Dennis Broe

Dennis Broe

Dennis Broe is the author of The House That Buff Built, the upcoming fourth volume in the Harry Palmer mystery trilogy whose subject is homelessness and the real estate industry, racial prejudice against the Chinese in Los Angeles, and the power of major media to set the development agenda.

Dark Stories for Dark Times: The 2024 Crime Novel
Tuesday, 09 April 2024 12:11

Dark Stories for Dark Times: The 2024 Crime Novel

Published in Fiction

This year the Quais du Polar in Lyon, the largest European festival of crime novels and one of the largest in the world, in celebrating its 20th season, was marked by the intrusion into the spine of the novels by the real-world problems and catastrophes going on around the festival.

Each evening, just outside the festival walls, in front of the town hall, there was a vigil calling for a ceasefire in Gaza. Inside, there were novelists incorporating climate apocalypse, rabid income inequality, and the indignity of European cities, most notably Venice and Barcelona, that are overcome by tourism.

In a panel on encouragement of reading, sponsored by UNESCO’s “Creative Cities” initiative, the Icelandic crime writer Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, who helped create and chair the Reykjavik Crime Fiction Festival and has written 15 novels, explained that Iceland has money to give to support all kinds of arts because it is one of the few countries in the world that “doesn’t have an army.”

She suggested, and not totally facetiously, that instead of destroying each other on the battlefield Russia’s Putin and Ukraine’s Zelensky instead should duel it out by writing alternate chapters of a novel. Such an initiative is sponsored each year as two crime writers come together to do just that. This year’s combined work is The Steve McQueen which quotes the film The Thomas Crown Affair which starred McQueen, since both are about heists that go awry. The novel is authored by Lyon’s Caryl Férey and Northern England's Tim Willocks, whose most famous book however is Bad City Blues​, set in New Orleans.

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Climate apocalypse hits Glasgow 

A panel innocuously celebrating cooperation between France and Britain, initiated in the Entente Cordiale signed in 1904 ending several centuries of armed conflict, took on a contemporary air when Peter May recounted why he had come out of retirement to write A Winter Grave, a crime novel set in 2051.

In this nightmarish future, the Scottish Highlands are frozen – but thawing enough for a dead body to be discovered in an icy cave while Glasgow is flooded, filled with acrid odours from the backed-up sewers and with cars replaced by Venetian-style water taxis. May related that after COP26, the 2021 Glasgow Climate Conference, he became convinced that the destruction of the earth was not going to be addressed. He was so shocked by this cavalier attitude that he wrote a book in which the context that surrounds the mystery is a failing Earth, where 2 billion people are forced to flee their homes.

He was not the only writer to address this issue. One panel focused on dystopic worlds to come, a subject that had previously not been central to the crime novel, which has always been an excellent way of highlighting contemporary and past corruption, but has generally steered clear of the sci-fi focus on the future. It’s a sign that the climate crisis is intruding everywhere.

Back in the present again, the devastating effects of fossil fuel and mineral extraction showed up as Karin Smirnoff, who is now charged with continuing Stieg Larsson’s Millenium series with The Girl in the Eagle’s Talons, explained that her sequel is set in the north of Sweden, home of Europe’s last indigenous population, the Sami, where mining interests unearthing material for clean energy batteries often claim they can drill and dig on the land because “nobody lives there.”

Smirnoff, the first female to write a volume of a series which is now subtitled “A Lizbeth Salander Novel,” pointing to the popularity of the female character, explained by way of her book that a good deal of harm is done to indigenous lands in the name of safe and clean energy where to get access to the minerals powering batteries the companies “kill six lakes surrounding the mine.”

A panel on white-collar crime suddenly took an unexpected turn when the Italian mystery writer Valerio Varesi, whose novels are set in Parma in Northern Italy’s Po Valley, explained that his subject is the change in his town in the wake of the Reagan-Thatcher ’80s. It was at that point that he observed the market economy driving human behavior, and the thirst and need for money and profits beginning to dominate human relationships.

Varesi, who is also a journalist for La Republica, explained that after the economic crash of 1929, banks and the financial sector were governed by rules that have since been evacuated, allowing the second crash of 2008. His latest The Lizard Strategy recounts the eerie disappearance of Parma’s mayor just as he is about the be the subject of a corruption investigation.

Considering the penetration of capital into all forms of life, he asked the panel a pointed question: “Who governs Europe, Christine Lagarde (president of the European Central Bank) or Ursula von der Leyen (president of the European Parliament)?” The rest of the panel refused to take up the question and the moderator ordered Valerio not to pursue the subject further.

A regular guest at the festival is France’s most popular crime writer Michel Bussi, whose novels are often diverting page-turners. This year he appeared at the conference with his latest, My Heart Has Moved, which confronts the problem of increasing inequality in his town of Rouen.

Bussi is a political geographer turned novelist and he explained that the town is now more strictly segregated into the rich, more conservative right bank, and the poor, more radical left bank, with the schools on the former now much less open to students from the latter.

His novel is about the lifelong quest of a boy whose mother is murdered, seemingly by his working-class father, but who then discovers that the apparent truth may not be the case.

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Donna Leon’s Venice 

Venice’s Donna Leon talked about another kind of interpenetration of capital into the lives of the city’s dwindling number of actual citizens who live there, with roughly 50,000 residents overwhelmed by the 30 million people who visit each year. Her inspector Brunetti, she said, does not operate in the land of the tourists but rather pursues his cases by interacting with the still remaining locals, where he often unearths corruption amid what she called “the most beautiful city in the world.”

She cited two examples. The first being the often-proposed tourist fee as a way of limiting visitors to the city by fining them if they do not have a permit. She described this as “unenforceable” because of the many ways of accessing the city and the limited number of officials verifying the passes. It was simply designed to appease public opinion.

A greater scandal she discussed is the often-cited project of a bridge from Sicily to the mainland, which has already consumed millions and which, if ever completed would greatly facilitate traffic from organized crime to the mainland.

One of the guests of honour was John Grisham, whose new novel The Exchange is a sequel 30 years later to his second and breakthrough novel The Firm. He recounted how the book came to be published, as a story that might inspire younger writers. His first book A Time To Kill, later a publishing success and a film, did not do well when it was initially published. He wrote the second and figured if it stiffed also, he would resign from writing and continue his law career.

The book at first got no traction but happened to make its way to Hollywood, where it became a sensation and prompted a bidding war among three top studios before being sold to Paramount. With that success, the book then also was the subject of a publishing house auction, and he was on his way.

Asked if he himself ever was in fear of the Mafia because of the expose in the original of a law firm controlled by the mob, he said he wasn’t, but that he had got a letter from the at that time Mafia godfather John Gotti who was in jail for life and “had plenty of time to read.” Gotti wrote that he really enjoyed the book but that the author “had gotten the parts on the mob all wrong.”

Grisham said he wanted Tom Cruise to play the character, who is now aged 40, in the sequel since Cruise is over 60 but “doesn’t look a day over 30.” He said the character Mitch is inextricably linked to Cruise and even referred to the character once as “Tom.”

In The Girl in the Eagle’s Talon Lisbeth Salander grows up and becomes a mature activist. This year’s Quais du Polar showed that the crime novel, long a staple of exposing graft and corruption, is growing up as well and taking on the steadily accumulating and disturbing problems of an ever more complex world.

The imperialist problem of '3 Body Problem'
Monday, 01 April 2024 13:10

The imperialist problem of '3 Body Problem'

Dennis Broe outlines 3 Body Problem’s imperialist problem. Image above: the Chinese Cultural Revolution as a moment of chaos 

In Culture and Imperialism, Palestinian scholar Edward Said details how the great works of Western literature are part and parcel of the fabric of imperial domination of the West’s, and in this case particularly Britain’s, exploitation of what is sometimes called the Global South.

Said speaks primarily of the 18th through the 20th centuries, from the “menace” of Sherlock Holmes’ Asian villains rematerializing in the imperial center of London, to the barely acknowledged Caribbean plantation, source of the wealth in the Bronte novels.

That mindset endures and is interwoven into the fabric of Western television entertainment, be it in the BBC One series The Driver, recently adapted for American TV as Parish, which highlights the savagery of the gangsters from the former British colony of Zimbabwe to the supposedly more sophisticated treatment of China, another former imperial territory, in Netflix’s Spring TV blockbuster 3 Body Problem.

The series was adapted for Netflix by Game of Thrones creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, from the trilogy by Chinese science fiction writer Liu Cixin. It opens with a scene, not in the novel, from the Maoist Cultural Revolution, set in 1966, where one of the lead characters Ye Wenjie (body number 1) watches her physicist father murdered on stage by Chinese Red Guards for refusing to propound revolutionary dogma.

Ye Wenjie later goes on to become an astrophysicist herself, but in episode 2 makes a fatal decision regarding extraterrestrials, based on her encounter at a labour camp with the female Red Guard member who refuses to renounce her participation in the death of her father.

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Oxford, multicultural source of technological progress 

From the opening scene of revolutionary carnage the series then shifts to the present in Oxford and to a group of physicists centred around a particle accelerator, seen as the most advanced center of scientific development in the world and whose project manager is body number 2.

One of the “Oxford 5” group of alumni scientists and entrepreneurs Jess Hong, then enters a virtual world (her avatar is body number 3), which returns to the Chinese dynastic period where she observes Emperor Zhou’s territories threatened by a mysterious plague. She is appalled by this menace to the empire and wonders how to prevent it.

We have here then a classic case of Said’s Culture and Imperialism, updated for the popular entertainment medium of 21st century streaming TV. The Cultural Revolution, despite its glaring deficiencies, sparked proletarian literacy and was a first step toward the mass scientific breakthrough that has now led China to taking on the West in terms of technological advancement – Huawei and Tik Tok are both in the process of being blockaded by a West that cannot compete.

The entire revolutionary enterprise is presented as simply an exercise in savagery and intolerance and is immediately contrasted with the material and scientific sophistication of “Oxford,” the representative of multicultural openness. Here, even its capitalist “entrepreneurs,” in the form of GOT’s John Bradley as Jack Roony, a clumsy and likable practitioner of the art of streamlining jobs and work – i.e. firing employees – and the mysterious oil tycoon Thomas Wade, are concerned with saving humanity.  

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Reviving the dynastic emperor 

In order to find a positive view of China in the series, it is necessary to return to the dynastic period, before the 100 years plus of revolutionary struggle, both democratic and socialist, which freed the country from the “century of (Western) humiliation” and the yoke of the emperors, a period which is here presented fondly.

This imperial backbone should not come as a surprise from Benioff and Weiss, who undertook the project after three failures. Left on their own without the George R. R. Martin novels which they had followed through season six, particularly the final 8th season of Game of Thrones amounted to little more than battlefield carnage with a disappointing ending in which “Westeros” does not allow for a progressive leadership.

At that point, the channel HBO, flush from the overall success of the series, was ready to make whatever they proposed. The team came up with Confederacy, an “alternative history” series in which the South wins its freedom and re-establishes slavery, an idea so patently regressive that HBO was forced to reject, after an outcry. The pair then went to Disney proposing to apply the GOT combination of imperial blood and sex to Star Wars, the streamer’s key franchise, which was also rejected.

And so they found their way to Netflix, the most commercially successful streamer, which was more than willing not to re-institute slavery but to re-found the imperial myth of the Chinese and Global South “jungle” and the Western “garden.” Plus ça change......

'Zone of Interest' and Glazergate: The director’s challenge and the Zionist reaction
Friday, 29 March 2024 13:07

'Zone of Interest' and Glazergate: The director’s challenge and the Zionist reaction

Published in Films

Jonathan Glazer is the Academy Award and BAFTA winning director of Zone of Interest, a film that highlights the “dehumanization” going on outside the Nazi death camp of Auschwitz, where the carnage only appears on the off-screen soundtrack.

He has come under attack not for anything in the film but for daring to insinuate in his Academy acceptance speech that there is an echo of the film in the “dehumanizing” way the genocide in Gaza is being routinely fostered, facilitated and ignored in the West.

Glazer’s film is about the callousness of the family of the German commandant of the death camp, whose job it is to oversee extermination. The film’s perspective, in some ways all the more chilling, is that of an intimate glimpse of the family as it goes about its daily activities, surrounded by offscreen cries, screams and orders to shoot and drown the victims just beyond the family garden, as the commandant’s wife claims that in their privilege, with lush vegetation and swimming pool, guaranteed by Jewish slavery, they have fulfilled the Fuhrer’s dream of a living space in the east for Germans.

The most incendiary part of Glazer’s speech is not the claim about his Jewishness not being hijacked by the Israeli occupation of Gaza, which is what his now over 1000 Hollywood critics have focused on in a letter denouncing the speech, but rather that he had the audacity to state that his film is not just about the past but also about the present.

The parallel then in the present would be in the West with those who watch this new holocaust, for that is what it is being called in the Arab world, being livestreamed and not just ignore it but actively deny that it is happening.

By suggesting that it is not “look what we did then” but “look what we do now,” Glazer is in fact placing American and Western complacency, and in some cases active cheering on of the genocide in Gaza, in line with the commandant and his privileged family in the film.

In this case, benefitting from the carnage, as Israel remains the key to American dominance of Middle East oil oil necessary for fuelling its allies in Europe, and proving the U.S. and its puppet Israel remain the hegemon in the region.

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The Zionist reaction

The attack on Glazer gives credence to this identification of the West as situating itself just outside of what has been called the concentration camp of Gaza. His attackers simply cannot stand the accusation that they are complicit in genocide. Instead they resort to Zionist arguments and talking points to refute his accusation, speaking of “an Israeli nation that seeks to avert its own extermination,” an “indigenous Jewish people defending a homeland” and a “distortion of history.”

The “extermination” is not being carried out by the Palestinians, but by the Zionists against the actual indigenous people of the region, who 75 years ago saw their homeland usurped by the creation of the apartheid state.

This was perhaps a new homeland but also, as members of the U.S. military have often described it, an “American aircraft carrier in the Middle East.” Each day we, in our privileged position outside the camp in the garden where life goes on as usual, hear the sounds and watch as the terror increases, now at the point with way more than the official number of 30,000 Palestinians dead and with Al Jazeera reporting that 25,000 of them are women and children.

Israel is of course worried that the gunshots are too noisy and might disturb us in our gardens, so now they have decided on the more “humane” method of mass starvation, though they are not above mowing down Palestinians who when one of the few food aid trucks gets through the clamour for the food.

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The Zone of Interest: Languishing by the pool 

If any voices are raised to challenge this carnage, as Glazer’s was, the attempt is to quickly silence them. Then, we can all go back to our finely manicured front lawns and backyards as we join Commandant Rolf, his wife, and their children at the pool.    

All Hail The Uni Party: Democans and Republicrats
Thursday, 14 March 2024 13:19

All Hail The Uni Party: Democans and Republicrats

All Hail the Uni Party: Democans and Republicrats

As the range of debate between the two parties in the U.S. shrinks, election season becomes a time of distorting the differences to make it seem there is an actual choice.

One of the greatest aids in fostering this delusion is the mainstream media, which in this election season focuses on the individual quirks, foibles, petty corruption and outlandish and outrageously regressive positions of one party while ignoring the more systemic evil and harm caused both in the U.S. and around the world by the other party.

In the last four years the party in power has brought the country to the brink of nuclear war with Russia, China and Iran, promoted and alibied away genocide, and through benign neglect fostered an ever more widening income gap amidst a deteriorating economy (except for fintech, that grouping of the finance and the digital industries) and a devastated physical and emotional infrastructure. The former now consists of broken-down railroads, bridges, and highways while the latter manifests in the Fentanyl crisis which has followed hard upon the opioid crisis.  

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Uniparty Karens: Bobbert and Greene 

Each party has its Karens and its Alpha Males. Karens, white suburban shriekers who came to the fore in their fear of all things non-white in the moment of the Black Lives Matter protest are represented by Lauren Boebert Clinton and Marjorie Taylor Pelosi. On the one hand, Lauren Boebert Clinton is noted for being so gun crazy that her former restaurant Shooter’s Grill was located in Rifle Colorado; for her Karen moment in claiming to be afraid of a terrorist action when Palestinian representative Ilhan Omar was standing behind her on the elevator line; and for loutish antisocial behavior such as being kicked out of a performance of Beetlejuice because she was vaping.

On the other hand, Lauren Boebert Clinton is noted for proudly boasting about destroying Libya, the country with the best education and health care system in Africa; for instigating the phony Russiagate story, given credence by the Steele Dossier manufactured by a former spy and Democratic Party employee and disproved by the Special Prosecutor assigned to the case; and for her refusal to deal with the real reasons for her 2016 presidential loss: her contempt for the American working class, calling them “deplorables” and claiming that rather than acknowledging their problems she was “flying over America,” that is brazenly acknowledging that she only related to the cultural and business elites on the East and West coasts.

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More Karens: Clinton, Pelosi 

Marjorie Taylor Pelosi is known on the one hand for her wild QAnon outlandish and diversionary claims such as drawing attention away from the challenge posed by global warming by claiming a wildfire in California was caused by lasers “beamed from space and controlled by a prominent Jewish banking family”; accusing schools educating their pupils about the history of racism in the U.S. as being “racist”; accosting a survivor of the Parkland slaying, and claiming an attempt to disprove her accusations was fostered not by the Gestapo police but by what she called “the gazpacho police.”

Marjorie Taylor Pelosi on the other hand has openly used her position in the House to engage in insider trading upping her net worth by $196 million; greatly increased tensions with China on a visit to Taiwan where she was also tending to the stake in a microchip company her son has invested heavily in; and when confronted by demonstrators outside her palatial mansion on the genocide in Gaza, accused them of being Putin agents.

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Uniparty Alpha males: Cruz, Graham 

Most prominent among the uniparty alpha males is Ted Cruz Sullivan, a widely disliked senator who a member of his own party referred to as “Lucifer in the flesh.” He is most famous for fleeing to Cancun at the time his Texas constituents, many without electricity, were facing the worst storm in their lifetime; for defending a Texas decision to renege on providing funding for healthcare for poor children and in a global continuation of the same type of policy opposing a ceasefire in Gaza to stop the starving of children.

Ted Cruz Sullivan, nickname “Jake,” who moonlights as the National Security Advisor, plays Jekyll to his alter ego’s Hyde. He claims to be for reasonable solutions while all the time fostering war in Ukraine, in Taiwan and Gaza. Sullivan helped to sabotage negotiations in Ukraine which could have  brought the war to a speedy end; fostered and promoted the U.S. military presence in the South China Sea, giving credence to the war-inducing idea of an “independent” Taiwan which neither the U.S. nor China acknowledge; and promoted Israeli-Saudi rapprochement as the solution to tensions in the Middle East, which would completely destroy Palestinian claims to end the apartheid state and which probably was the cause of the Hamas attack on October 7.

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More Alpha males: Blinken, Sullivan

No less an “A-type” male purveyor of uniparty loyalty is Lindsey Graham Blinken who as the stalwart senator for South Carolina last year flew off the handle, outraged that the U.S. defence budget was a measly $886 billion turning a blind eye to the amount of money that each year is bilked by contractors, amounting to $150 billion in Iraq and Afghanistan and in his home state deaf to twin sisters under his watch who defrauded the defence department of $20.5 million, including selling two 19 cent washers for $998,798.

If these dastardly deeds are done by night, his doppelganger Lindsey Graham Blinken by day plays a caring, hand-wringing head of the State Department who alibis for slaughtering Ukrainians in a war that ended almost before it started because of the overwhelming might of Russia’s industrial and human capacity to fight it; picks fights with China “alerting” the world to the danger of China’s lone military base, located in Africa in Djibouti, and concealing the nearly 800 U.S. bases around the world; and finally also claiming he is for a “humanitarian pause” and the building of a port in Gaza, a minimum six-week enterprise which will have many Gazans starving as they wait for sea access to food which is possible by land as trucks every day are lined up waiting to enter Gaza. Two sides of the same coin, Lindsey Graham Blinken plays good cop, bad cop but the operant word is cop, or global and local policeman.

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Tom Cotton Nuland handing out coup cookies in Maidan 

Finally, there is the gender-bending Tom Cotton Nuland whose male side, the Arkansas representative now running for senator, is in favor of restricting not only illegal but also legal immigration; has accused his colleagues waging a proxy war on Russia of being “soft” on Putin, a charge which he outlined in his book Only The Strong; has attempted to thwart even minimal justice reform in the country that has the highest incarcerated population in the world; and responded to the shooting in Uvalde not by proposing legislation restricting gun use but, before he even knew what was happening as the events unfolded, instead proposing “ways to improve security at schools,” that is bringing more guns into the schools.

The female side of this gender-bending duo, Tom Cotton Nuland, aka Victoria, has attempted regime change in Russia under five presidents; actively participated in the Maidan coup which led to the civil war in Ukraine, killing over 14,000 people; and pushed NATO to enlist Ukraine which prompted the Russian invasion leading to an estimated half million casualties on both sides.

She/he attempted to destroy the Russian economy through both sanctions and stealing Russian assets in Western banks, a spectacularly unsuccessful policy with Russia now the strongest economy in Europe, by some estimates expected to grow by 3 percent this year. This failure has prompted her dismissal or as the uniparty, which never admits defeat, would have it “resignation.”

Finally, there are its geriatric amnesiacs who it calls leaders, Donald Biden and Joseph Trump. Donald Biden is the openly racist candidate who launched his political career by attacking immigrants; assassinated the Iranian general who had led the fight against ISIS and who was in Iraq to promote peace in the region; bombed Syria while having dinner with the Chinese leader; and in a country where working-class people are so poor many live in their cars, has engineered a tax cut for the wealthiest, as his sole legislative accomplishment.

Joseph Trump was recently declared unfit to stand trial for pilfering security documents because of his inability to remember whether he did or not; presided over an attack on workers and the middle class by rationalizing the raising of interest rates, making it harder for cash-strapped and already in debt Americans to borrow; and championed a “rules-based order” which in effect has translated to “we make the rules and we keep the order”; effectively ruling out the United Nations Charter, the actual rules-based order, by continually vetoing proposals calling for a ceasefire to stop the slaughter in Gaza; and by not enforcing the International Court of Justice ruling that what Israel is doing tentatively amounts to genocide, all the time claiming to be “concerned.”

Labourives and Conservatours

This is the best a fading empire can muster, and it is a fit description of where the U.S. stands as its power and that of its allies begins to disintegrate. In Britain, Keir Sunak and Rishi Starmer represent labor and conservative parties who are more focused on supporting Israel’s genocide and keeping the war in Ukraine going, a boondoggle for British defense industries, than in delivering relief to a besieged populace which is every day watching the crown jewel of the British social aid system, the National Health Service, dwindle.

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Mirror, Mirror by Martin Gollan

On the continent, France’s little Napoleon, Macron, who like his namesake wants to send French troops to Ukraine, probably to share the fate of his countrymen more than 100 years ago. To maintain power he continues his mind meld with the right-wing Republicans and is now focused on “the right to die,” an issue that sums up the preoccupation of a West that itself is “concerned” not with growth and aiding its people but with ensuring they die in dignity, while at the same time, given Macron’s “reform” of the pension programme which forces them to work two more years, ordering them to live in despair.

The uniparty’s travesty of democracy, having brought home with increasing ferocity the kind of tricks they have been perfecting for years in their banana republics, features each party needing to win to prevent the other party from indicting them, with the truth being that they are both criminally negligent and easily susceptible to judicial condemnation, be it Donald Biden’s cheating of the government and inflating his worth, or Joseph Trump’s spreading the Russiagate lie or brokering his son’s involvement in Ukraine which he has partially covered up by allying with the far right  and Nazi elements in that country to lead it to war.

The only adequate reply to the nonsense of these politicians, fostered by their brother and sister elites in the mainstream media, is Mercutio’s response to the warring Montagues and Capulets: “A plague on both your houses.” The American people, the British people and the rest of the world deserve better.

Corporate and alternative media, now and in Los Angeles in the 1950s
Friday, 08 March 2024 12:31

Corporate and alternative media, now and in Los Angeles in the 1950s

Dennis Broe discusses the opposition between corporate and alternative media, now and in the 1950s. Image above: Charlotta Bass, editor of The California Eagle

Today with the wars on Gaza, in the Ukraine, and the possible coming war on China, there is a huge gap between what is being said in the mainstream media and what is being said on alternative sites on the internet.

Recently, for example, on the second anniversary of the war in Ukraine, the New York Times ran a Pentagon and State Department account of the war. In this account, the war was started by Russia on February 24, 2022. It included its reasons for being (Putin’s aggressiveness which now threatens all Europe) and its possible outcome (there is none, just continual fighting).

This contrasted sharply on every point with political organizer Brian Becker and Global South scholar Vijay Prashad’s view on the podcast, YouTube, and streaming show The Socialist Program. Prajad and Becker noted that what they called “The Ukrainian Civil War” started nearly a decade earlier in 2014, after a U.S.-backed coup aided by Ukrainian Nazis overthrew the elected head of the country and started bombing the Russian majority Donetsk region killing 14,000 people.

Russia’s “Special Military Operation” then was the response to NATO threatening to absorb Ukraine and put missiles on Russia’s border, with the Russians, almost since the beginning of the SMO, suing for peace in an agreement that was sabotaged by Boris Johnson and the West.

The line of demarcation between on the one hand corporate media and the political class, led by the nose by the arms and fossil fuel industries and by powerful lobbying groups such as Israel’s AIPEC, and on the other hand the legion of podcasters, YouTubers, bloggers and online publications that are every day standing against this deadly barrage, is more sharply drawn than ever. It’s social media versus what seems more and more like antisocial, bellicose and belligerent media.

Interestingly, these lines can also be traced beyond today’s internet alternative media explosion to an earlier period where, with the outlawing and excising of many of the ideas and social practices of the more collectivist and worker-oriented New Deal, there was an equally momentous battle between the corporate media – in this case the dominant newspapers – and newspapers which spoke to and represented audiences left out of the corporate consensus.

Nowhere was this difference starker than in Los Angeles between the high-circulation Los Angeles Times, which had also launched a second paper and its own television station, and the African-American paper The California Eagle, which began in the 1920s and championed the rights of Negroes to own property where they wanted in a heavily segregated city.

The former was run by the Chandler family, who were rabidly anti-union champions of an Anglo Los Angeles, spread out across the county in suburban, individual, single-family homes with a system of freeways and building projects that benefitted Chandler real estate interests. The Times utilized and promoted “anti-communism” as a way of smearing its opponents.

The Eagle’s editor Charlotta Bass stood instead for the vision of an integrated and equal Los Angeles, defending public transit and community institutions, and welcoming peaceful and harmonious intercourse with the socialist world of Russia and China.

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The House That Buff Built 

These differences are also sharply illustrated in my latest Harry Palmer detective novel The House That Buff Built where Harry, in the course of helping his Chinese client to integrate the town of Torrance, encounters both Charlotta and the Chandlers and is stunned by the difference between “The Eagle, [Charlotta’s] modest paper, and the gigantic, but for her monstrous, L.A. Times.

While The Eagle was supported by its African-American community, the Times was the largest newspaper in terms of circulation in the country’s most booming region in the post war period, read and advertised in by the city’s elite. In 1950, the paper, though improving, was still opposed to original unbiased reporting and according to David Halberstam in The Powers That Be was filled with wire service briefs, dispatches from city corporations that it partially controlled and “slanted political coverage that read more like memos from and to the Republican Central Committee than journalism.”

To Segregate or Not to Segregate: Housing in Los Angeles

A primary area of disagreement between the two newspapers was segregation versus inclusion, in the battle over Los Angeles housing. The Chandlers’ vision was of an Anglo Los Angeles with white flight peopling the suburbs and its new inhabitants manoeuvering through a system of freeways with the land, the building materials for the roadways and even the rubber for the automobiles coming from Chandler companies.

The city meanwhile would be remade, with the Times favoring a gutting of the low income habitats of Bunker Hill and Mexican-American villages in what is now Chavez Ravine and the buildup of the Northern part of downtown near the Times building with Norman Chandler, the heir to the fortune in the 1950s, being told when he took over the paper that the key to the editorial page was to “think of what is good for real estate.” The paper actively promoted these interests and this demolition. “Our future,” Dorothy Chandler tells Harry in a candid admission “was not in trying to be a paper for the black or the Latino populations or the low-income white population.”

The Eagle meanwhile was instrumental in furthering Negro expansion out of the tight quarters around Central Avenue where African-Americans had been confined, and instead moving into homes both north and south of this area. Prior to this period a method of enforcement of segregation was restrictive covenants, which forbid homeowners from selling to the “Negro or Mongolian” races, thus also limiting the Chinese to Chinatown. In 1948 the Supreme Court outlawed this use in a case argued by Eagle reporter Loren Miller who would succeed Bass in running the paper in 1951. 

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Buffy and Norman Chandler

A major site where segregation was either fostered or contested was the society or women’s pages of each paper. Norman’s wife Dorothy Chandler, nicknamed Buffy or Buff, took over those pages in the Times and used them to blackmail wealthy donors to support her vision of “modern” Los Angeles built around what would become gleaming corporate skyscrapers and cultural centres, perched on a demolished Bunker Hill.

Meanwhile, Charlotta Bass used the back pages of The Eagle to fashion women’s groups which she called on for support when homeowners moving out of Central Avenue were beseiged by aggressive “neighbours” who attempted to drive them out of their homes, and this was after the Supreme Court decision which applied only to federal housing projects.

As Harry puts it in the novel, “I thought about the contrast between The California Eagle’s Charlotta Bass, who used the society pages of her publication to rally Negro ladies to defend the hard-won housing gains of her readers trying to secure a better place in Dorothy’s society, and Dorothy’s organizing of the rich [through the Times society pages] in a way that excluded everyone else and furthered their own power.”

Collectivist vs. Individualist Futures

There was also two different visions of the city professed by each publication. The Times was rabidly anti-union, going back to its founder General Otis, who called union leaders “corpse defacers” and unions “the poison of the American future,” and actively resisted unions at the paper. The Times instead favored dividing working people by breaking up urban neighbourhoods and housing them in more isolated, individual units in the suburbs.

 Who framed

Who Framed Roger Rabbit and the plot to sabotage public transportation in LA

The newspaper was against public transportation, instead promoting the individual in his or her own car and declaring on its editorial pages that "Southern California throbs in unison with the purring motors of its automobiles." The paper championed the building of the country’s first freeway which connected the ultra-rich old wealth community of Pasadena with downtown Los Angeles and was then followed by the Harbor, Hollywood, Long Beach and Santa Anna freeways.

The Eagle defended the cheap and environmentally effective mass transit trolleys and buses which ferried its readers to and from work, and was a champion of trade unions, many of which were integrated. They also had African-American women not only as members but also as leaders, in the factories that had sprung up as Southern California became the country’s main motor of production during the war.

When Harry visits Charlotta Bass at the office of The Eagle she lays out this difference:

“She described a city that on one side was made up of the Klan, the National Rifle Association and property restriction organizations, and on the other the labor movement, the Negro, Jewish, Mexican, and Chinese minorities; ‘those people who do the work in the city and who are fighting against the threat of a new fascism at home.’”

Cold War vs. Enduring Peace

Following the lead of its founder General Otis, who led a slaughter against Filipino women and children in the aftermath of the Spanish-American War, named his homes “The Bivouac” and “The Outpost,” and organized the Times staff in an anti-union “phalanx” armed with rifles and shotguns, the Times in the 1950s under Norman Chandler was a huge supporter of the Cold War and the anti-communism campaign.

Union busting 

Union Busting at the LA Times 

The Times pushed Richard Nixon in his successful run for the Senate in 1950, calling his red-baiting attack on Alger Hiss “heroic,” as well as being a firm backer of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s paranoid finding of communists next door to every American, lauding McCarthy’s bullying tactics as speaking softly and “carrying the big stick of logic.”

The mainstream newspaper used the generalized attack on what amounted to the reforms of Roosevelt’s New Deal to eventually install their own candidate for mayor, Norman Poulson, in 1952, who would veto what the paper saw as the eyesore of public housing and apply the Cold War policy of “containment” on the home front to keep minority communities bottled up and limit expansion.

On the other hand, The Eagle in its pages constantly favored peace and understanding with both the established socialist republic of Russia and the emerging socialist state of China. The paper covered a global conference on women’s rights in Beijing in 1949 which promoted a transnational anti-colonial platform for women fighting imperial oppression, covered a speech by Paul Robeson’s wife in China, and reported positively on the gains of the revolution as distributing land “so now everyone has a home, a chance to go to school and a job with women treated as equals.”

womens conference 

Women’s anti-colonial conference in Beijing in 1949 

The paper also had a diametrically opposed view of containment, terming the reinstitution of personal homeowner restrictions in the wake of the Supreme Court decision “re-covenanting,” supporting activists who “made it clear that they had not fought to destroy fascism abroad only to have it camping on their doorsteps at home.”

As for the real post-war menace and threat, in the novel Charlotta Bass, who has just been assaulted by a gang of white teens, tells Harry that “They always talk about Negro and Mexican violence, but in reality, and it’s true in your case with the Chinese as well, the real fear is white violence.”

The past as mirror into the future

Today, the mainstream media is more adamantly than ever pushing for war at every opportunity, operating to confuse their audience and make unclear what is crystal clear. Thus a recent example was how Israel’s massacre of starving Palestinians as they clamoured for food was presented in the Western press, not a mass killing of defenceless people, but as a chaotic riot by a stampeding mob. The 1950s example of both the strident self-aggrandizing and bellicose Los Angeles Times and the courageous, resistant California Eagle tirelessly campaigning for equality and peace is more trenchant than ever.

The New York Times was recently the recipient of the prestigious Polk Award for its coverage of the assault on Gaza, a coverage that for the most part was distinguished by its shallowness, lacking any background coverage or treatment of the conflict pre-October 7, 2023. In this light,  Harry’s verdict on the Chandler’s imposing their will in the creation of modern Los Angeles stands as a warning of a too powerful media operating in a vacuum:

“The paper was everywhere. Buff’s ‘civilizing mission’ was part of remaking a town that, when it resisted that mission, might be compelled by whatever means necessary to accept it.”

The Way: confused resistance rather than class consciousness, in a muddled mix of genres
Friday, 01 March 2024 12:10

The Way: confused resistance rather than class consciousness, in a muddled mix of genres

Dennis Broe reviews The Way. Above image: Owen brandishing King Arthur’s sword - Mandalorian much?

“I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore,” about-to-be-fired news anchor Howard Beale screams in a television rant, urging everyone to go to the window and yell the same thing.

This scene from the film Network, much honored and claimed to be prescient, in fact represents simply mindless, ungrounded fear, vaguely articulated, not drawn from the specific material aspects of people’s lives and thus open to a kind of manipulation that can easily be converted into simple resentment and will become the basis of today’s populism.

Unfortunately, these ungrounded impulses, now 45 years on in the aftermath of the devastation wrought by Reagan, Thatcher et al.’s austerity and neoliberalism, are the basis of the BBC series The Way. Documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis helped conceptualize the three-part series, and there’s evidence of his strengths (eg in tracing advertising industry manipulation in The Century of the Self) but also his glaring weaknesses (eg in the more recent anti-revolutionary, rabidly anti-populist documentary Can’t Get You Out of My Head).

The Way blends a loosely constructed family fiction around the Welsh steel and former mining town of Port Talbot with documentary footage of the 1984 Miners’ Strike, and a mythical otherworldly aspect that summons King Arthur’s pulling the sword from the stone, the lifting of the series title phrase “The Way” from the Star Wars’ Mandalorian code of conduct, and Scottish folklore of a proselytizing Red Monk who kickstarts a town rebellion.  

Picture4

Howard Beale’s populist rant in Network 

Into this soup of inluences is thrown the actual condition of the steelworks, with an Indian owner, in the series Japanese, who is always on the verge of closing the plant. The problem – and this is a Curtis mainstay – is that the characters are utterly deceived by a passive mediatized lifestyle. Owen, the lead character, who “can’t remember the last time I felt anything,” is, as his love interest describes, “a drug addict in recovery dealing drugs” to which her response is “I don’t care, it’s not my business.”

This passivity and foolishness influences their actions, as workers in the town strike the plant before it can close, though no immediate closing is threatened. Owen tosses a lead pipe which ignites the carnage with the police, which of course echoes the bone thrown across the ages in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Only this time it signals the utter breakdown of civilization rather than its terrifying advance, as in Kubrick’s film.

Wales is sealed off from “Britain”, and thus episode two begins with the family’s own odyssey as they attempt to march to safety in a now open police state. In the series, much hostility is summoned but it remains vague (“The British don’t revolt, they gripe”) with the actual problems of deindustrialization and a devastated economy expressed in generalized slogans.

These slogans do not directly confront the power structure and the massive redistribution of wealth that began in 1980 with the launching of the neoliberal era, just after Network premiered. In that film, people start throwing their televisions out the window, when they mighthave done better by storming the television station and taking over the means of production of the media.

Writers Guild of America 2023 writers strike rev

The 2023 Writers' Guild strike 

The ungrounded populism expressed in both Network and The Way does accurately convey the very real grievances felt by the population – but behind each lies the firm conviction that workers are too coddled and deceived by omnipresent media to be able to do more than threaten irrational action. But this mindset was just recently disproved by the massive strikes in the entertainment and service industry in Los Angeles, and which continue throughout the U.S.

These campaigns and strikes in the U.S. have specific demands, and represent a growing understanding and awareness by workers, not only of their situation but of how to use today’s media for their own purposes. This understanding is not present in The Way.

If the Port Talbot steel plant, along with another plant closes, Britain will only be fashioning steel from scraps and leftovers, rather than making it. The Way, with its muddled mix of genres and its deceived chaotic individuals is also fashioned from scraps – that is, the leftovers and the detritus of the entertainment industry and the subjectivity of its victims, who in this telling offer only confused resistance.  

Can’t Get You Out of My Head: An elite gaze on populism and revolution
Friday, 23 February 2024 11:29

Can’t Get You Out of My Head: An elite gaze on populism and revolution

There are always calls from the right to defund the British Broadcasting Company but they are now being joined by calls from the left as well, as one of the casualties of the genocide in Gaza is the BBC’s own vaunted “objectivity.”

That questioning was on display when BBC staff members wrote a letter published in Al Jazeera stating that the BBC coverage of this current eruption of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict was biased. The network spent a good deal of  time humanizing Israeli victims while failing to provide any context and information on the 75 years of occupation before the October 7 attack, thus rationalizing the Israeli response as “self-defense.”

These cracks in the armour are also apparent in the BBC’s Can’t Get You Out of My Head, a 2021 six-part documentary television series (now available on YouTube) by the prodigious filmmaker Adam Curtis. Curtis, in what he calls an “emotional history of the modern world”, attempts to trace the roots of the populism which is so much with us today. His reach is wide, encompassing the Mau-Mau in Kenya, Black revolutionary heroes and gangsters, the transformation and gentrification of London’s Notting Hill, Madame Mao and the Cultural Revolution, and the technological revolution which the documentary sees as resulting in mind control.

The reach is wide, but unfortunately the grasp is narrow. This is the Christopher Nolan school of filmmaking – that is, Nolan’s rapid-fire cutting and shooting through history at a pace that makes serious grappling with any moment of that history difficult. It’s Nolan’s scattergun fictional style, applied to documentary.

1971 Hold aloft the red lantern

Curtis finds all forms of revolutionary activity in the 1950s through the 1970s lacking, but his focus on the singular and the bizarre without much context. and almost devoid of an economic analysis which might underpin and ground his “emotional history”, ends up promoting the “chaos” which his elite gaze on the material seems to be so adamantly fearful of.

The montage, the clashing of various aspects of the counterculture as well as his tracking of the growth of digital surveillance and the various musics – reggae, rap, punk – which he uses as a backbeat to his story, suggest a new approach to documentary. However, there is one element that remains of an old and conservative style, and that is Curtis’ own all-knowing narration in a voice that in its supposed ability to grasp this totality remains the stentorian “voice of God.”

He treats populism as an end in itself, not as a symptom and coping mechanism of a wider breakdown of western capitalism. Under neoliberal capitalism, more and more wealth is being redistributed upwards over the time he is discussing, leaving people more and more desperate and searching for solutions that often include demagogic leaders – the best the system allows to be thrown at them.

When he does glimpse of the thought behind the detached veneer of his narration, the results are frequently disappointing. Thus, the Black Panthers were incendiary violent revolutionaries gullibly deceived by police informants, when in fact the Panthers’ greatest and most lasting contribution was the institutionalizing of their program of school lunches for poor children. The Cultural Revolution is seen as mass deception organized by Madame Mao, a disgruntled actor seeking revenge on the Shanghai film artists who had slighted her in the 1930s. In Curtis’ view the Revolution, which brought education to many poor rural Chinese in a country that was vastly illiterate, was only an unleashing of one-woman’s “resentment” that linked to a whole society’s anger at the past. The imperialist West is not blamed or even mentioned as a primary factor in generating this anger. (By the way, the footage of Peoples’ Revolutionary Operas is thrilling.)

AC6

Jim Garrison, who attempted to bring to trial those who he claimed had participated in the assassination of a president, and whose efforts Oliver Stone and the myriad researchers working in the shadows to bring this hidden history to light, is labelled as delusional. Curtis dismisses the possibility that elites participated in a violent coup at the heart of Western democracy as “complete fantasy.”

Behind the imperial voice, the objective and all-knowing veneer, Curtis’ documentary is not a history of populism but instead a history of elite fears of both revolution and populism. Can’t Get You Out of My Head in its frantic pace generates a whole lot of heat, but in the end, not much light. As such, it strikes another blow against the BBC’s false “objectivity.” 

“When I make a movie, all I think about is the profit”: Alec Baldwin's Magic Bullet
Wednesday, 31 January 2024 11:00

“When I make a movie, all I think about is the profit”: Alec Baldwin's Magic Bullet

Published in Films

Dennis Broe explains how profit-making has cut corners in movie-making, especially since the pandemic. Image above: Grizzled outlaw Alec Baldwin 

One of the more hilarious moments of the Warren Commission’s likely cover-up of the Kennedy assassination occurred when Commission member and Pennsylvania senator Arlen Specter presented what became known as the 'Magic Bullet Theory'.

Specter claimed – and the Commission agreed – that the same bullet had caused a total of seven wounds to both President Kennedy and Texas Senator Connelly, exiting Kennedy’s neck in the back of the limousine, moving downward then reversing trajectory to move upward and cause multiple wounds to Connelly. The bullet finally ended up in pristine shape on a stretcher at the hospital where they were both taken. All this to prove that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone.

Most scholars of the assassination have put the Magic Bullet Theory to rest but now we have a new Magic Bullet Theory, propounded by the actor and producer Alec Baldwin, who claims that a bullet in a chamber of a gun he did not fire mysteriously exited the chamber and killed the director of photography on a Western, Rust, he was filming at the time.

Unbelievable? A New Mexico grand jury thought so and Baldwin has recently been reindicted for involuntary manslaughter, after an initial charge was dropped, for his role in the death of the film’s cinematographer Halyna Hutchins. The indictment accuses him of two felony counts, one springing from his role as producer, charging him on the set with “total disregard or indifference for the safety of others”, and the other charging him with firing the weapon. Unfortunately he can only be convicted of one of the counts.

Trump

Baldwin in better but maybe more honest days in Saturday Night Live as penny-pinching fraudster Donald Trump 

Two problems are being exposed here. The first is the contempt of the entertainment and political elite for everyone else. Baldwin, staunch stalwart of the Democratic Party and its corporate wing the Democratic National Committee, founded in the Bill Clinton era, has laid out a defence – “Someone is responsible for what happened, and I can’t say who it is, but I know it’s not me” – that is as implausible as Clinton’s claim, caught in fellatio delicto with Monica Lewinsky, that he didn’t have sex in the Oval office because oral sex is not sex.

Baldwin’s high-priced legal team got the first indictment thrown out on procedural grounds but a new forensic report claiming that he “must have pulled the trigger” has him back in the docks again.

His team then bought off the victim’s husband, trading his silence and refusal to proceed with a civil suit to make him a co-producer on the film. The height of arrogance though may be Baldwin’s claim that the producers have bravely charged ahead and completed the film “as a tribute to Ms. Hutchins.”

Using the death of a promising camerawoman as an excuse to publicize the film is about as cynical a publicity campaign as has ever been waged. What is the family supposed to think when they watch the shots their loved one engineered and then the shots her replacement filmed?

Baldwin appeared in a “surprise cameo” on Saturday Night Live as the evidence was being presented to the grand jury to remind them that he was not too big to fail but too important to indict. Of course if Saturday Night Live, a supposedly satirical revue that gave up that ghost a long time ago, was doing its job, he would have been the subject of spoofing and ridicule rather than the beneficiary of a public appearance designed to sway a jury.

The contempt for ordinary people is similar to Hilary Clinton’s branding of working-class Americans as “deplorables” in a campaign, waged almost solely on the East and West coasts, where she boasted that she was “flying over America.” Baldwin, who plays a grizzled outlaw in the film Rust, and who is beginning to resemble one off camera, was famous on that show for his Donald Trump imitation where he satirized the lawlessness of that public persona, a characteristic he is now flaunting himself.

The second charge, disregard for the safety of others, is in some ways worse and more revealing about the nature of this corner of capitalist production.

Baldwin as producer was at least partly responsible for a set that, because of skimping on a sparse budget and rushing into production, was a maze of tensions and a tempest ready to burst. The armourer, that is the gun handler, a crucial job on a Western, was Hannah Gutierrez-Reed, who is now up on manslaughter charges. She was hired at 24 to do a job that required a far more experienced person, because due to a surge in production in New Mexico there was a lack of capable personnel to do that job.

She was also hired as Props Master, a demanding job that is usually handled by a separate person. As an armourer, the inexperienced Gutierrez-Reed had previously worked on a Nicholas Cage film The Old Way where there were two accidental gun discharges and calls for her dismissal.

Armourer was not her first choice of job on a set. Rather than doing either job, she said she wanted to be in front of the camera as a model, which she described as a “burning passion,” which she was “yearn[ing] to turn…into a career,” indicating her mind may have been elsewhere.

 In addition props, which includes weapons, usually has two weeks preparation time before shooting, but because the film was already behind budget, this inexperienced team, which also included a 24-year old equally inexperienced props assistant, was only given one week. The harried Gutierrez-Reed was seen on the set several times, according to one observer, running with guns, a sight he had never seen before.

The shooting that killed the camerawoman and wounded the director Joel Souza was not the first misfire on a troubled set. Another had occurred a few days before, and just hours before the shooting six members of the camera crew walked off the set complaining of long hours, long commutes and not being paid on time. One worker described “3 accidental discharges” and noted the set was “super unsafe.” Another noted that “Corners were being cut” and that the production had brought in non-union workers in order to keep shooting.

shipyard workers v2

Shipbuilding workers exposed to asbestos in World War II

This kind of under-supervised dangerous work setting, due to penny-pinching in order not to go over budget, where the workers pay the price for a rush to produce product and maximize profits, is nothing new. In If He Hollers Let Him Go Chester Himes brilliantly describes the chaos and danger in the hastily assembled World War II shipbuilding industry in Los Angeles, center of wartime production:

The decks were low, and with the tools and equipment of the workers, the thousand and one lines of the welders, the chippers, the blowers, the burners, the light lines, the wooden staging, combined with the equipment of the ship, the shapes and plates, the ventilation trunks and ducts, reducers, dividers, transformers, the machines, lathes, mills, and such, half yet to be installed, the place looked like a littered madhouse. I had to pick every step to find a foot-size clearance of deck space, and at the same time to keep looking up so I wouldn't tear off an ear or knock out an eye against some overhanging shape. Every two or three steps I'd bump into another worker. The only time anybody ever apologized was when they knocked you down.

This kind of danger is ever present in capitalist factories and carries over to assembly-like Hollywood film production.

The background to all of this is that after Covid, production companies were rushing to get the cameras rolling to provide streamers who were suffering from a lack of product with new films and series. Added to that desire to crank out product quickly were the particularities of New Mexico, site of numerous Westerns, where unionised film workers were stretched trying to cover this surge.

The pressure on Baldwin resulting in this corner-cutting was also coming from the film’s investors. One of them, Streamline Global, was famous for exploiting a provision in the U.S. tax code that allows investors to write off the first 15 to 20 million dollars and is designed to “ease wealthy individuals tax burdens through film investment.”

The provision has accounted for a good deal of fraud as film and television budgets are inflated to create a loss and open up investors for bigger tax cuts. The procedure was described by one observer as “playing ‘the audit lottery,’” meaning investors are hoping in the end they can cheat the government and not get caught taking unwarranted tax credits. 

loeb

Gary Cooper in Loeb’s capitalist and empire fairy tale Fountainhead 

Streamline Global, the name itself boasting of its cost-cutting, is run by Emily Hunter Salveson whose great uncle Gerald Loeb helped found E.F. Hutton which in the ’80s pleaded guilty to 2,000 counts of mail fraud and had the low investor grade of “D.” Loeb produced that pean to capitalism and American empire, The Fountainhead.

The bottom line of the whole enterprise though may be summed up by a saying conveyed to Baldwin, playing an indie filmmaker in 2013’s Seduced and Abandoned, by an investor: “When I make a movie, all I think about is the profit.” It’s a line he may have unfortunately taken too much to heart.

Vienna: city of contrasts and contradictions
Friday, 26 January 2024 10:18

Vienna: city of contrasts and contradictions

Published in Cultural Commentary

Dennis Broe gives us a brief tour of Vienna: its history, museums and galleries. Above image: the restored Wien Museum, site of a city grappling with its past 

What to say about Vienna? A divided city, poised between a gleaming future, voted in poll after poll the most livable city in the world, as a result of its socialist and social democratic reforms, and a torturous past, with both an absorbing intellectual and cultural tradition, in large part thanks to its Jewish population and a breeding ground for antisemitism and perhaps cradle of the Zionist worldview that is currently inflaming the Middle East, or, in the view of the global South, West Asia.

All these aspects of the city were on view this last holiday season as the city opened new museums devoted to its history. There was the newly restored Wien Museum, which did its best to question and foreground aspects of the city’s troubled past, and the Strauss House, a privately owned monument to the three Strauss family members of composers and musicians who had a popular tune, often a waltz, for every occasion. These included “The Revolution March” for the 1848 uprising which saw barricades in front of the city’s most famous landmark, St. Stephen's Cathedral, and the “Demolition Polka” written at the time of the pulling down of the medieval city wall to create the modern ring.

That work was done mostly by migrants, shipped in and then shipped out as the work was finished with the dust from the wall causing pulmonary tuberculosis, called the “Viennese disease,” in the workers and residents for the next five decades after the mid-1850s, and recalling the U.S. use of Chinese to perform the dangerous work of building the intercontinental railroad in the Sierra Nevadas where many of them perished and where, like that on the ring, their work was never acknowledged.

Döbling Wien Karl Marx Hof

Red Vienna: Karl-Marx-Hof, built between 1927 and 1933

The city’s reputation as the most livable in Europe begins with affordable housing, with 40 percent of all housing either public or subsidized by the city, and 60 percent of all tenants living in these homes. It was during the time of Red Vienna, following World War I, that large scale housing was built for the city’s poorest. They moved out of the hovels that barely sheltered them to modern apartments with electric and gas, then and now supplied by publicly owned utility companies, like the majestic and cheap transit system consisting of subways, buses and trolleys seamlessly crisscrossing the city.

As in any global city, public housing is now being contested with the omnipresent cranes, the sign of new private apartment complexes and condos being erected. As the Wien puts it, housing “is becoming a commodity” and, as the exhibit said disapprovingly “fixation on ownership does nothing to foster solidarity.”

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Ominous cranes dot the landscape 

The city continues to be one of the great centres for both performing and visual arts, especially music. The latter was on display at the Vienna Concert Hall where the Vienna Symphony under the baton of 83-year-old conducting phenomenon Christoph Eschenbach performed a spirited, energetic, and passionate rendition of Tchaikovsky’s Opus 35. It was led by Bloomington Indiana’s own Joshua Bell’s superb phrasings on an equally spirited violin, followed by a more conventional number from the opera Eugene Onegin and the holiday staple Ballet-Suite from The Nutcracker.

On display also was Raphael’s tapestry designs at the Kunsthistorisches (Art History) Museum, one of which featured the evangelist Paul getting help from above to strike down a rich man who refused to share his wealth. This gave the lie in the present to the latest neoliberal guilt-assuaging mechanism known as Effective Altruism, which in Sam Bankman Fried mode simply translates as “steal as much as you can and give a little back loudly.” Then there was Michelangelo’s anatomically perfect male nudes at the Albertina, culminating in a room full of Egon Schile’s twisted contorted male and female nudes, the expression of desperate sexuality in a world, amidst the first World War, in pain and chaos.  

A Tortured History

Behind every great fortune is a great crime, and Vienna’s fortune was founded on kidnapping and ransom. In the 12th century Richard the Lionheart, returning from mass looting during the Crusades, was discovered in disguise and captured when he used gold coins lifted from the Byzantine empire. His British kingdom paid a huge amount to redeem him and it was with this money that Vienna built its city walls.

Speculation in the city also reached a frenzy when the crash of the Viennese stock market in 1873 triggered a global recession that also devastated the U.S. economy, and resulted in a rapid monopolization and the Gilded Age era of the robber barons.

The city does unfortunately have a history of rabid anti-Semitism, openly paraded during the fin-de-siecle administration of its mayor Karl Lueger. Lueger, founder of the Christian Social Democracy Party, did bring the city’s utilities—transportation, gas, water and electricity—under public control but he rationalized these takeovers by xenophobic means as a method of warding off British attempts at controlling the city.

Vienna’s globally famous culture was defined by the likes in psychology of Freud’s psychoanalysis and discovery of the unconscious, in drama by, according to Freud, his “double,” Arthur Schnitzler, by the Expressionism of painters like Max Oppenheimer, whose work is on display at the Leopold, and Oscar Kokoschka (at the Albertina modern), and in music with the twelve-tone discordant compositions of Arnold Schoenberg, an explanation of which is on display at the Schoenberg Center, all originating from a Jewish milieu. At the same time, and possibly as a reaction, Lueger gave open expression to Jewish stereotyping and enflamed prejudice.

Two of the city’s most famous one-time residents were formed in this crucible. Theodore Herzl, the founder of Zionism, which is currently threatening to lead the world into a full-scale war in West Asia (The Middle East), originally favored assimilation for Vienna’s Jewish population. However, because of the virulence of the antisemitism in the city he turned instead to embracing a Jewish separatist homeland and state – now the apartheid state of Israel.

The other famous visitor, from his hometown in Linz, was Adolf Hitler, who arrived in the city during the last three years of Lueger’s reign and hatched his own lethal form of antisemitism.

There is a statue of Lueger at the Volksoper (the People’s Opera), which the mayor helped found and which over the holidays revived an operetta from the time of the Nazi invasion ,overlaid with a contemporary plot about its Jewish producers and directors’ fear of what will happen to them.

The more interesting Lueger statue though sits opposite the MAK, the Museum of Applied Arts, which boasted a fascinating exhibition highlighting both the creativity and wastefulness of fashion and the textile industry which alongside the arms industry and the Pentagon accounts for over 10 percent of the worlds CO2 and 20 percent of its water pollution.

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The Lueger Statue graffitied 

The statue presents a heroic Lueger posed atop the workers of the city of whom he claimed to be their champion. The interesting thing about the statue though is that in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests and defaming of slave traders’ statues in Europe, it has graffiti markings all over it. The back of the statue has the word “Nazi” scrawled on it and the front says, “I never felt so free,” markings made in 2022. The city left both the statue and the graffiti, a fitting way of both displaying and commenting on this conflicted and tortured period of its history.

The Not-So-Distant Nazi Past

According to the Wien Museum, when in 1938 the Nazis marched into the city, even they were surprised by the virulence with which the Viennese persecuted and robbed its Jewish population. As detailed in the 2023 novel The Vienna Writers’ Circle, Freud, before leaving the city, was required to provide a complete accounting of everything he owned. Today, visitors to the Freud Museum will find much of his collection of African and other artifacts which he was forced to leave when he moved to London.

This systematic looting was carried out by the vacuously named “Department of Property Transactions” and included stealing artworks, particularly by Max Oppenheimer and Oscar Kokoschka. Oppenheimer’s abundant and important work was sidelined because it had to be left when he fled (there is a painting in the Wien donated by a Gestapo officer) and Kokoschka’s pioneering Expressionist work was drained of its energy in exile, except for a brief anti-fascist mural period during the war.

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Max Oppenheimer, whose career was disrupted and paintings were looted by the Nazis

The novel, whose central characters are a pair of upper middle-class Jewish writers, who were part of Freud’s circle which met regularly at Café Mozart, details an identity change ring to erase their Jewish past so they can continue writing and publishing under their new Aryan names. Except for one major incident though – as Chekhov says when a gun appears in the first act it must go off in the final act and this one does – theirs is a passive resistance. It contrasts with a recent article in The Guardian which describes the work of a Viennese woman in exile as part of the Communist-led Österreichische Freiheitsfront, the Austrian Liberation Front, where women, who could carry messages more easily, constituted the communications connective tissue of a group that actively gathered information and ultimately helped sabotage German factories.

This past is now being questioned, but in some ways the questioning is muted, a testimony to the persistence of the Nazi past. At the Wien, there is a room where the story is told of an attempt at denazification which quickly is snuffed out. However, the information is concealed behind a series of closed doors, so visitors opening the doors will get the story of the restoration of the past – but those not wanting to hear the story can simply walk through the room without opening the doors.

There was a similar reticence in the Natural History Museum’s exhibit “The Changing Arctic,” which is very good on the shrinking of the Arctic to the point where the continent now absorbs half the solar energy it did in 1980, and in pointing out that the Austrian Alps are expected to be entirely free of ice in the next 50 years.

However, there is not a word in the exhibit about the geopolitical strategic nature of the continent as the source of now more easily mineable minerals. Siberia, the largest bordering land mass, was seen as the grand prize if the U.S. proxy war in Ukraine on Russia had succeeded in breaking up the country.

The story told behind closed doors at the Wien is devastating. The denazification period effectively ended in 1947-48 when the Allies (U.S., British, French) started the Cold War, with the new enemy being the U.S.S.R. The story quickly changed in Austria from its citizens lining the streets to support Hitler, to Austria being the first victim of Hitler.

What followed was a rapid re-entry of former Nazis back into power. The Albertina Modern for example details how Oscar Kokoschka had to go into exile, but a lesser Expressionist artist Herbert Boeckl who joined the Nazi Party in 1941. In 1946 he was censored for failing to register as a former party member, but by 1952 was reinstated and represented Austria at that year’s Venice Biennale, the top national honor for any artist.

The actress Paula Wessely, star of the Nazi film Homecoming which justified the invasion of Poland, by 1948 was playing a half-Jewish victim of the Gestapo. When a bombed-out and then rebuilt Staatsoper, the national opera house, reopened in 1955, the opening night conductor of Beethoven’s only opera Fidelio was Karl Bohm, a Nazi sympathizer who the Allies had banned from public appearances.

This year’s world-renowned Vienna Symphony New Year’s concert featured a long video intermission about two boys who romp in the town of Linz over the music of Anton Bruckner in this, his centennial year. However, the lilting green fields and the mediaeval churches never hint that this, Hitler’s hometown, was the site of a massive German wartime arms industry. The Wien does an excellent job at disgorging this history – but it’s one that in its display is still kept in the closet.

Peace and Death

Finally, two exhibits summed up where we are today and where we have come in 2023. The first, “Peace,” at the Judenplatz Museum in the square that houses a memorial to the Jewish dead in the Holocaust, had an excellent piece by a Palestinian artist literalizing the prophet Isaiah’s words about transforming swords into ploughshares, with a rifle on top that then transmutes into a shovel below.

The museum points out that the Hebrew word for peace “shalom” and the Arab word “salam” are nearly the same, but then also features an exhibit with the Oslo Accords, which were supposedly the blueprint for a Palestinian state, written on toilet paper – which is exactly what they have been consigned to.

The problem with the exhibit though is that at various points it presents peace as a thing of the past, after October 7th in Israel and after the Russian special military operation in Ukraine. These events the museum states have “destroyed all prospects for peace for the time being.” This is false. At the moment when peace becomes a political issue, i.e. a ceasefire in Gaza and a negotiated settlement in Ukraine taking Russia into account in any consideration of European security, the museum denies its efficacy, which leads one to conclude that peace was not a real position but only a politically expedient one, used in the museum world to solicit funds.

A far more telling summing up of 2023 was to be had at The Dom, the museum of St Stephen’s Cathedral, whose exhibit “Being Mortal” might rather simply be titled “Death,”. And 2023 was a year not of peace but of death, in Ukraine, in Israel, in Gaza, with more death on the way as we usher in 2024 in Yemen, Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and Iran and with a potentially new killing field involving global war in Taiwan.

The images in the Dom are startling. There are James Ensor’s skeletons seeking warmth in his 1896 “Death Chasing a Flock of Mortals”; Max Beckman’s 1916 frail, stretched-out victims of World War I, waged by the French and German elites on its working class in “Assault,” to the star of the show Alfred Kubin’s corpselike faceless woman, not a Florence Nightengale angel of mercy but an angel of death, with her hand over the mouth of a lifeless corpse of a soldier in bed.

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Gunter Brus’ “Young Death” at the Dom Museum 

“Young Death” is Gunter Brus’ 2020 watercolour depiction, in the tradition of Ensor and Kubin, of a skeleton in tattered black garb that suggests the toll on the planet’s youth by Covid, drugs and war.

And finally there is Jan Bruegel the Younger’s “Triumph of Death” a reimagining of his grandfather’s painting where death is even more all-encompassing and omnipresent than in the original – this version was painted in 1602, two years into Europe’s most vicious killing based on religion, the 30 Years War.

If “Death” was a more fitting summation of 2023 than “Peace,” that theme also resounded at the end of the Staatsoper’s magnificent staging of Richard Strauss’ Elektra. The end result of all of Elektra’s scheming to revenge her father’s death by having her brother kill her mother results in Electra herself being strangled by the ropes suspended from the headless giant of her father that looms over her.

Her revenge condemns her, as death shadows even the most comfortable European cities and as the world, often propelled by the excuse of revenge, seems to move inexorably toward more confrontation and destruction.

Mr. Bates Goes to London: The Post Office scandal and the series that exposed it   
Thursday, 11 January 2024 14:05

Mr. Bates Goes to London: The Post Office scandal and the series that exposed it  

A simple four-part television series, Mr. Bates vs The Post Office, has prompted the head of that agency to give back her title as a CBE (Commander of the British Empire) for her part in wreaking havoc in her corner of the “empire.”

It’s led to the proposal of special legislation to immediately compensate wrongly accused post office employees with £600,000 each, and has now involved every major political party including the Conservatives for being connected to the global corporation Fujitsu that produced the faulty system, and also Keir Starmer, head of the so called “Labour” party, for falsely prosecuting postal employees.

The TV series which has the whole country in an uproar, over what has been called one of the biggest “miscarriages of justice in British history,” details not only the unfairness of one particular system. It also – and this may be what it has struck a chord as well – exemplifies the current and growing attack on service industry workers and the communities they represent, strengthened by the accelerating process of automation which Artificial Intelligence is promising.

MR BATES THUMB STRAPS

Mr. Bates opens innocently enough with Toby Jones’s Welsh small-town Post Office manager agreeing with a customer over a complaint about the high price of stamps that indeed it is “daylight robbery,”— ironic because we’re about to witness a systemic daylight robbery —and assuring an elderly woman who cannot remember where she put her pension certificate that he has been keeping it for her.

We then move to Hampshire where Jo, whose post office is also a bakery and fruit and vegetable stand, arrives with fresh buns, and finally to Yorkshire where a third sub postmaster Lee, who like Alan and |Jo is accused of stealing by the new Horizon automated system.

Lee represents himself in court, believing in the fundamental fairness of the British judicial system and leaves owing not only the money he is accused of not balancing but also the legal costs of the trial – a total of £321,000.

Each of the three is told that they alone are to blame, that it could not possibly be the Horizon system, implemented by Fujitsu, the largest IT company in Europe. They bear the brunt of the prosecution alone, with Jo told it is particularly heinous that she is stealing from public funds.

Finally, Alan gets all the sub-postmasters together in the small town of Fenny Compton, itself a symbol of little people fighting back which the investigating “suits” have never heard of. He tells them that they “never have to worry about being alone again.” And thus begins a legal struggle which is now at the heart of British politics.

The series is terrific at spotlighting, not only a particular miscarriage of justice, but also a more systematic attack on both the collectivity of workers in the service industry and the almost gloating at their replacement by cold, impersonal machines which claim to be more accurate but in fact are as prone to error as any human.

Unlike Jo’s baking and Alan’s kindness and understanding with his customers, the Horizon black box lights and beeps, responding only with a recorded “Thank you for waiting.” An array of “suits” from the Post Office hierarchy then show up to accuse Jo of stealing because their system has inaccurately double posted. They are reminiscent of the suits that appear as well in apartment buildings that have now been purchased by even greedier landlords and announce a propitious increase in rent.

Jo and Alan are priests, confessors, therapists and promoters of collectivity in their small part of the world while the machines and the impersonal corporate forces behind them are cold and ultimately, when they err, irrational. h

The automation, defended by the Post Office director Paula Vennells as perfect, is instead prone to error and recalls a recent article in The Financial Times which clams that the hurried rollout of AI, in the haste to replace employees, is now being delayed by what the article calls an “alarming” tendency to return inaccurate information and “hallucinate” by “generating plausible-sounding responses that have little relation to reality.”

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Toby Jones leads a stellar cast 

Mr. Bates also represents a progressive trend in series TV, in which the British documentary tradition, going back to John Grierson (one of whose most famous films Night Mail details the work of the Post Office) is now being incorporated into fiction.

The series takes its place alongside last year’s This England, about the inhuman costly bungling of Covid policy by Boris Johnson and the Conservatives. It demonstrates the impact on audiences that a well-constructed and politically acute series can have, and thereby counters the American documentary series trend which at the moment is floundering and obsessed only with “true crime” progranmmes.

Kudos also to Toby Jones, who goes back and forth between HBO big-budget series, Game of Thrones, and playing stalwart, down-to-earth types in British series such as Don’t Forget the Driver, and who here leads but does not overwhelm a stellar group of actors. These are the kinds of series we need more of and it is hoped that its effect on political life will redound on television producers and foster the creation of more series like this one.

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