They Stream Movies Don’t They? City of Tiny Lights and Hamilton
Monday, 10 August 2020 19:06

They Stream Movies Don’t They? City of Tiny Lights and Hamilton

Dennis Broe continues his review of series TV with an analysis of City of Tiny Lights and Hamilton. Image: Tommy Akbar amidst the neon in City of Tiny Lights 

Although the highlight and main attraction of most streaming services is always new series and seasons of serial TV, they also attract viewers – and more importantly to them subscribers – by posting high profile films, often with a holiday slant. Netflix premiered Scorsese’s The Irishman at Thanksgiving 2019 in an attempt to have families stay at home and gather around the TV or computer, rather than go out to cinemas at the opening of the Christmas blockbuster season.

For 4th of July weekend, Disney+ served up an exquisitely well-filmed but troubling version of the mega New York theatre hit Hamilton about the country’s founding fathers. For all its gloss, the Disney+ entry took second fiddle to a relatively unknown BBC film, the extraordinary detective thriller about the exploitation of urban minority neighborhoods City of Tiny Lights (available on Amazon Prime in the UK).

In the latter, Tommy Akbar (Riz Ahmed) is a two-bit Pakistani private detective who knows his mixed Anglo-Middle Eastern London neighborhood like the back of his hand. He is hired by a sex worker to find her co-worker and this begins a trail of death and destruction. The trail leads him to the local mullah and a Muslim group patrolling the streets, a real estate developer who he grew up with, an ex-lover also from his childhood, an intimidating American agent supposedly searching for “terrorists,” and the area’s local drug dealers, all against the background of an attempt to “modernize” this turf that Tommy loves and has inhabited all his life.

The script is by Patrick Neate from his Edgar-nominated novel, which he translates to the screen in a way that is pitch perfect. The direction stresses visually the ways the neon of the contemporary London scene is broken down and refracted rather than centralized, casting its eerie transmuted glow on all the inhabitants, continually washing them in a false light they must live under.

DB12

Real estate developers remaking neighborhoods in City of Tiny Lights 

The master text for this genre of political and economic truth-telling via the detective thriller or film noir is of course Chinatown. City of Tiny Lights has absorbed the lessons of that model, but the sign of that absorption is that it plays them back in non-clichéd ways and tells us something new about the methods employed to “clean” urban neighborhoods of their inhabitants. As with Chinatown there is also a crossing of the political with the personal, with each interacting to reinforce the villainy of the other.

One way to emphasise the extraordinary accomplishment of this film to compare it to another film on the same theme which remains at the level of a preachy thesis film, though its heart is in the right place. Motherless Brooklyn attempts valiantly to recount the way Robert Moses negatively transformed the city of New York in the 1950s, leaving many urban areas blighted.

However, it is an utterly clichéd, pale imitation of Chinatown, complete with a Moses stand-in as Chinatown villain Noah Cross and a personal “passing” plot which never really registers. Ed Norton’s performance as the Tourette’s-afflicted detective is all actorly ticks rather than the lived-in inhabiting of a role, which we find with Riz Ahmed. The end result is a film that seems to be more a Hollywood projection of and imposition on a neighbourhood and a city, than an actual description of a place.

City of Tiny Lights, on the other hand, delights in the sheer breadth of places and people that Tommy encounters, as well as his familiarity with the bodegas, the mosques, the kids on the corner selling what they can, and the memories of his own past in a mixed neighborhood.

All this comes at a time when there is still so much misunderstanding and fear of poorer neighbourhoods, which often are tarred with the “terrorist” label, or dismissed as unsuitable for habitation, in order to be replaced by luxury high rises. In the end the film sides mightily with the community, people like Tommy in his dogged pursuit of an inconvenient truth, and in the best noir tradition helps to transform that community into a collective, redeeming what mainstream media would simply term “denizens of darkness” into a kind of extended family

Hamilton and Settler Colonialism

First, the good news. The 2016 stage version of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton is exquisitely transformed into a filmed version of the musical. It alternates between close-up views of the individual actors at key moments in their decision-making process of committing to the rebellion against the British, medium-shot views of the ensemble that catch the frenetic energy of the song and dance numbers as the young country struggles to be born and to exist, and long shots of the entire stage which suggest an overview of the moment of the American Revolution and the establishing of the federal institutions.

The hip-hop music tends at times to be a bit too flattened out, as it accommodates to the Broadway musical idiom. On the other hand, the lyrical mastery of the perpetual rapping expands the limited Broadway vocabulary, and opens up the possibilities of not only what but also how much can be said, providing a dense layer of non-stop rhyming and energy that reinvigorates a rather staid musical form.

DB13

Snowpiercer’s Daveed Diggs as Jefferson in Hamilton

Miranda as Hamilton, the Caribbean Creole and perpetual insider-outsider, lends a quiet dignity to the role in the last act of the musical, making the character’s redemption and demise both touching and affecting. Elsewhere, Daveed Diggs brings an astounding, pulse-pounding charisma to the role of Thomas Jefferson, which enlivens the second half of the work. The first half is propelled by the seditious struggle of the colonists, but the second half takes on the task of dramatizing Hamilton’s nationalization of the financial system through the Federal Reserve and the battle over state’s rights, more complex and difficult subjects to make work on the stage. Diggs, who is so good in a similar vein as the revolutionary energizer of the class struggle aboard the train in Netflix’ current Snowpiercer, is a showstopper who keeps the second half humming.

Now to the problem. In the light of the Black Lives Matter contemporary protests, the show seems trapped in 2016 – a relic of Obama-era representation where the best African-American’s could hope for was, as the black actor playing Aaron Burr sings, simply to be present in “The Room Where It Happens.” But that somewhat empty phrase does not imply having any power, just simply being present in the room.

It’s unfortunately a phrase that points to the vacuousness of Obama era “change” which in the end has resulted just four years later in African-Americans having to take to the streets en masse to demand that they not be killed by the police.

This is not the main problem though. The show employs “whiteface,” that is African-American actors taking the part of what largely at the time were their white masters, particularly in the forms of Washington, Jefferson and Madison, key characters in the show. The prolific and erudite African-American historian Gerald Horne in The Counter-Revolution of 1776 claims that one of the major reasons for the “revolution” that Hamilton is so keen to lionize is for white slaveholders in the colonies to maintain their slaves. He also illustrates how the British, the Crown, effectively mocked in the musical as cowardly and patronizing, had, four years before the rebellion and as a way of controlling the colonies, acted to free the slaves in the Americas.

Horne’s contention that this attempt by Northern transporters of slaves and Southern owners of slaves to preserve the institution was perhaps the root cause of the American Revolution can be debated. What the book proves though beyond a shadow of a doubt is that the uprising and victory by the settler colonialists, as viewed from the perspective of both African slaves and the indigenous Native or First Americans both of whom when possible fought on the side of the British, perpetuated over 350 years of oppression and inequality for both groups that is still with us today.

Hamilton is full of nasty asides about Jefferson being a slave-holder and immigrants being the ones who really know how to get the job done, but the main line of the musical is a constant validation of an American project which has always systematically disenfranchised the very African-Americans who so cheerfully and energetically lend their voices to revalidating these founding fathers. Thus Washington’s melancholy lament in “One Last Time” as he prepares to retire to Mount Vernon leaves out the fact that his luxurious retirement on the plantation is financed by the work of his slaves.

The falsehood of the colonial settler rationale whereby, as Jefferson – who held over 300 slaves – maintained that all men are created equal, was, as Horne asserts, never sufficiently challenged, and consequently repeated itself in American history. The US has thwarted indigenous movements toward independence and autonomy, which admittedly sometimes appear messy, in Korea, Iran and Guatemala in the 1950s, in Indonesia and Vietnam in the 1960s, in Chile and Nicaragua in the 1970s and 1980s, and today in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, and Venezuela, while fostering death and destruction in Libya and Syria.

DB11

Aaron Burr trying to gain access to “The Room Where It Happens” in Hamilton 

Hamilton’s attempt to put one more patch over the myth of American exceptionalism, which sees the country only as a pillar and shining light of freedom, is now, because of the Black Lives Matter movement in the street, fraying at the edges. Hamilton already appears locked in a time capsule, emblematic of an era where simple representation without real change was all that was on offer.

It’s not enough to just be present in “The Room Where It Happens.” To be simply a witness to, as the Black playwright August Wilson said about African-American representation, a “white culture” whose thrust is “to deny us our own humanity, our own history and our own need to make our own investigations from the cultural ground on which we stand as Black Americans.”   

Da 5 Bloods: Black Lives Matter Meets Rambo
Monday, 10 August 2020 19:06

Da 5 Bloods: Black Lives Matter Meets Rambo

Published in Films

Dennis Broe reviews Spike Lee's new film

Spike Lee’s new film for Netflix, Da 5 Bloods, about the effects of the Vietnam War on African-American soldiers, opens spectacularly. A documentary sequence begins with Muhammed Ali detailing why he chooses not to fight: “My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother or some darker people... for big powerful America…..for what?..They never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me. They never robbed me of my nationality.”

Malcolm X explains the war as a continuation of a history of black exploitation in a country where “20 million Black people…fight all your wars and pick all your cotton and [you] never give them any recompense.” Over contrasting shots of the war and ’60s protests against it, comes the strains of Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues” where the singer plaintively pleads for an end to a system where while “bills pile up sky high” the response of a supremacist government is to “send that boy off to die.”

The film also ends strongly in the present summoning the Black Lives Matter protests, which echo again Marvin Gaye’s still prescient words about “trigger happy policing.” In between, unfortunately, things get a lot muddier.

In the fiction, the five soldiers return to Vietnam to recover a treasure trove of gold they had hidden during the war. Each of them, and especially Paul (Delroy Lindo) has been in some way damaged and traumatized by the war. Vietnam is now a prosperous country – a sex worker under the American regime is, under an independent Vietnam, a financial broker – but to return to it for these ex-soldiers is to re-invoke painful memories.

The film is aware of the idiocy of the Rambo myth, where Sylvester Stallone returns to fight the war and this time to win. Nevertheless it falls into a similar trap, as it recycles classical Hollywood images with the racist and imperialist residue of those images still intact. Lee’s film summons Francis Coppola’s Apocalypse Now with the Wagnerian “Flight of the Valkyries”, as the five travel upriver to find the gold. This is the least offensive of the references, because the original was cognizant of the lunacy of the war. Paul, wracked by guilt over what happened in battle, grows increasingly mad as they travel further upriver, suggesting that Joseph Conrad’s Kurtz and Coppola’s Brando character suffered from what would now be called PTSD –  not innately mad, but driven mad by war.   

db2

Bloods on the battlefield

Elsewhere though, the references are not so innocuous. Echoes of Treasure of Sierra Madre in the way the thirst for the gold divides the bloods give way to a direct quote in one scene which figures the Vietnamese as Sierra Madre’s scurrilous Mexicans, one of whom intones in a kind of Vietnamese/Hollywood/Spanish: “We don’t need no stinking official badges.”   

The film cannot acknowledge that the Vietnam War was won by the Viet Cong, freedom fighters whose struggle against US imperialism is the same struggle that African-Americans are engaged in today in the inner cities of the United States. Thus, one character, who can’t stop refighting the war, is executed in a way that depicts the Vietnamese as bloodthirsty bandits. The only male Vietnamese character the bloods trust is a bounty hunter, whose parents fought for the US puppet government of South Vietnam. A flashback to the ’60s battlefield continues the “othering” of the Vietnamese by showing them only in outline, an approach used in Oliver Stone’s far better Platoon and which has been criticised.

Finally, the film, since it positions itself within the traditions of the War Film and the Western, complete with the bloods in campfire scene (surrounded by hostile Indians/Vietnamese?), must end in a battle. This one features the bloods and their European NGO allies against Jean Reno’s bloated Frenchman, and again the nearly faceless Vietnamese are simply enlisted behind him in a way that suggests nothing has changed in Vietnam since the French were driven out in 1954.

With heavy casualties the bloods win the battle and so in a way replay the Vietnam War. We’ve come both a long way and not very far at all from Rambo.  

Twisting the truth: Bro on the Global TV beat
Monday, 10 August 2020 19:06

Twisting the truth: Bro on the Global TV beat

As more people have to stay home and watch TV, Dennis Broe reviews some current TV series from the U.S., Britain and Iceland, showing how they both expose and conceal real social and economic injustice

The best network series in what might be a season cut short by the coronavirus is ABC’s For Life, a combination prison/court room drama about an innocent African-American inmate sentenced to life imprisonment for being a drug kingpin. The series is based on the true story of Issac Wright Jr., a New Jersey inmate who used his time in prison to become a legal counsellor and claimed to have freed 20 unlawfully jailed prisoners.

DB4 Lawyer prisoner Aaron Wallace in For Life

Similarly, Aaron Wallace, a club owner – as Wright was a promoter who claimed he put together the Latina Girl Group The Cover Girls – is jailed by an ambitious and corrupt Illinois prosecutor, Glen Maskins, who is running for Chicago District Attorney. In order to free himself Wallace studies to become a lawyer, takes the bar, becomes the legal representative for the inmates and begins an aggressive campaign against the would-be DA, attempting to prove a pattern of faulty convictions.  

For Life is a brand new approach to the courtroom drama genre, by crossing it with the prison series and by emphasizing the unfairness of the legal system and the ways African-Americans, Hispanics, and poor whites are caught in the crosshairs of a system that presumes them guilty from the start. This is a system where tainted evidence and lack of investigation characterize the actions of both prejudiced police and politically ambitious prosecutors.

It is stirring to watch Aaron – who changes each week out of his orange prison jumpsuit into the tailored suit of a lawyer and then appears before a judge –masterfully arguing his cases. By being in prison and having access to the stories of inmates, and through his own interaction with the law, Aaron is able to take into court a point of view and perspective on the legal system the lawyers on the opposite side of the courtroom do not have.

He is also accused of cutting corners himself, in his defence of the inmates. On being confronted with this by a liberal female warden who is on his side he answers that with all the obstacles against him, it is up to him where to draw the line. The ultimate statement about his predicament occurs when he is reprimanded by a black cop who he asks to illegally obtain his police file, which he is barred from seeing. To Aaron’s declaration that the procedure is unfair, the cop replies “You should have thought of that before….” Aaron interrupts him with, “Before what, I decided to be black in America?” The cop folds under this logic and grants Aaron his request.

The show was produced by 50 Cent, Curtis James Jackson III, a victim and perpetrator of street violence who was arrested for dealing and was once shot nine times before establishing a highly successful career as a rapper. He wanted to tell Wright’s story and Wright himself is grateful he was able to address the wrong in his own situation. He hopes that the show will be “a beacon of hope and inspiration” for the “thousands of people” wrongly incarcerated that he left behind. .

DB3 Kelsey Grammers evil prosecutor in Proven Innocent

The series is tightly constructed and owes something not only, of course, in the prison context to the landmark HBO series Oz but also to a short-lived courtroom drama from last season called Proven Innocent, where the female Caucasian protagonist becomes a lawyer to escape her own wrongful conviction, and then after being freed becomes an advocate for the underprivileged. She is pursued by a bullying prosecutor (Frazier’s and Boss’s Kelsey Grammer), also running a political campaign, who put her in prison and wants to put her back behind bars. The character of the prosecutor especially owes much to this Fox series which that network quickly dropped. I wonder why?

For Life ups the ante by having its protagonist still in prison and battling to get out, and most crucially by adding the element of that most incarcerated class, black men. Their imprisonment is often not based on guilt or innocence but on a systemic need to discipline a recalcitrant and rebellious population, and to fill the jail cells of a multi-billion-dollar industry that has become a boondoggle for private enterprise. In the Bible, Aaron is the older brother of Moses, who leads the Israelites out of their bondage in Egypt and to freedom. Each week this Aaron attempts the same for an large ethnic group within the American working class, for no reason other than prejudice and profit.

Twisting the truth through twists in the plot 

Alfred Hitchcock talked about the differences between what he called coincidence and suspense. Coincidence was the result of a poorly constructed plot, involving a mystery that seems to simply assemble random events and betrays its own shoddy construction. Suspense, on the other hand, meant involving the audience in a series of events that gripped them and made them a part of the plot because they knew what the characters were going through.

In the era of peak and binge TV, a contemporary buzzword is “twisty.” The word has a positive connotation and indicates not just a surprise ending (as in such films as The Usual Suspects and The Sixth Sense) but rather a continual series of surprises constantly shocking the audience.

DB5 Patriarchal Lineage in The Stranger

Two contemporary Netflix shows, the British series The Stranger and the Icelandic series The Valhalla Murders, are both “twisty” but for radically different ends. The Stranger’s “twists”, akin to coincidence, are simply the sparkplugs of an addictive plot driving the story forward for no reason other than propulsion. The Valhalla Murders, on the other hand, is made up of a series of twists akin to suspense, with each taking the audience deeper into and ripping the curtain off the layers of corruption that infect Icelandic society.

The Stranger is based on a Harlan Coben novel, with Coben as executive producer. The catalyst for the story is the appearance at that most quintessential bourgeois parenting event the kid’s soccer game of a mysterious woman in a baseball cap who reveals to the father of one of the participating boys that his wife has faked a pregnancy and that his two sons may not actually be his. The show centres around lineage, with the father the wronged one in this danger to the succession of patriarchal power.

This mini-series is indeed “twisty” with a new reveal coming not just at the end but generally at about every quarter of each episode. Without revealing these plot turns it is important to note that at the end of a supposed questioning of middle-class bourgeois customs, that order is restored and the sanctity of the bourgeois suburban marriage is reaffirmed even though much of the show has at least summarily questioned it. So they are addictive twists, for the purpose of dragging viewers along with them for commercial reasons, but with almost no interest in questioning what lies behind a trail of deception and violence.

DB2 Corruption in Iceland in The Valhalla Murders

 The Valhalla Murders on the other hand is the complete opposite, though it begins in much the same clichéd way. That most reliable of staples, the serial killer, is the antagonist in this drama about two Icelandic police officers tracking a bloody trail that leads to a now boarded-up boarding school, as the former instructors in the school are being gutted and the police have no clue why. The series is based on the first serial killer case in Iceland, and the first half of the series treads familiar Silence of the Lambs ground.

However, the serial killer plot is surprisingly resolved at the midpoint in the series and at this point it becomes much more interesting as the two cops investigate other possible roots of the violence of the boarding school and as the trail climbs ever higher in the judicial and state hierarchy. ‘Valhalla’ in Nordic mythology is a warriors’ heaven ruled over by Odin, wise but also a vicious warlike figure associated with death. The boarding house is a Valhalla where its young warriors are initiated into an unfair battle that has ruined their lives and made living corpses of them, as they die prematurely or wander aimlessly in jobs that simply occupy their time. They are casualties of a brutal abuse of power.

The twists and turns in The Valhalla Murders deepen the critique of a society that is willing to look at its flaws. In contrast, the twists in The Stranger work to conceal the flaws of an oppressive and exploitative society – instead of exposing and examining them, they are presented as an ever-spinning addictive spiral that obstructs the viewer's critical reflection.

After Life
Monday, 10 August 2020 19:06

After Life

Tony McKenna reviews After Life, the new black comedy-drama written by Ricky Gervais for Netflix

Ricky Gervais has two seminal qualities which make him a wonderful writer.  One, he has a capacity for cruelty, a hangover from his background as comedian, for good comedy is often cruel. Gervais does not suffer fools lightly and often raises up the stupidities of others in terms of the most lacerating satire and critique.  The other is a great capacity for humanism; to see how, at their depths, even people who appear on the surface to be arrogant and toxic, are often just bumbling along, ineptly, hopefully and without any real malice.   These two moments – a lacerating cruelty and a more fallible humanity – reached a perfect comic fusion with Gervais' most iconic creation, the office manager David Brent. 

Brent was, for all intents and purposes, a complete arsehole.  He was the type of man who was capable of saying things like 'What is the single most important thing for a company? Is it the building? Is it the stock? Is it the turnover? It's the people, investment in people' – with a straight face.  He was this horrific whirlwind of mangled motivational soundbite along with the type of cod philosophy haphazardly snatched from the most ghastly and saccharine self-help manual.  He would subject the people under him to his god-awful comedy routines, labouring under the delusion that he was witty and charismatic, and bolstered by a sense that, as their boss, the subordinates in the office were compelled to listen to him – quite literally a captive audience.

And yet, the most remarkable thing about Brent was that you, the viewer, could never really despise him.  You winced, as he embarrassed himself, as his often rather sleazy attempts to ingratiate himself with others crashed and burned, and you squirmed as he lurched between platitude and prejudice – but you could never really hate him because there was nothing of cruelty in what he was.  Just the opposite in fact.  Underneath all the twattish management twaddle, there lurked a confused but fundamentally well-intentioned personality desperately seeking some kind of connection with others.

Creating a character so finally finessed between the ghastly and the generous exhibited the scalpel-like fineness of Gervais' writing and was one of the reasons why I was looking forward to his new Netflix series After Life.  But here, however, Gervais is unable to walk that same fine line; for his protagonist is much more ghastly but far less generous. Tony is a middle-aged man who has just lost his wife to cancer.   In the aftermath of that event, he is plunged into abject hopelessness and this takes the form of a comic nihilism whereby he abandons any politeness or pretence and says to others – both close friends and strangers – exactly what he thinks all of the time.

The idea is that although Tony is impossibly cruel, sarcastic and hurtful to virtually everyone who comes into his orbit, this is because he is because he is so grief-stricken and devastated – that behind the irate anger at the world lives a fundamentally kind and generous soul.  It's a good premise, but it doesn't work because Gervais is never able to evoke any genuine sense of kindness or generosity on Tony's part.  He assures us that Tony does have these qualities, over and over in fact.  Tony spends some of his time watching videos his wife recorded for him before she passed away.   Every now and then she will describe him with a stoical chuckle as a 'fat twat' thus allowing the writer to state in very bald terms that these scenes are earthy and real rather than trite and sentimental.  But once that is got out the way, she harps on ad infinitum about what a truly remarkable, special, good person he is and how she knew it from the very first moment she laid eyes on him, how much he has to offer the world, and so on.  She is quite literally on her deathbed, so you wouldn't reasonably expect her to start ragging maliciously on her beloved, but what you get from these snippets is almost nothing about her character, who she was, and very little about the actual details and events of the relationship between them.  Rather she simply reveres him.  She becomes little more than a prop for his grief, a device to throw into relief just how worthy he is and how much he is suffering.

Edgy or unkind?

And the same is true with every other character.  They all, every single one of them, spend time riffing on how great, how kind, how funny and how good the Gervais lead is while remaining largely indifferent to the sheer cruelty of what he says and does.  He treats his co-worker, the photographer Lenny, with visceral contempt, harping on about how physically repulsive he is, encouraging others to ridicule the disgusting image of him consuming food, pinching the fat at the back of his neck, publically interrogating Lenny's partner as to what she could possibly see in someone so ridiculous, lacking and ugly.  This kind of stuff is, I guess, supposed to be edgy, but really it just comes across as unkind.  Lenny does not just absorb the insults Tony heaps upon him with muted bemusement, he also looks at Tony with wide-eyed and gormless adoration for he too understands how privileged he is to be in the same space as this remarkable yet damaged human being.

Tmck2

Tony's elderly father is perhaps the most depressing of all the props.  He is suffering from dementia and is living in a care home. Tony comes to visit him.  The comedy is derived from the fact that Tony's ailing dad, being old and demented, is extremely 'politically incorrect'.  So he will suddenly say something racist or inappropriately sexual, and a good laugh will be had by all. Tony's father's entire raison d'être seems to consist in this alone. And the fact that he provides the prop by which the crotchety Gervais is able to get to know the hardworking, stoical but warm-hearted Emma, a carer at the home. 

Here the stage is set for the Gervais character to emerge from his winter hibernation of despair and disillusion, warmed by the benevolent and giving nature of Emma, the inevitable romantic foil, for she too senses the almost infinite hidden depths which lie behind the brusque exterior. Despite all the loss and suffering she has come into contact with in her job, Tony himself is the 'saddest man' she has ever seen.

Part of the problem with Tony's character, I think, is that he is a product of Gervais' own wish-fulfilment.  Tony is a bitter rebuke to the world, a rebuke addressed to all the asinine morons out there wandering about in their fog of stupidity having not yet arrived at Gervais' astute political and cultural values.  So, for instance, yet another one-dimensional character is another of Tony's colleagues, Kath.  She is particularly gormless, empty-headed and spaced out, given to mull aimlessly and endlessly over the most trivial and vapid of subjects. 

And she also happens to be religious.  Which sets the stage for the Gervais character to provide a contemptuous and 'incisive' critique of her beliefs, which essentially comes down to Tony squealing, 'yeah, well if God made everything right, then who made him, eh?'  A practical and commonsensical retort for sure, and one which perfectly expresses the crude literalism of the kind of 'New Atheism' which Gervais has so relentlessly campaigned for – a critique which remains oblivious to the profound philosophical and cosmological themes which infuse great religions and which make them resonate with so many millions of people.  And while the whole 'well who made him' charge provides a significant and perhaps insurmountable obstacle to the theorisation of any deity, those of us who are atheist proponents of the Big Bang theory (the current writer included) are ourselves subject to a similar and no less thorny dilemma (if the Big Bang created the universe what caused it?)

Character or caricature?

Kath is yet another foil, an empty and asinine caricature which exists only to be pounded by Gervais' rather vulgar anti-religious fervour.  Yet more secondary characters are called into being to perform the same banal function.  Tony is walking down the street, only to be accosted by a couple of would-be muggers.  The two teenage boys are leery, belligerent and aggressive, their accents are almost a caricature of the sneering, mindless and hate-filled 'chav'.  Cue the Gervais character, to take action. He does not cower before them, and with fearless abandonment he strikes one and berates the other in a soft, calm voice which leads them to understand that here is a man who is little concerned for his own safety and will not be intimidated. 

Disorientated and ashamed, they shrink from him.  In another lifetime perhaps Gervais might have been tempted to derive some humour from the scene, but apart from the idea of the skanky 'chavs' getting their just deserts, the exchange is humourless.   It's rather odd too, because the whole tone has more in common with something like Death Wish, the humane and humanistic middle-aged, middle-class individual with his back to the wall, finally pushed into action by the dark protean forces stirring in the impoverished mob – the chaos and menace of the streets offering up a deadly threat to the civilised and respectable nostrums of law and order.

The scene Gervais has created here verges on the ridiculous, but it also provides us a glimpse into what Tony really represents, i.e. he becomes the means by which Gervais is able to exorcise his frustrations. Tony provides an almost Nietzschean-like riposte to the social ills of the modern world, very much from the elevated perspective of a middle-class man who is now unfettered by the niceties of bourgeois respectability, and can unleash the full force of his superiority and contempt against the trudging imbeciles, non-entities and miscreants of the herd. 

The only character who is impoverished and at the bottom, who is painted sympathetically rather than with derision – a character who doesn't feel the full force of Tony's loathing and disdain – is the figure of Daphne (aka Roxy), a sex-worker.  She is intriguing, witty, damaged, brash and thoughtful.  It is a shame she doesn't have a little more screen time.  Alas, like all the women in the piece she is afflicted by a severe condition of 'Tony worship,' understanding just how remarkable he is and how much he has to give. So as he goes off to take his first tentative steps into the dating world, she pines away wistfully on just what a lucky woman his prospective date is.

After Life is not unwatchable, the dialogue is often lively and the scenes are occasionally funny.  A writer of Gervais' calibre is incapable of producing something utterly boring or utterly bad.  But in After Life he has created a fundamentally synthetic world – a rather flimsy, clichéd set of secondary characters who remain underdeveloped, and who float around the protagonist like rubber balloons, drawn by the gravity of his egoism. They are empty props which exist only to validate Tony's wit, virtue and travails, lacking any real character or content in their own right.  When the time comes, as it inevitably must, for Tony to realise that his hatred at the world is misplaced and it is really rather a jolly place after all, the shift occurs not as result of a genuine engagement with the people around him on equal terms but rather from a hastily contrived moral epiphany, a saccharine speech on the joys and wonders of the colleagues and 'friends' whom he has spent all the other episodes pitilessly humiliating.   The tone of the piece thus shifts, moving from sour and unpleasant to gushing and sentimental in its conclusion.  Given the character dynamic Gervais has created, this has the feel of inevitability.

Uma Thurman at Series Mania
Monday, 10 August 2020 19:06

Serial TV: Platforms, Concentration and The Same Old Thing

Dennis Broe reports from the Series Mania festival, previews some of the new series due to hit our screens, and surveys trends in the ever-concentrating, hugely profitable industry of digital media

There certainly was mania, with over 60 series being screened, three days of industry panels, and with masterclasses (extended interviews) with Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s writer and Sharp Objects showrunner Marti Noxon and Uma Thurman presenting her new show Chambers, all at the Series Mania festival in Lille in Northern France last week. Series Mania has now become the leading international television gathering in the world and is staking a claim on being for television what the Cannes Festival is for film.

There was mania, but there was also anxiety as those in the European television industry readied themselves for the coming onslaught of the American streaming services which they greeted alternately as partners who would expand their options for producing series, or as moneymakers invading their market and against whom they could not compete.

DB sereismania

The streaming services (Netflix, Amazon, Hulu and the coming NBC Universal, Disney/Fox and Time Warner-AT&T as well as Apple and Facebook) have been challenged in various ways by governments, associations and unions. While the conference was underway the European Union passed a directive increasing the power of copyright holders affecting mainly print media, but perhaps applicable to television as well, which could aid local producers.

The directive was announced and celebrated by Pascal Rodard, Director of the French Society of Authors and Composers in a panel titled “Towards a New Balance Between Creators and Platforms.” Director Kaat Beels, of the Netflix series Beau Sejour, described a Danish work action against Netflix in which creative personnel were championing their right to be paid residuals from the streaming services, which tend to pay upfront and then build libraries as the main asset, which last in perpetuity and increase the value of the service – but the creators receive no more payments.

Howard Rodman, a former president of the American Writer’s Guild West, explained that the Guild had lost the right to residuals in the 1980s and 1990s on VHS/DVD sales and had subsequently staged one of the most important strikes in the history of telecommunications in 2008 when, after a 100-day walkout, Hollywood writers won the right to negotiate residuals with the streaming platforms. That power grew in 2017 when a threated strike forced the owners to increase residual rights by 15 percent.

Ominously, outside the festival the news was of profit accumulation being pushed within an ever narrowing concentration of players in moves to flatten the content of the streaming services in more of a big-tent approach, to attract wider audiences which would make these companies more like the networks of old. With cable services declining (subscribers in the US having gone from a peak of 100 million to 90 million today) the coming streaming services will grow more powerful. Last week, AT&T essentially forced out the heads of HBO and the Turner Networks and replaced them by an executive formerly from NBC, signaling that the coming AT&T/Time Warner service will move HBO and Turner from boutique audiences to more of a one-size-fits-all model.

The size and profit level of the existing services, particularly Netflix, is also daunting for European producers. In Britain, in order to compete, the BBC and ITV have formed a streaming service titled Britbox. However, the total funds available for production is around $184 million which is not small unless it is compared to the $13 billion Netflix spent last year. Both Amazon and Netflix promised increasing attention to telling local European stories but this drive toward what is becoming a streaming service buzzword – diversity – comes in the wake of a European law requiring that at least 30 percent of the product available on the streaming services come from European countries.

Perhaps the last word came from a European distributor who said that because of their global reach and budget, the streaming services were starting to treat European markets much like American television networks treated them in the 1980s and 1990s when their product was dominant on European screens.

Elsewhere Marti Noxon, who cut her feminist writing teeth on Buffy The Vampire Slayer, talked candidly about her career and her life and about the importance of putting imperfection on the TV screen. Her latest series is Sharp Objects, with Amy Adams as an alcoholic reporter who returns to her small hometown in Missouri to solve what might be the serial murder of young girls. Noxon described her own bout with alcohol, including an evening when she staggered out of an LA bar and passed out in her car in downtown LA without locking the doors, a scene that is replayed in the series.

Uma Thurman, however, was coy and tight-lipped about her life. At one point when asked if the working environment for women in studios was changing on account of Me Too, she dropped her guarded attitude for a moment and said that frankly the attitude had to change, that the environment couldn’t get any worse. But she quickly amended that to say more blandly that things were getting better. Her Netflix series Chambers premiering in late April, does though indicate a degree of self-awareness, presenting her tight-lipped, proper, Anglo-bourgeois mother as the terrifying villain of the series.

DB the red line

Opener of the festival was The Red Line, one small step for Serial TV but one giant leap for its highly conservative network CBS. The series, set around the Red Line metro in Chicago which crosses several race and class boundaries concerns a black-white gay couple and their black daughter. Noah Wylie of Emergency stars as a high school teacher left with grief that he is for a while unable to express after his husband is shot and killed by the Chicago police. The best thing about the series, and the radical element for the older audiences on CBS, is the way it normalizes a gay school teacher making him compassionate and sensitive.

The series claims to present a cross-section of the city but actually there is really only about two degrees of separation between its characters and it does not explore in real depth, as did say Steve McQueen’s Widows, the history of class antagonism in that city. It adopts the “everyone has their reasons” cop-out in exploring the lives of the city’s white police force, while ignoring the structural reasons for the long history of race and class tensions in the city. It doesn’t help that the most charismatic and interesting character, the Afro-American gay husband, is killed in the opening sequence; but the series may get a boost with the recent election of Chicago’s first black, female, openly gay mayor.  

NBC checked in with Manifest, about a plane that is lost for five years. When it lands its members both sport unnatural powers and spout religious mumbo-jumbo about the miracle that is happening to them, a sign perhaps of the presence of the conservative owner of NBC Comcast. The plane somehow breached five years in time while actually in network time 15 years have elapsed between this series and its forebear Lost. Minus the heavily religious overlay, the series unfolds as an interesting mystery.

One of the most garish series of the festival was Showtime’s, which is CBS’s sinister cable side, Black Monday about the events leading to the 1987 stock market crash. The pilot is co-directed by Seth Rogan whose protégé Adam McKay directed The Big Short, all of which raises the expectations that the series will be an exposé of Wall Street. Nothing of the kind though. Instead it simply wallows in money and its largely black cast headed by Don Cheadle makes it simply the minority version of the other Showtime hit Billions. Both series amount to “wealth porn” in an era in which inequality, especially for black workers, continues to grow.

DB Exit

The real exposé came in the form of a Norwegian series Exit, based on a fictionalized version of actual interviews with four financial magnates in banking, hedge-fund management, and investing. The financial violence they inflict on the society is mirrored by each of the four engaging in actual violence in the episode that centers on them including knifing a sex worker, beating senseless an annoying guest at a party, and kickboxing a passerby after a drunken spree. The lead character’s violence though is psychological, making his wife believe that she is the reason they can’t have kids by concealing his vasectomy. Exit was named best series in the Panorama, or Global, section of the festival by a student jury. The show is a tough-minded anti-Billions which no doubt benefitted from the student jury and it is unlikely that a more “mature” – meaning comfortably bourgeois – jury would have awarded the prize to this hard-hitting show.

DB folklore

Another top series was HBO Asia’s Folklore, created by Singapore director Eric Khoo, who claimed at the screening that “Everyone in Asia believes in ghosts.” Folklore is a horror anthology with each episode in the Asian language of its origin. The first episode from Indonesian director Joko Anwar, titled “A Mother’s Love”, is a kind of Babadook exploration of an itinerant mother’s cloying affection, while also situating her haunting within the context of the street poverty of Jakarta.

In the second episode, directed by Khoo, the series hits its stride as a Singapore developer conceals the finding of the body of a victimized young girl because it will reflect badly on the construction complex, and then pays the price as the girl rises and haunts the site. This episode was very good on the migrant Chinese and Malay workers in Singapore, themselves victimized by the developer as was the young girl. An antidote to the remaking of Singapore into a Hollywood shopping complex ala Rodeo Drive that was Crazy Rich Asians.

Funniest and most satirical series of the festival was British actor and co-series creator Stephen Mangan’s Hang Ups, a remake of Lisa Kudrow’s Web Therapy, that sparkles not only with Mangan’s deadpan and hilarious reactions as an online therapist – this veteran of the Showtime series Episodes really is the modern Bob Newhart – but also with the wit to suggest that even instant therapy in the online era may no longer be possible, because personality has been evacuated. In the era of instant attention and gratification there is no ego for a therapist to work with – as exemplified by one client who is only using the supposed insights in the therapy session to increase her online followers.

Eerie in a different way is the horror series Chambers, which resuscitates the oldest horror story possible – stitching the parts of someone onto another, and then having that person take on or be threatened by the donor’s personality. This is the theme of the German Expressionist Hands of Orlac, the ’30s Hollwood Mad Love with Peter Lorre and Eric Red's Body Parts. The previous versions though, tended to have the upper-class artist threated by a lower-class criminal. Here that situation is reversed and the reversal adds a completely new dimension to the tale. An African-American/Native-American high school girl is given the heart of another female student from a wealthy suburban Arizona family. She and the uncle who raised her are then in various ways threatened by the New-Agey, Sinona-type, parents of the donor and most creepily by Uma Thurman’s perfect but nefarious upper-class wife with a closet full of secrets. Keeping the focus though on the young girl’s struggle against the class enemy that now inhabits her makes this a series to remember.

DB chimerica

Just awful was the big budget Chimerica, from the usually reliable British Channel 4. The muddle-headed, trivial, and simplistic conceit of the series is that China lost its chance at democracy at Tiananmen Square in 1989, and the US is losing its democracy under Trump. China retains socialist characteristics and collectivist tendencies within an autocracy, while in the US the oligarchy is replacing a democracy in decline long before Trump finished it off.

The series, which validates the supposed ethics of an objective journalism – a laugh in itself given the recent CNN/New York Times debacle over Russiagate – concerns the efforts of a discredited photojournalist to find a witness at Tiananmen called The Tank Man, who stood up to the Chinese army’s rousting of the square. When they find him, his colleague claims breathlessly that what she can’t wait to ask him is, “what he was carrying in his bags,” a perspective that exactly characterizes the trivialization and distortion of the truth by Western media that this show seems entirely unaware of.

Equally confused is the big budget splashy Netflix French series Osmosis, about a brother and sister team of entrepreneur and programmer who claim to match their clients with their soulmate. The series focuses on how this match supposedly will fix the troubles of the modern world as one young test subject hung-up on porn believes finding his mate will cure his addiction.

Capitalism often proposes that psychological problems caused by the increasing tensions of growing inequality can be fixed with a pill, but here the fix involves big data’s claim to have mapped the world’s personalities. The series though obscures the massive surveillance that is needed to build such a database as Netflix equally obscures its own surveillance of its customers, which has been used to construct projects like this one.  

Let's think about bread: the internet moves from community forum to shopping mall
Monday, 10 August 2020 19:06

Let's think about bread: the internet moves from community forum to shopping mall

Dennis Broe compares the current attempts to overrule the principle of net neutrality with 18C French economists' rejection of bread price controls.

The U.S. regulatory body the Federal Communications Commission is set to overrule the principle of net neutrality where all speed on the internet is roughly equal and instead allow internet carriers and providers to themselves regulate speeds and charge more for what is now an internet right. This provision is happening at the same time as the Justice Department debates allowing a merger between one of the main content providers, Time Warner, and one of the major broadband companies providing access to the American home, AT&T. Trump's Justice Department is so far blocking the merger but this may amount to only a minor roadblock with Time Warner being forced to divest CNN as a penalty for that company’s attacks on Trump, since to attack him is a ratings booster.

DB netflix graph

Overthrowing net neutrality and a new wave of media mergers are related. If the FCC ruling passes, content producers will seek alliances with internet providers so that their own services are not overpriced by this new unregulated “freedom” to slow speeds and then charge for what is now the internet standard. This is a massive merger since AT&T already owns DirecTV which reaches over one-third of American homes. The ruling will most likely further other mergers of this kind with, in the Serial TV arena, Amazon, Netflix and Hulu then needing to find internet providers to team with. These providers then may also exert direct or indirect pressure on their content and the mergers will also most likely result in increased monthly charges as well as a narrowing and stabilizing of the field to its current heavy-hitter participants. Television watching on the internet would then move closer to the high prices of cable which drove viewers to these content providers in the first place and content may become more stabilized so that the new services start to look more like the old television networks.   

DB not broken

What will the internet itself look like if this ruling goes through? The New York Times claims it will look more like a mall and less like a community forum, though perhaps the more accurate assessment is that the internet already looks like a mall and with this ruling the last traces of the old idea of the internet as a community forum will be erased. It is possible to effectively block content by simply slowing down access to it since a Microsoft study shows that the average internet user’s attention span is 8 seconds between clicks. Longer than that and the content will often be abandoned, not to mention that the practice of training this short attention span means users are being conditioned to pay more not to have their attention interrupted. 

The overthrow of an internet open to all is being rationalized in the usual neoliberal way by claiming regulation is bad and evil, though the government is not really regulating, it is simply keeping an open internet and it may be much more involved in regulation under the new rules which pit everyone against everyone else. Net neutrality, the design of the internet since its inception, is now being branded “government micromanaging of your personal freedom.” The Republican head of the FCC promoting the end of net neutrality, Ajit Pai, says that competition, which is claimed as the only real way to lower prices, is being stifled by the government’s heavy hand. Of course this “let a thousand flowers bloom” approach is somewhat tempered by the fact that Pai himself worked at Verizon, one of not the thousand, but the three or four flowers, along with Comcast, Charter and AT&T, which will assuredly bloom in this new climate.

What I like to point out is that these arguments were rehearsed three centuries ago in the 18th Century France of Louis the 15th and are detailed in a book by Stephen L. Kaplan called Raisonner Sur Les Bles - that is, “Let’s think about wheat.” The title comes from Voltaire who said that while it is nice to discuss and discourse about poetry, tragedy, comedy, operas, novels, morality and theological disputes, it is in the end necessary to think about wheat, the lifegiving staple of the majority of the people in Louis’s time who lived on French bread.

The book details how many of the Enlightenment thinkers, the physiocrats, who in the 1740s and 1750s turned toward economics, claimed that liberty was the prime value in the society, and for them liberty was tied to property. They said the hidden hand of the free market which encouraged unbridled competition and which was opposed to the heavy hand of the government would triumph in all areas. The liberty of property owners to engage in free market competition was a natural law that was above the law of the state and consequently the king and the state should get out of the business of acting as a safety net to keep people from starving and should instead become a king entrepreneur, or player, in promoting the free market which would lead to lower prices through competition and increased wealth and abundance for all. France, instead of keeping wheat at home, would export it, establishing its global market dominance which at that point belonged to Spain and the Netherlands, and which would add to the prosperity of the entire country.

Growth then supplants security as there is then so much abundance for all that there is no need of the state providing a safety net, just as encouraging competition on the internet will supposedly lower prices for everyone. The abbés, the managers of church landowning property, defended this policy which benefited the largest landowners and growers of wheat, and claimed that needs were not rights, that the liberty granted by the right to own property superseded the people’s need to eat. And that feeding people in times of bad harvests or regulating the price of their staple product so they could afford daily bread meant property owners' rights were subordinate to people’s needs.

In the end, they maintained, as does the current Republican tax bill, what was good for the leading classes was what was good for France. One physiocrat, Lemarcier, whose wealth came from being a slave owner on French plantations, argued that no particular class should be favoured, meaning that the small landowning class should have equal rights and consideration with the vast majority of the poor. The minister Turgot claimed the poor peasant was indifferent to life and more interested in the price of a cow then in their own wife and son, neglecting to point out that the cow might well be the only thing that stood in the way of starvation for the peasant, his wife and his son.

DB 6 bread riots

The policies were an utter disaster, as no doubt net reform will be, prompting riots both in the cities and the countryside and reducing the poorest peasants to begging, unemployment, and criminality, culminating in a slaughter of rioters in 1770 at the supposedly joyful celebration of the marriage of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, who later was in favour of letting her countrymen eat cake but here opposed them eating bread. The response of the physiocrats was that these “reforms,” - as the overthrowing of net neutrality is also being described - failed not because they resulted in hoarding to raise prices, in monopoly price fixing, and in the export of wheat which deprived locals of the crop they helped grow, but because they did not go far enough and were ill administered, that the state was to blame not the free market doctrine. And of course that will be the response when prices start skyrocketing with the net neutrality “reform.”

DB 5 marie antionette

The last word though in both debates belongs to two actually enlightened members of the Enlightenment. Denis Diderot, the publisher of the encyclopedia, was the first in this circle to recognize the people’s right to existence, the real breakthrough in the Enlightenment. Diderot repudiated the physiocrats’ idea that their economic laws substituted abstract principles for any consideration of what the results of the imposition of these principles looked like. It was the Swiss Banker Jacques Necker though who finally took the people’s own thought seriously, countering Turgot by arguing that the people see wheat as a sacred right delivered from nature, akin to the air they breathe. In the symbolic economy, free access to the internet is equally that kind of sacred right.

Finally, Necker said, these claims to the divine right of free competition organized around who controls the market and the grain supply, as the new internet pricing will be organized by those who control access to the American home, were nothing more than the momentary conquest of one class of society of the future of another. That is, under the principle of property, justice and liberty, there is nothing left for the most numerous class of citizens. Necker knew a thing or two, not only about French bread, but also about where the overthrowing of net neutrality will lead.