in a time of fake news and reality television.
"The desire for people to know and learn about their world is easily manipulated."
Bernardi's war side gets a public airing this week but so does his science-fiction side. He is hosting a WORD Christchurch session with science journalist James Gleick, author of a book about time travel.
It is one of the most enduring and appealing science-fiction ideas. Gleick has traced it back to 1895, almost the same year cinema itself was born. They seem inextricably linked.
And the best movie about time travel? This is a hard one. When pressed, Bernardi will own up to liking Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. That is the one where, ingeniously, Kirk, Spock and the rest go back in time to save whales in the future.
JAMES GLEICK: TIME TRAVEL, The Piano, 156 Armagh St, May 16, 6pm. $20.
VALOUR: REAL VETERANS, REEL STORIES. RSA, 74 Armagh St, May 18, 7pm. Free.