Dennis Broe

Dennis Broe

Dennis Broe's latest book is Diary of a Digital Plague Year: Coronavirus, Serial TV and The Rise of The Streaming Services. He is also the author of Birth of the Binge: Serial TV and The End of Leisure. His TV series blog is Bro on The Global Television Beat. His radio commentary can be heard on his show Breaking Glass on Art District Radio in Paris and on Arts Express on the Pacifica Network in the U.S. He is the author of two novels: Left of Eden, about the Hollywood blacklist and A Hello to Arms, about the postwar buildup of the weapons industry. He is currently teaching in the Masters' Program at the Ecole Superieure de Journalisme. He is an arts critic and correspondent for the Morning Star and for Crime Time, People’s World and Culture Matters, where he is an Associate Editor.

What’s Left on the Dial? Alternative TV and Podcasts
Friday, 11 December 2020 11:24

What’s Left on the Dial? Alternative TV and Podcasts

Dennis Broe gives us a guide to some alternative TV media

The US election has finally been secured with even Donald Trump tacitly acknowledging that he lost. In the aftermath, the mainstream media has now swung behind Joe Biden and the return to normalcy. The dominant media opposed Trump not on grounds that he was a corporate bloodletter who bombed Syria, murdered Iran’s leading general and laid waste to U.S. natural resources – all actions they either applauded or tacitly condoned – but that he was an unfit and buffoonish manager of the empire.

It is only in the world of alternative media that that questions are being asked about both Trump’s actual crimes and Biden’s neoliberal “normalcy”, which had the global economy on the brink of a new recession before Covid, was rapidly accelerating an income disparity which created the conditions for the rise of Trump and Trumpism, and which has done little to slow the environmental devastation that is wrecking the planet.

Eliminating empathy with the working class's suffering

CNN, MSNBC and the rest have their straw man in Fox News. The mainstream networks seem reasonable in opposing the lunacy and ravings on that station, but since they seldom provide any real solutions beyond corporate-mandated reforms, the two exist in perfect harmony. The goal of all these enterprises is to eliminate any real empathy with the working class's suffering, while enabling the mainstream to seem morally uplifting in opposing an enemy with whom they are more similar than they care to admit. 

CNN fueled the rise of Trump, then looked to bolster its ratings by using him as its foil and even, once he was defeated, quickly ran a story claiming that Trump, their ratings master, was the frontrunner in 2024. The channel is filled not with Trump opposers but Trump enablers. The relationship is not antagonistic, it’s synergistic.

The stakes are high with Covid raging and the economy, other than financial speculation on Wall Street, in a shambles. So this is a good time for a sweeping survey of television series and podcasts that are genuinely in opposition not only to Trumpism but also to Biden’s “normalcy,” as well as faux-alternative sites to which they are opposed.

The primary alternative to the insistent drone of corporate media, providing news but pandering to the ratings, is RT. Russian Television, which bills itself as neither right nor left, has in fact become the clearing house for progressive thought in the US and the UK. Three shows, Redacted Tonight, Renegade Inc. and George Galloway’s Sputnik Orbiting the World stand out as startlingly clear on US and British imperial interests, on the widening income gap in the wake of the surrendering of the economy to corporate finance and tech interests, and the tough decisions that need to be made in the name of the planet so that environmental policy is more than just greenwashing.

Perhaps the station’s insistently critical beat is motivated by an attempt to weaken both countries from within but whatever the reason, its critical stance often rings true.

ROFWebsite Redacted Study

Lee Camp and Naomi Karavani on Redacted Tonight   

Comedian Lee Camp’s Redacted Tonight, whose title implies it is trafficking in censored news, is a wildly intelligent take on topical events. It uses the Daily Show John Stewart/Trevor Noah approach, opening with Camp’s well-founded rants on such subjects as how in the last election, with the legalization of marijuana in three states, the Reagans lost their war on drugs, a war waged against the poor and an excuse to jail them.

He is ably assisted, in Daily Show format, by a team of “correspondents” that features, for example, Naomi Karavani’s take on how in the last election dark corporate money was defeated in its attempt on the ballot to restrict issues from ever being on the ballot; Natalie McGills’ report on the deliberate inaccuracies of the Trump census; and Anders Lee’s look at who Biden would have blamed had he lost the election – hint, not the corporate Democratic National Committee for its refusal to take a stand on anything other than it was not Trump). Camp’s angry idealism, and the combination of comedy and astute reporting on the part of his compadres, makes this a cut above both the average late-night comedy show and the average newscast.

Renegade Inc. on the other hand focuses its once-weekly episode on a single issue, each time with a guest or guests whith a take on social problems which is outside the norm. The show is hosted by Brit filmmaker Ross Ashcroft, whose Four Horsemen documentary is a questioning of mainstream economists by the likes of Joseph Stieglitz, Noam Chomsky and Gillian Tett.

Ashcroft’s deep dive approach to issues has included author Richard Rothstein driving home the links between continual housing and education segregation and inequality. Another episode had lawyer and peace activist Dan Kovalik laying out in stunning detail the U.S. promotion of perpetual warfare under the banner of democracy, peace and human rights.

George Galloway, left-wing shock jock

George Galloway has found a second life and a wide audience on RT with his Sputnik Orbiting the World series of interviews and his Mother of All Talk Shows in which he uses the sensationalist tactics of right-wing shock jocks to drive home some truths fueled by his still-strong adherence to a foundering Scottish and British working class, and his wide knowledge of the US and UK’s global imperial policies.

A recent Mother featured journalist Garland Nixon suggesting the assassination of the Iranian atomic scientist was a byproduct of the meeting in Riyadh between Saudi princeling Mohammed bin Salman, U.S. State Department head Mike Pompeo, and Israeli premiere Benjamin Netanyahu.

Of late, Galloway has followed the case of Harry Dunn, the teenage allegedly hit-and-run victim of a female US intelligence official that the US claims has immunity and cannot be extradited, while the same show featured a report on how the U.S. and British governments are colluding in the attempt to extradite Julian Assange.

A low-budget but highly relevant and creative answer to the millions behind not only Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News but also the emerging OAN and Newsmax – two networks Trump may eventually move to – is Means TV. Means bills itself as a “worker-owned streaming service,” a billing that has upset US media reporting on the station. It’s flagship program is Means Morning News with Sam Sacks and Sam Knight who in a recent holiday special proudly engaged in the “war on Thanksgiving” instead of as they claimed the usual war on America’s indigenous.

They questioned the joyousness of a holiday which 20 percent of American workers spend not with their families but working and awarded the week’s “Rich Dick Award” to California Governor Gavin Newsome whose recent partying in defiance of his own protocols proved once again there is “one set of rules for the wealthy and another set of rules for everyone else.” The show though could use more creative graphics to go along with the astute commentary.

Means sports show Southpaws has yet to find its voice and is too much a straight copy of mainstream sports shows on Disney-owned ESPN. On the other hand, Art House Politics makes stunning use of its do-it-yourself low-budget aesthetic by using on one show a faux drawing and coloring class to convey the full horror of Thanksgiving with the narrator commenting on the “settler colonial myth” of holiday affirms. The narrator draws an indigenous American, a turkey and a Pilgrim, who the instructor then chastises as responsible for the wholesale appropriation of land that continues to lead to the destruction of the planet. For his crime, he sets the Pilgrim on fire. The show used the conceit of the art class to enact a very funny and effective rethinking of this foundational myth.

Elements of the so-called alternative media have become increasingly mouthpieces for the Democratic Party. Foremost among these is WBAI’s Democracy Now, which since the emergence of Trump might more accurately be dubbed Democrats Now. Liberal hand-wringing increasingly substitutes for analysis with the show “all in” with Syria’s White Helmets, elsewhere dubbed as the Public Relations wing of Al-Qaeda, and during the campaign featured a ludicrous “debate” about how Joe Biden can become a force for good. This is already belied by his administration picks, which recently included the Uber representative who was part of the $200 million defeat of the California law requiring Uber and Lift to behave like responsible employees. The supposedly more progressive vice president Kamela Harris has as one of her senior advisors Tony West, the lawyer who led the charge for Uber against the legislation.

For a long time, the genuine progressive alternative was the Russian radio network Sputnik’s Loud and Clear, with anti-war activist Brian Becker chairing a show that ran for 5 years, 1,138 episodes and boasted over 6000 interviews. The known quantity, the star element, of the show was John Kiriakou, who blew the whistle on CIA torture and was one of Time Magazine’s Persons of the Year. When Kiriakou left, the show folded, pointing to a weakness of RT/Sputnik programming, that it is star-driven.

Enw0LfBXIAANnSP

Host Brian Becker with historian Gerald Horne on The Socialist Program 

Becker is back though in a new listener-sponsored show The Socialist Program in which he is a bit more strident, while continuing to dazzle with his own astute analysis and perceptive interviewing acumen, aided by his on-air producers, Walter Smolarek and Nicole Rousselle. Becker and Smolarek contradicted the New York Times suggestion that we will see a new, now chastised and cautious, Antony Blinken, Biden’s Secretary of State, by hammering home Blinken’s support for the War in Iraq, his aid in planning the bombing and destruction of Libya – the African country with the largest oil reserves – and advocating for bombing Syria.

The team was equally thunderstruck by the timid reaction afforded to Biden’s nominee for first female director of national intelligence Avril Haines, explaining that she was the person who met Obama each week and advised him who to kill that week in drone bombing missions that numbered far more than those of Trump or any other president. The team reported that Obama’s comment on Haines was that “she was a very nice person.”

Many of these kind of shows also work because of a rotating guest list that most prominently includes economist Richard Wolff, who lays bare the misery and devastation caused in the U.S. by the evisceration of its industries and the acceleration through Covid of what now amounts to “the worst economic crisis in a century.” Another mainstay is Gerald Horne, a prolific author whose history of the slave trade as motivating the European expansion into the Americas and the settler colonial defense of slavery as one of the primary reasons for the American Revolution was the subject of his last two books.

Finally, there is Mark Swoboda whose inciteful and balanced takes on the Russian state and the Slavic world make him the natural inheritor of the recently deceased and lamented Russian expert Stephen Cohen, whose voice of peace was often shouted down in the bipartisan escalation of U.S. Russian tensions under Trump.

Another source of what was once alternative news and opinion which has recently also come around to being increasingly a sounding board for Democratic Party politics is the website The Intercept. Democracy Now alumnus Jeremy Scahill put together a comprehensive seven-part soundscape of the Trump administrations failures. Recently, though, a seismic shift occurred when the site’s co-founder and most intrepid reporter, Glen Greenwald, who helped break the Snowden revelations about NSA spying, left. Greenwald said the site censored his report on the contents of Joe Biden’s son Hunter’s computer, which suggested collusion for profit with the Ukrainian government, similar to the offence that was the pretext for Trump’s impeachment, and a marker of the similarities rather than the differences between the two parties.

Moderate Rebel’s YT channel

With Greenwald gone, the best alternative to The Intercept is the podcast Moderate Rebels, with Max Blumenthal and Ben Norton, and their website The Grey Zone. This site also includes the reporting of Aaron Mate, who continued to question the faulty assumptions of the Russiagate probe, which the Mueller Report declared not actionable and which were then used as the basis for a phoney and unsuccessful attempt to impeach Trump. Trump is a tax dodger, war criminal and scam artist who could have been indicted on actual impeachable offenses but that, as Mate pointed out, would have meant truly “draining the swamp,” that is focusing attention on the bipartisan corruption that fuels Washington politics.

The latest podcast has Blumenthal and Norton examining the “authoritarian censorship” of the French government which like many of the Western democracies becomes more repressive as conditions become more desperate for its citizens. The Grey Zone bills itself as “Investigative Journalism on Empire.”

The last source of more alternative news and opinion is the progressive wing of late-night television, especially Seth Meyers Late Night and Trevor Noah’s The Daily Show, excerpts of which can be watched on YouTube. These shows counter the ceaseless and increasingly mirthless frivolity of Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show, the misplaced and often nasty humorlessness of Jimmy Kimmel Live and the “sophisticated” but often vacuous “satire” of Steven Colbert’s The Late Show. In the Trump era all three of these mainstream hosts moved to try to embrace topical humor, which the audience was demanding, as the other two watched Colbert’s emphasis on political humor pull him ahead in the ratings. The positive is that the audience is demanding more relevance and less froth as entertainment, and so endless endorsements must now be mixed with a healthy dose of commentary on the day’s events.

images

Amber Ruffin as Melania Trump on Late Night

Of all the late-night topical humor though, Seth Meyers’s A Closer Look (YouTube) is the best written, funniest pummeling of the Trump presidency. The show also boasted the African-American writer and comedian Amber Ruffin, who now has her own show streaming on Peacock which sadly lacks the sharpness and the biting wit of her continued appearances with Meyers. In stunning back-to-back weeks Ruffin, in wig and full pouty gestures, in a week where it was thought the White House was employing Melania doubles, played the first lady, quoting from an official document where she had to turn the page to read the name of their son Baron, but then said Donald had to turn more pages to remember his son’s name. The next week, after Kanye West, 50 Cent and Ice Cube were revealed as Trump backers she came out as Lil Doof, a rapper who rapped against his own interests.

The other late-night alternative is Trevor Noah’s The Daily Show. Noah’s own segments sometimes lack punch but are always well written and graphically astute. The strength of the show lies in the “correspondents” and the segments Noah helps engineer. One of the best was Roy Woods’ countdown of “Donald Trump’s 100 Most Tremendous Scandals,” a highly imaginative montage with Woods’ indignation – coming in at number 1 – that after 99 scandals Trump is still president. Desi Lydic’s Thanksgiving plea to her “family” of conservatives – Uncle Rudi (Giuliani), Cousin Sean (Hannity) and Aunt Jeanine (Pierro) has her asking the Fox mainstays for some civility at the dinner table and each of them, in their own words, refusing.

Finally, back in the fold is Jordan Klepper, returned from hosting his own Steven Colbert like faux-conservative The Opposition. He is even funnier in his “Fingering the Pulse” segments as a debunker of the illogic of Trump supporters who – like the couple in Washington at the recent Million MAGA march there to celebrate “the winning of Donald Trump” – contradict themselves and argue against their own interests.

One of the major gains of the Trump presidency was an increased interest in analysis, biting commentary and humor and satire, mostly directed against Trump. It will be important to continue that trend as the Biden presidency attempts to confuse and beguile its adherents with a phoney “normalcy” amid the widespread panic, devastation and destruction that has been the accumulated result of all the presidents, especially since Reagan.

Trump ascended into office with the car poised at the edge of the cliff. He gleefully pushed it over and asked the country to enjoy the ride. It will take much more of the kind of sincere honesty that the above shows and sites practice if there is to be a chance of putting the pieces back together.

John Brown as buffoon in 'The Good Lord Bird', vs. Brown as radical in 'Underground'
Wednesday, 09 December 2020 14:05

John Brown as buffoon in 'The Good Lord Bird', vs. Brown as radical in 'Underground'

Dennis Broe compares and contrasts two images of John Brown in recent TV series. Image above: John Brown at his zaniest, in The Good Lord Bird 

While the last two episodes of Ethan Hawkes recounting of the John Brown story have some emotional resonance, The Good Lord Bird as a whole, derived from a National Book Award winning novel by James McBride, is a postmodern mocking of Brown and Frederick Douglass. John Brown’s incendiary raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859 was the event that precipitated the Civil War, which ended slavery. 

Hawkes’ Brown is quite a different figure. He mistakes Henry, the young, freed slave for a servant girl and has him parade around in a skirt, until, in the end, Brown turns the charade into an LGBT acceptance moment. Brown is seen mostly as a raving lunatic, compared by Hawkes to Shakespeare’s Lear, with Hawkes for much of the series playing Brown, as he attempts to free slaves in Kansas, as Lear’s mad scene on the moor. In episode two he shows up at the end to rescue Henry, who he calls Onion, rambling insanely with guns a-blazing, turning what was an astute description of racial exploitation from the point of view of Henry and the other African-Americans in one Kansas town, into farce.

DB A

David Deegs as the windbag Frederick Douglass 

Equally Daveed Diggs, so powerfully dynamic and scene-stealing as Jefferson in Hamilton and so resolute as the revolutionary in Snowpiercer, as Frederick Douglass gives an over-the-top wild star turn to the point where Diggs and Hawkes in the same room as Douglass and Brown are simply trying to upstage one other, with both speaking past each other and simply projecting their own star quality. Douglass’ later bromide about the camera, “I am enamored of the device and the device is enamored of me” supposedly a slight on the publicity-grubbing aspect of the black Abolitionist leader, is in this series simply a description of the egos of the two stars.

Representations of John Brown

Hawkes’ performance and engineering of the series suggests once again that “Hollywood intellectual” is simply an oxymoron, with the emphasis on moron. But there is something deeper and more problematic at work here. Rather than a postmodern debunking of these legends, Hawkes performance fits neatly into a representational history of John Brown, a figure who causes liberals much anxiety. Brown’s quest to wipe out slavery is indisputably seen by an intellectual elite as just, but his violent methods, since he claimed that slavery would not end peacefully and that believers must take up arms to oppose it, apparently still cause fits in liberals. Here, using the postmodern cover, once again that anxiety is expressed as Brown being a full-blown raving lunatic even though history proved him correct.

Another side of Brown’s mission is stunningly captured in the far better season two of Underground, a series by African-American showrunner Misha Green, that was summarily cancelled after its radical affirmation of not only the righteousness of Brown’s cause but also of his method.

DB B

Errol Flynn and Ronald Reagan as Jeb Stuart and Custer join forced to preserve slavery in The Santa Fe Trail

An early Brown depiction which helped to set the tone for subsequent portrayals was Warner Brothers’ 1940 The Santa Fe Trail. The previous year Warners had gone out on a limb in its Confession of a Nazi Spy, the first anti-Nazi Hollywood film. The studio was accused of being “prematurely anti-fascist.” In this western, with war breaking out in Europe, famed German American Bund and Nazi sympathizer Errol Flynn stars with Ronald Reagan, future saboteur of the Actors Guild of which he was president, as Jeb Stuart and George Custer.

The two come together to crush Raymond Massey, looking like Moses in a depiction of Brown whose wild-eyed demeanor made it seem like he was constantly in front of the burning bush. In crushing Brown, the two affirm that the North and the South can co-operate to insure the ultimate goal, which they claim is peace at any cost. Needless to say, in this attempt to make up for its earlier “transgression,” Warners proposed isolation and peace as the response to Nazi aggression, accomplished in the silencing of an attempt to promote racial equality.

Massey would again play Brown repeating the same religious zealotry at the expense of any concentration on what Brown stood for in 1955 in Seven Angry Men. In the 1982 television mini-series The Blue and the Grey Sterling Hayden reprised the Massy interpretation, in which the killing of the “traitor” Brown was compared to the killing of Caesar by Brutus and the Roman senators. In the 1986 follow-up mini-series North and South Johnny Cash lent the lilting righteousness of his deeply calloused working-class voice to Brown, but Brown appears in the series for only three minutes, almost as if the producers were too afraid to give much credence to Cash’s rendering of his presence and his message.

This modern rendering of Brown has its moments. Newcomer Joshua Caleb Johnson is superb as Onion, his authenticity and sincerity the antidote for much of the series to Hawkes hokeyness. Henry/Onion is part Huck Finn trying to navigate this treacherous landscape, part Sancho Panza to the realist Brown’s delusional Quixote and part Fool to Hawkes’ Lear. The series also has a picaresque quality as the idealistic Brown finds his finances laid low by a swindler straight out of the corrupt capitalist terrain of antebellum America portrayed in Twain’s The Gilded Age, and Melville’s The Confidence Man.

Brown also has his moments, as when he explains to Onion that the only thing the white man understands that will turn him away from his thirst for the profits of slavery is violence. Later, as Brown faces execution, his son Owen explains that he will not try to rescue him because his father understands the import of his execution: “Most people they don’t die for anything, but he, he died for something.”

It is telling though that once Brown is in prison, awaiting hanging, that is shorn of any immediate threat, he is portrayed as saner, calmer and cooler and able to see clearly who Onion/Henry is. The histrionics cease and Brown is presented in a more normative, human way as he awaits the gallows. Hollywood liberals admire martyrdom. They’re just uneasy with the threat of revolution.

Most versions of the story emphasize a dramatic presentation of Brown’s words in court on trial for murder and sedition, his most cogent translation of the attempt to free the slaves into the language of class struggle and rendered extremely powerfully in a recording by Orson Welles:

 Had I so interfered in behalf of the rich, the powerful, the intelligent, the so-called great, or in behalf of any of their friends…or any of that class – it would have been all right; and every man in this court would have deemed it an act worthy of reward rather than punishment.

The Good Lord Bird sidelines this statement, which also links to Martin Luther King’s speech just before he was assassinated, linking the black and white working-class struggle. This version dedramatizes the statement, making it simply Hawke’s voiceover as part of a series of letters written from jail. The series, scheduled for release at the beginning of the summer, was delayed by Showtime (and Sky Atlantic) because of the irruption of the Black Lives Matter demonstrations, with the station apparently afraid this John Brown would fuel the fire. For the most part though, they needn’t have worried.

Underground’s African-American John Brown

There is a whole other perspective on John Brown, quite strikingly different from Good Lord Bird and its ilkIn 1941, perhaps in answer to Santa Fe Trail, Jacob Lawrence completed a series of 22 paintings, titled The Legend of John Brown, with Lawrence’s modernist angular and elongated figures and objects and matter of fact narration presenting Brown as a contemporary freedom fighter, shorn of the overlay of religious fanaticism. Good Lord Bird acknowledges Lawrence’s work in its animated title credits.

DB C 

Jacob Lawrence’s John Brown

Particularly striking is a painting near the end of the series titled John Brown with a company of 21 men, white and black, marched on Harpers Ferry. The image which stresses the overcoming of racial tensions in a blending of working-class arms, is a series of light and dark colored knives marching together on the landscape.

W.E.B Dubois in his biography of Brown described him as “a man whose leadership lay not in his office, wealth or influence, but in the white flame of his utter devotion to an ideal.” Dubois stressed Brown’s coming to awareness in the light of previous black struggles for freedom, most prominently that of Haiti’s independence from Napoleon and the French and Nat Turner’s slave uprising in Virginia. DuBois’ termed Brown’s coming to consciousness a realization that “American slavery was the foulest and filthiest blot on nineteenth century civilization.” When asked which white presidential candidate  he would vote for James Baldwin replied “John Brown” and the comedian turned radical activist Dick Gregory described Brown as “the number one being that’s ever been produced in America.”

The fittest riposte to Hawkes’ John Brown is season two of Underground, still streaming on Hulu and Prime Video. The season consists of the remnants of “The Macon 7” group of now freed slaves venturing South to rescue their kin. A secondary plot concerns the Anglo woman Elizabeth, who has seen a loved one murdered in front of her by a slaver who recognizes them as abolitionists. Elizabeth, over the course of the season and partially due to her encounter with one of John Brown’s sons, moves from grief and anger to a more measured realization that an institution so deeply ingrained in the American consciousness will require violence to uproot it.

DB D 

Harriet Tubman’s (Aisha Hinds) Abolitionist Plea in Underground 

Elizabeth hears but disagrees with the mulatto woman who runs the station on the Underground Railroad and argues that slavery can be eradicated peacefully by freeing one slave at a time. A remarkable moment of the season occurs in an episode that is breathtakingly experimental for television, in which Aisha Hinds as Harriet Tubman first stands before a mirror and then takes the Abolitionist stage and tells the story of her bondage and freedom in an extended take that lasts the entire episode. In the final episode of the season, Elizabeth makes her decision, taking up arms and firing on the slavers who abused her.

For its resolute radicalness in presenting Brown’s struggle and methods as necessary Underground was quickly yanked off the air while The Good Lord Bird on the other hand is on its way a bountiful harvest of trophies in awards season.

5G and ‘Biohackers’: Technology Rules Ok! (or does it?)
Wednesday, 25 November 2020 10:15

5G and ‘Biohackers’: Technology Rules Ok! (or does it?)

Dennis Broe writes about how 5G technology is designed to make the world safe for capitalist cultures of consumption, and reviews Biohackers

There seems to be no questioning the technological imperative. 5G will, when it is fully operative, increase download speeds such that general mobile phone internet activity will be 20 to 100 times faster, thus greatly enhancing watching Series TV on the go. 5G will also, its promoters claim, fulfill the promise of both Artificial Intelligence and the internet of things: interconnected smart homes, smart cars, and consumers served by smart farms and operated on by smart machines. Likewise, in genetics, the cracking of DNA and RNA codes—which may enable current COVID-19 stimulators to allow the body to suppress the virus without a dangerous ingestion of COVID—may eventually lead to promoting a generalized immunity from many diseases.

What could go wrong? Plenty, say 5G critics in France. Likewise, in the realm of genetic algorithms, the German series Biohackers equally sounds the alarm.

In the U.S. and across Asia, in particularly in China and South Korea, the answer to what can go wrong is, Nothing. In the U.S. the “debate” over 5G is only about how fast and efficient the service is. The “criticism” is that the Verizon-Apple iPhone 12 and the AT&T-Galaxy 5G rollout, even in the large cities, is only partial, four times rather than 20 times faster. China, meanwhile, leads the world in 5G patents and sees the technology as its way to climb out of the stigma of world’s low-end manufacturer, throwing off the “Made in China” labeling to be replaced by the Huawei branding of assembled technology, this time “Made in Vietnam.” In South Korea, the “debate” is on how soon 6G will arrive.

Europe is behind in the race to 5G, though one of its two telecom companies, Ericsson, has now announced it’s ready for a rollout. But not so fast. Across the continent questions are being raised about the safety, the consumerist changes, planned obsolescence and inequality the technology will effectuate, and about how 5G is part of the capitalist profit-driven productivist imperative that has so ravaged the planet. In Germany and Britain, angry citizens have pulled down towers. In France, especially with the rise of a progressive Green Party called EELV, the entire ethos of 5G is being questioned.

The opening salvo against the technology was fired by the Green Party Mayor of Grenoble, Eric Piolle, who questioned its supposed benefits. “With 5G I can watch porn in HD in my elevator and know if I still have yogurt in the refrigerator” is the way he described the new promised land that proponents claim the network will usher in. In return, the Rothschild banker-turned-President Emmanuel Macron, a prime promoter of neoliberal technology as saviour of French society, labelled the Greens “Amish” who “wanted to return to the era of the oil lamp.” His fellow right-wing confrères warned of a “Green Peril,” using the Cold War overlay of Red Peril, and branded those questioning this imperative as “Khmer Green,” likening them in the digital realm to Cambodia’s murderous Khmer Rouge.

There is little doubt that the primary reason 5G, the star of the Christmas consumer push, is being so thoroughly trumpeted is the profits it will reap, forecast to account for 668 billion dollars globally in six years and predicted, with the gain in the sale of mobile phones, with an  enhanced gaming experience and with more widespread virtual reality headsets, to account for 5 percent of global GDP this year.

5G towers

5G Makes the World Safe for Consumerism  

Elements of the French left, though, including François Ruffin, a legislator and director of the film Merci, Patron, or “Thanks, Boss,” a kind of French Roger and Me about France’s richest bosses mercilessly closing factories, have suggested that this technological bounty is being asked to fill the void in lives that are increasingly despairing. Ruffin notes also how this “techno-totalitarianism,” what media critic Evgeny Morozov calls “solutionism,” will amplify already existing inequalities. The technology may widen the gaps between the increasingly more plugged-in cities with 5G, the periphery around those cities with 4G, and the country’s rural areas with no G, thus in France exacerbating what is termed the “territorial fracture” and what in the U.S. might be called the Red/Blue dichotomy.

Echoing Morozov, Ruffin points out this this kind of thinking leads not to, for example, regulating agribusiness to produce healthier and more eco-friendly food, but to supplying more intelligent forks. In Catholic France 5G is breathlessly talked about, Ruffin says, as the second coming of the Holy Spirit, illuminating our smart phones in the way the first coming descended on the apostles at Pentecost. In the holy light of such a miracle, the telecom industry shakes off the shackles of any sense of being a public good, and instead regulation becomes only about how market competition can be promoted.

2 or 3 Things I Know About Her 4

The Miracle of Consumption in Godard’s Two or Three Things I Know About Her 

France has always been suspicious of consumer “miracles” which its leading thinkers have often seen as foisted on it by American capitalism in its drive for global hegemony. Witness Godard’s Two of Three Things I Know About Her and Weekend and the films of Jacques Tati (Playtime, Mr. Hulot’s Holiday) in their unfolding of a critique of a French society being remade from without.

The debate here is raising important questions that are given short shrift in the rest of the world. Europe is simply being asked to conform and told that if it does not it will be left out of a mainspring of the global economy, with its devices unable to catch up or be plugged into the global flow.

Studies indicate that the digital economy emits 4 percent of greenhouse gas, a number that is predicted to double in five years and which 5 and 6G will accelerate. The Green Party labels 5G an “enevore,” that is, energy gorging, noting that mobile phone use already accounts for 2 percent of electric use in France.

The introduction of this speedier technology is designed to increase costs, not only of a monthly mobile bill as more data is accessed and downloaded, but also necessitating replacing existing mobile phones with 5G-ready equipment, phones which are now already on the average replaced every 18 months to 2 years. Eventually, the technology with increased pixelation for faster and clearer viewing will be a part of computers and televisions and, like the changeover in television sets from analog to digital, will require a wholescale worldwide replacement.

The ecological question also involves not only the global waste in disposing of the used devices which is estimated to reach 2 million tons, but also in their creation with 70 kilos or 154 pounds of raw materials, including rare metals, necessary for the assembling of one of these super devices. These rare metals, which emit radiation, are strip-mined in the south of China where production is still largely private and loosely regulated. Elsewhere, 80 percent of the cobalt and tantalum needed for assembly comes from the east of the Republic of Congo, a war-torn area where 40,000 children work in the mining zones.

Consumer enhancement, of course, with the tech companies goes hand in hand with consumer surveillance, and 5G increases the drive to a global data centre where billions of data packages will be available to publicity and advertising agencies for use in instantaneously molding and soliciting user taste depending on the content of individual cell phones and the store any consumer passes or, more creepily, any impulses they have. By 2025 it is predicted that 75 billion objects will be interconnected, all transmitting user data so that the refrigerator that is telling you to buy more yogurt is also spying on you. The internet highway becomes a spyway.

The implementation of 5G is also wasteful. Huawei is clearly the global leader in cheap and efficient 5G construction. A mobile phone is made up of a complex of 250,000 inventions and patents. In 2020 the Chinese lead the world with 34 cell phone patents, followed by South Korea and Europe with the U.S. a distant fourth. Yet, in labeling the Chinese company a security risk—when in fact the real threat is that it is a more skilful competitor—and forcing its allies to boycott the company as well, installation of 5G will be more costly with companies required to duplicate already established efforts.

Finally, there is the question of safety. There has been no comprehensive government study on the effects of the increased sonic waves on the human body. Private corporate studies, which are not required to be made public, all negate this possibility, while public studies suggest there may be some danger. The U.S. National Toxicology Program found evidence of cancer tumors in rats exposed to high frequencies, and in Italy the Ramazzini Institute warned there were potential carcinogens in radio frequencies. The French government has commissioned a thoroughgoing study, the results to be reported in Spring 2021. The newspaper of record Le Monde and 70 legislators have asked for a moratorium until the findings are revealed, but Macron’s Minister of Finance Bruno Le Maire wants to hasten 5G installation, warning that a delay would contribute to France losing its digital sovereignty.

The corporate sector sees 5G as simply an economic issue with the question being when and how, not why. The Greens and the French left see 5G, in the way it will change French life, perhaps increasing what the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze called “societies of control,” as a social and ecological issue and a place where the overwhelming drive to more and faster which has so devastated the planet must be questioned. On the continental, national and individual level, to not have 5G means to drop out of the digital flow, with capital arguing, as Theodor Adorno warned in the mid-20th century, that the worst of all conditions is to be left behind. What a bleak future indeed without porn on our elevators and without knowing if we need another yogurt in our refrigerator!

Are you ready for more genetic engineering?

biohackers netflix review

Genetic Mind Games on Biohackers

A series which similarly questions how technological prowess is being implemented and controlled, this time in the area of genomes and the human body, is the German show Biohackers. The series is financed by German government and Bavarian Television funds, and shot in the same studio as another German series, Dark, both available on Netflix. The simplicity of Biohackers, which begins with a highly dramatic bio attack on a train and then flashes back to explain how the young female student Mia got there and why she is not susceptible to the attack, works in its favour, as opposed to the laboured three-era, almost impenetrable flashbacks of Dark.

The action takes place on the Bavarian campus of the University of Freiburg, the German centre of all kinds of genetic engineering experimentation. The students at the school, a band of renegades working on their own socially uplifting mutations, are part of a do-it-yourself biology known as the biotechnological social movement or as bio- or wetware hacking, similar to the early rough and tumble cyberpunks of the internet. Mia’s roommates—botanist Chen Lu, monied beauty queen Lotta, and nerd seed experimenter Ole—form an international group of scientific Scooby Doos who come to her rescue as she is first taken under the wing of the university’s star biologist Dr. Tanya Lorenz and then threatened by her, as Mia and her friends expose the ruthlessness of their professor’s experiments to perfect a subject immune to disease.

Mia’s futon and her rumpled student quarters are contrasted to the corporate-funded Dr. Lorenz’s elaborate multi-storied, impeccably furnished and ordered home in the Bavarian forest, complete with lab in the basement. As with 5G, Dr. Lorenz issues a warning that Germany, which has lost out and is behind in digital mastery, must conquer the realm of biotechnology to compensate.

Two Scoobys

The Scoobys in Scooby Doo

Dr. Lorenz, though, is revealed to be experimenting on human subjects, leaving a murderous trail behind her and recalling earlier experiments by the Nazis who also claimed to be benefiting humanity. She is Dr. Mengele in a pants suit. This contemporary version of the former ethos features Lorenz, as Mia points out, marking her subjects with a bar code, as the Nazis burnt prison numbers into their subjects’ flesh.

We are reminded that the Bavarian countryside and its dark forests hatched Hitler in his first coup attempt and that Freiburg University was the place the philosopher Martin Heidegger, in his moment of embracing National Socialism, accepted an appointment as head of the university until his gradual disgust with the movement resulted in his resignation.

Biohackers, renewed for a second season when the conspiracy to hide the experimentation reaches a national level, does not shy away from the subject of chemical and biological warfare. However, instead of the hackneyed usual and usually insane “terrorist,” the terror here is far better organized and financed not by rogue fanatics but by a corporate-medical ethos which values profit above human life.

Lovecraft Country: Liberating 1950s Apartheid America One Monster At A Time
Sunday, 15 November 2020 16:30

Lovecraft Country: Liberating 1950s Apartheid America One Monster At A Time

Dennis Broe continues his review of new TV series. Image above: Battling Housing Segregation in '50s Chicago, from Lovecraft Country

It’s now a done deal with the series already out in its entirety, but the best pilot and one of the best shows of the year is HBO’s Lovecraft Country. The series is a second stunner by showrunner Misha Green after the too-quickly aborted success of Underground, about the underground railroad. Lovecraft Country refashions and redefines ’50s America, not as consumer paradise, but as apartheid state, just as Underground revisions the pre-Civil War battle against slavery as a revolutionary struggle.

The pilot of Lovecraft Country is a combination of Green Book and Night of the Living Dead, one a masterpiece and the other a hunk of unmitigated garbage. Lovecraft Country cleans up the trash that was the Academy-Award-winning Green Book and resets its smug righteous Driving Mr. Daisy reaffirmation of white, liberal America by refocusing its road trip by three African-Americans through a perilous Northern landscape that is fraught with the still-present danger of white cops constantly threatening their lives. The pilot also revives George Romero’s still shocking masterwork, a zombie apocalypse where the horror of the ’70s America racist police state in the end outdoes the horror of the flesh-eaters, as the sole black survivor is gunned down in a finale that merges the Black Panther Fred Hampton’s killing with the zombie film.

05LOVECRAFT MONSTERS1a mobileMasterAt3x

Lovecraft’s Monsters

Here, after the terror the three African-Americans suffer at the hands of white America on their trip from Chicago to the supposedly progressive haven of Massachusetts, the appearance of several of horror writer H.P. Lovecraft’s signature monsters, The Shoggoth – blobs devouring everything in their path with thousands of snapping teeth – comes as a relief. These monsters at least are finite and not part of a perpetual system that categorically excludes black people. Or, as the show would have it in quoting James Baldwin, part of a country where the American Dream is achieved at the expense of the American Negro. The contemporary series nods at Romero’s classic – with police and the three black crewmembers trapped in the same house, this time the monsters attack and eat the police, revenging the death of the lone Black survivor in Night of the Living Dead.

Admittedly, the show is uneven and is more a series of spectacular parts than a stunning whole. However, its project of revisioning African-American representation and extending it both to genres and to areas of intellectual activity which Blacks had previously been locked out of is a mind-bending corrective to the representational apartheid practiced in white Hollywood and academia.

1611a

'50s Haunted Diners

Episodes one and three emphasize the socially critical aspect of New Black Horror, so prominent in Get Out, the masterwork in this subgenre. Tik, Letti and the reliably stabilizing Courtney B. Vance as Tik’s Uncle George, take that most American of adventures the road trip, in search of George’s lost brother. They encounter not the oddball-but-endearing characters of a Route 66 but rather a murderous police state aligned against them. In a diner, they view the ’50s kitsch figures not as nostalgic but as menacing, and are forced to flee with the arrival of armed attackers. A lingering and unnerving shot of a white man with a gun in the back of a truck suggests the chase and murder of Georgia jogger Armaud Arbery, pursued by a gun-toting ex-cop and his sons. Finally, they are pursued to the border of a county which has a sundown clause, meaning, the sheriff explains to them, that they can be shot if they are found in the county after sundown.

Episode three, with Tik, Letti and Tik’s father back in Chicago, takes up the thorny ’50s question of housing segregation, as Letti buys a home in North Chicago across the line of demarcation. Letti faces a brigade of white men parking their cars in front with the horns perpetually blaring to drive her out of her home. The trick, Tik reveals, is one that U.S. soldiers used in Korea where he was a part of their efforts to drive prisoners insane. That revelation of American mind games rewrites the myth of Korean ‘brainwashing’ solidified in the film The Manchurian Candidate.

Social distancing via racial segregation

The house is haunted with the spirits of African-Americans massacred in the abode. Inside and outside Letti and Tik are tortured by that other kind of social distancing, the racial segregation that with its attendant defunded schools and perpetuation of poverty is still a primary way today of maintaining inequality. Letti revenges herself on the cars with a baseball bat and stakes her right to cross the colour line.

Episodes two and four are about bringing African-Americans to the forefront of genres they have been locked out of. Black audiences, lacking an identification figure in what was the squeaky-clean genre of horror, often rooted for the monster who ravaged the privileged victims of a supposedly all-white America. Episode two restores Black agency to the genre as Tik, Letti and George stand in the center of the standard horror trope of the haunted house, here a Massachusetts mansion with a devil cult that not all the characters escape from alive.

Episode four places Black characters at the center of an Indiana Jones-type adventure saga, but with an African-American historical perspective. When Letti has second thoughts about crossing a frail rope bridge in a typical adventure sequence, Tik’s father spurs her to conquer her fear by telling her the rope reminds him of the whip his mother described to him, used by masters on Black slaves.

Throughout, the African-American characters also counter myths about Black prowess exclusively in the fields of sports and entertainment. George and his wife Hippolyta are cartographers, drawing up maps in the Green Book that provide safe journeys through the dangerous morass of apartheid America. Hippolyta proves herself adept at astronomy, and in a later episode acquires a lived historical knowledge by inserting herself into various epochs. Their daughter Diana writes and illustrates her own comics, in a way that presages today’s Black comic resurgence. The family reads and reveres sci-fi adventure author Edgar Rice Burroughs and H.P. Lovecraft mentor and Dracula creator Bram Stoker. The series highlights Black curiosity and intellectual acuity as the show itself crosses cultural colour lines in showing that it is not for lack of persistence and interest that African-Americans have not thrived in these areas.

The show also of course rewrites Lovecraft himself, using a contemporary novel by Matt Ruff that highlights the horror writer’s glaring limitations. Lovecraft wrote in the 1920s, with the Klan firmly established and often, as in The Call of Cthulhu, set the stories a decade earlier, at the moment when the progressive period of Reconstruction was still being turned back, just after statues commemorating the Confederacy had sprung up everywhere, and when a new category of ‘whiteness’ was being constructed by pitting all the European US arrivals against their non-European ‘other(s).’

In Cthulhu Lovecraft recounts the danger posed in the North by a Negro sailor “from one of the queer dark courts on the precipitous hillside” and in the South in the bayous surrounding New Orleans by a Voodoo gathering containing “singular and hideous” rites. Lovecraft Country refashions and reverses this fear, as in one episode the Shoggoths appear again, this time to destroy a squad of Chicago police who have come to wipe Letti out of her home.

In the most stunning reversal of a horror staple, Letti’s sister Ruby undergoes the wolfman transformation from human to beast, a prosthetic tour-de-fore pioneered by Rick Baker in An American Werewolf in London. The trick here is that Ruby transforms from an African-American to a Caucasian woman. This monster is instead granted full access to white society. Ruby had previously been rejected from a sales clerk position at the department store Marshall Field’s but ‘white’ Ruby is not only hired but made supervisor at the store. The episode spotlights the horror of white privilege as it is lived by Black America.

A critique of capitalism

One problem with the series is that it stays at the superficial level, viewing Lovecraft as simply a creator of monsters, including in a later episode, an Alien-type Korean female that we sympathize with as she revenges herself on both the Japanese and on US servicemen in Korea, both of whom oppressed the country. Beneath the surface prejudice, Lovecraft’s creatures from the netherworlds actually constituted a critique of the rational, scientific, calculated world of a capitalism that was hell-bent on erasing all traces of the ancient myths and modes of thinking that his monsters represent. The series misses this aspect which in the second season might be a way of more thoroughly linking Lovecraft’s subconscious love of the irrational with the battle of the series characters for recognition of their own modes of thinking and making sense of the world, which both embraces and contradicts the rationalized “normality” of the consumer world around them.

1611b

The Macon Seven on the run in Underground

Lovecraft Country also signals the arrival in town of a new show-running sheriff, Misha Green, an African-American female writer whose work, both here and in Underground is peppered with images of revolt and resistance. The “Macon 7” plantation runaway slaves in the first series who make an impossible journey from the openly oppressive South to the more sophisticated prejudice of the North and the genre and gender smashing intrusion of Tik, Letti, and Hippolyta in her second series carve out a far more openly rebellious path for Black television representation, making Shonda Rhimes’ professional and middle-class world (Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, How to Get Away With Murder) seem tame by comparison.

Exec-producing on Lovecraft Country are J.J. Abrams and Jordan Peele. Abrams seems to contribute little to the mix, except occasional melodic horror strains on the soundtrack, borrowed from Lost, which often attempt to create the feeling of terror but seem divorced from the actual action. Peele, on the other hand, continues to invest the horror genre with contemporary social significance. This series is the true follow-up to his Get Out, where the horror is the psychic manifestation of the racist system which terrorizes the characters.

Lovecraft Country, with its array of cops more frightening than the actual monsters, and its ordinary African-American characters deeply embedded in the street life of a community with its stickball and block parties also casts a suspicious and critical eye on that other HBO series Watchmen and its Kamela-Harris-type Black female superhero vigilante cop, whose opposition to white racism could equally be an opposition to Black rebellion. The high point of Watchmen is the first 10 minutes of the series, which figures the Tulsa massacre as jealous Okies revenge themselves on the economic prosperity of Black Wall Street. Misha Green though, as everywhere else in this extraordinary show, goes one better than that heavily-awarded series in sending her characters into the past, in an entire episode based on the Oklahoma bloodletting.

This may be a series of parts, rather than a coherent whole – but the parts are some of the most memorable moments of television in this year of Black Lives Matter.

‘Vida’ on Starz: Fighting gentrification “But with a little sex”
Friday, 11 September 2020 09:52

‘Vida’ on Starz: Fighting gentrification “But with a little sex”

Dennis Broe reviews Vida and some other of the latest series on streaming services. Image above:Vida’s Mari (Chelsea Rendon) as neighbourhood activist

All over the news today are articles about a new kind of white flight, again as in the 1960s to the suburbs, but this time it is also a Covid-19 flight, from beleaguered cities to the supposed safety of rural areas and the suburbs.

There is a different kind of flight, though, which is not voluntary but forced, and that is the decades-long process of gentrification. It’s highlighted as it occurs in a Mexican neighborhood, in the first season of the Starz series Vida.

The series, available on Amazon Prime, loses focus in its two subsequent seasons, where it turns into an LGBTQ-themed telenovela, and was cancelled after its third. But that is no reason not to celebrate the triumph of season one, where Vida tackles the problem of displacement of minority and poor populations better than any of its film and television rivals.

The series opens with a bang as a young Mexican punk goth woman, Marisol or Mari, with a wicked message which she later conveys through spray paint, posts a manifesto declaring her anger and willingness to fight back over the dispossession of her neighborhood, the Boyle Heights section of Los Angeles.

Boyle Heights has a long history as a progressive center of the city from its earliest Jewish radical and Japanese populations. It was one of the few neighbourhoods in L.A. not to block minorities through what were called restrictive covenants (see: Ronald Reagan et al.).

In 1949 the neighborhood elected the first Mexican and Latino city councilmember (and later Congressman), Edward Roybal. Once Jews in the post-war era started moving out to more upscale areas, Roybal acted to further open up the area for what is now its predominantly Mexican population. It is currently the centre of an attempt at a land grab by the wealthy dominant class since, with the resettling of more affluent residents in downtown L.A., it could become a more fashionable adjacent alternative to downtown’s high rents, something akin to hip and slightly cheaper Brooklyn’s relationship to Manhattan.

Mari’s group, The Vigilantes, are activists disturbed and frightened as they watch the neighbourhood change around them. Real estate developers from the nearby Silver Lake area eye the neighbourhood, “eager for those Trump dollars.” In the vanguard of this attempted dislocation is a Latino-fronted real estate group “sucking the blood out of the neighborhood.” Against Mari’s and the activist group’s “Make America Brown Again,” the Latino real estate agent Nelson Herrera is buying block after block of what the agency calls BoHe, the rebranding of Boyle Heights as a now fashionable location. This landgrab utilizes white artists, whose outpost Mari spray-paints, as their shock troops, while the real estate agency offers predatory loans that will result in residents losing their local businesses.

DBBvida news

Lyn (Melissa Berrera) and Emma (Mishel Prada) on the rooftop of their neighbourhood bar

Returning to this neighbourhood in turmoil are the two Hernandez sisters Emma and Lyn, brought back at the death of their mother, the Vida (“life” in Spanish) of the title, and now proud possessors of their mother’s debt-ridden bar that is a mainstay and casual gay centre of the area. Emma is a tough-as-nails, corporate businesswoman back from Chicago, and Lyn, with hippie tendencies, is a kind of palimpsest of all California counter-cultures, a vegan slacker comfortable in the upscale hipness of nearby Silver Lake.

The sisters are thoroughly assimilated, and as the series opens couldn’t be further from the Mexican roots of the neighborhood. Emma wants immediately to get rid of the low-rent tenants in the bar building, many of them undocumented, searching for a “better” clientele. Lyn, meanwhile, dropped by her Anglo boyfriend just after her mother’s death, seeks solace in the orgiastic complacency of Silver Lake poolside sex.

Both are brought down to earth and humanized by their reacquaintance with the neighborhood. Eddy, the gay wife of their mother, who also lays claim to the bar, finally shames Emma into not becoming an agent of dispossession herself by turning out the building’s tenants. Lyn, meanwhile, while being adopted by the affluent Silver Lake crowd, has second thoughts as she is riding the bus home with a Mexican maid, who cleans up the bodily fluids strewn by the privileged pool users.

Capitalist and colonialist culture

There is conflict between the two sisters as well, with Emma the responsible one and Lyn perpetually trying to “find herself.” But the more interesting conflict is between Emma’s corporate and Lyn’s privileged “alternative” values and the fellow-feeling of the neighbourhood. What in many shows would be a one-episode pilot, where the sisters finally decide to stay at home and become a part of the neighbourhood in adopting the bar, takes the entire season because this is not just a personal conflict but a conflict of values. More pointedly, it’s about the sisters learning to reaccept as a positive value the ways the more communal culture they grew up in challenges what they have learned from the capitalist and colonial culture outside the neighborhood.

The culture manifests itself in two ways, language and its food. The characters use a simplified form of Spanglish, that constant mixing of English and Spanish that is the mark of a people whose native tongue is devalued. The show does not translate either these phrases or the words to a multitude of Spanish songs, forcing its Anglo audience to learn the phrases, many of which are street lingo, such as the amount of porquería, or bullcrap, with which this neighborhood in the process of being moved in on has to contend.

Elsewhere the contentious Mari and a friend rebond over a chamoyada, a flavoured sliced ice drink, and Lyn gets into an argument with an upscale Mexican city councilmember about putting Valentina, a brand of hot sauce, on a taco. Food is a signifier and imprint of childhood cultural heritage in the lives of these people.

Neighbourhood dispossession has been a popular theme in film and television recently, including a rival Netflix series, also set in Boyle Heights, Gentrified, much slicker and hipper than this series and much less effective. Robert Moses’s mass dispossession of New York’s African-American and Hispanic populations is also the subject that underlies the film Motherless Brooklyn, whose heart is in the right place but which is ultimately spoiled by its clumsy, play-by-the numbers, Chinatown-clone narrative.

The nearest rival to Vida is The Last Black Man in San Francisco, a thoughtful, quietly sad film about the cleansing of that city of its poor and even lower middle class by the ever-increasing rents, because of its adjacency to Silicon Valley. But that film is perhaps too quiet and mournful and so does not have the immediate visceral impact of Vida.

DBC

The two sisters with Eddy (Ser Anzoategui), the soul of the neighbourhood

The second and third seasons lose focus and pit rival groups against each other in what amounts to the same struggle. Emma’s decision to cut Eddy, the conscience of the tavern, off from her stake in the bar in season two is supposedly, but not actually, rectified by Eddy’s returning to the place, this time as bartender, not co-owner. Emma sells off a mural her mother had commissioned showing the two girls as taking part in the Mexican Revolution. The indescribably sad moment when it is papered over with a beer ad goes unremarked.

Season three features the return of the patriarchy in the form of the sister’s lost father, whose full-force identification with a rigid religiosity threatens their mother’s legacy in making the bar a space of LGBTQ freedom – a space, by the way, that is echoed by the all-LGBTQ writers’ room on this show.

That season also sees Mari leaving The Vigilantes, who themselves get sidetracked and campaign against the transgender bar. Mari turns from collective political work and instead is “discovered” by a website entrepreneur and transformed into a politically trendy “influencer.” Her revolutionary expression of the pain and resistance of her neighborhood is now converted into a more commercial “edginess.”

There is nothing askew with the shift to a more telenovela confrontation with the religious patriarchy. The problem is that the reclaimed father now becomes the primary foe and the gentrification process is sidelined. There is no reason for this. The two are twin aspects of the same oppression and it is needless and heedless to pit one against the other, rather than seeing how they form a seamless whole.

On a positive note, the series does end with the memory of Vida with all her flaws restored in the eyes of her daughters and with a wise neighbourhood woman’s santería, that blend of Mexican native traditions with a more primitive Catholicism, posed as an alternative psychic healing method both to the more Western psychoanalysis and to the father’s Pentecostal evangelism.

Starz and sex as pay-per-view commodity

Starz, the network that broadcast Vida in the U.S. is a pay-per-view channel whose rivals, before the streaming services, were HBO and Showtime. Starz, a latecomer to pay-per-view, often attempts to distinguish itself with the quantity of its nudity and sex. The famous opening scene in Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels recounts a director’s ambitions to make a film of quality about people’s lives during the Depression, to which the studio executive keeps interjecting, “But with a little sex?” At Starz, the network execs always seem to be interjecting, for example in the case of Vida’s ambition to tackle the thorny issues of gentrification: “Yes, but with a lot of sex?”

So we get a montage of the two sisters, one lesbian, one straight, copulating as the opening of one show. There are several kinds of “kink,” as in Lyn’s councilmember wanting her to wear a strap-on, and Emma, programmatically gay, taking a former male inmate who is working for her for a sexual ride in her office to ease her anxiety. Sometimes this adds to character development – Emma realizes the form of sex she often engages in is simply a corporate brand of using people to satisfy her needs – but just as often it’s simply a way of Starz hooking audiences with a quantity and an outlandishness of nudity that makes Game of Thrones look like Camelot.   

P-Valley’s Working Girls

This has been true in the history of the channel with a show such as Spartacus, nominally about the slave who challenged Rome, distinguishing itself from HBO’s Rome and from other shows on that channel by adding bloodcurdling, sadistic violence to the bloodcurdling, sadistic sex. Even Outlander, the channel’s most successful entry, is essentially a more sexually explicit, time-traveling kinkily romantic bodice ripper.

The ultimate expression of this use of sex as branding mechanism is the channel’s current series P-Valley, which stands for Pussy Valley. (I rest my case.) The show about African – American dancers in a Mississippi strip club does validate  their work by presenting it from their point of view, but refuses any wider consideration of how they are trapped within the colonial structure of the backwater of that state.

DBE 20NEWSLETTER4 facebookJumbo v3

Party Down’s precarious Hollywood caterers

Starz’s actual glowing moment was Party Down, a two-season series about precarious workers in Hollywood who must labour with a catering company while trying to make dreams that are constantly shattered come true. It’s a hilarious show about the more perpetual downside of the lives of Hollywood hangers on – Mulholland Drive as a sitcom.

Formerly we might have labeled the sex on Starz as “gratuitous,” but that word does not capture the nature of what is going on here. Sex on Starz is corporate and commercial. It is commodified, often not about freedom of bodily expression, but a marketing gimmick to suck in audiences. Even the sex on Vida, which does often also enhance character development, is ultimately not so much boundary-breaking and liberating as way degrading – not the sex itself, but the fact that it is often used simply as a means of addicting viewers and thus is devalued.

Such is la vida in the ever more intense competition for viewers who in the midst of an economic malaise, state and militia violence and a pandemic can scarcely afford food and medical supplies, much less add pay channels on top of their already exorbitant cable bill.

The Finales of Fearless and Perry Mason: How to End and How Not to End a Serial TV Season
Saturday, 22 August 2020 08:55

The Finales of Fearless and Perry Mason: How to End and How Not to End a Serial TV Season

Dennis Broe continues his series on TV series, looking at Fearless and the new Perry Mason. Image above: Peaky Blinders’ Helen McCrory as crusading defense attorney in Fearless

There was a lot of fanfare recently around the wrapping up of HBO’s remake of Perry Mason – which unfortunately has a botched ending. The cliché in Hollywood on endings is, “Give the audience what they want, but not in the way they want it.” Perry Mason outsmarts itself and finishes by obscuring justice and not giving anyone what they want. The show thinks it’s much smarter than the original, mocking Perry’s forcing a confession on the witness stand as an unrealistic cliché, but then substituting an equally tortured and far less effective cliché, that of the defense attorney’s impassioned plea, in a way that simply lets all the air out of the show and leaves the audience clamouring for a more emotionally truthful ending.

In contrast a golden oldie from three years ago, ITV and Amazon’s Fearless, follows through on its tougher political convictions with an ending that, though it has an emotionally unbelievable element, still drives home its much stronger point about the lying machinations in the American and British deception that led to the Iraq War. The less effective Perry Mason was renewed before it had completed its initial run. The far more politically astute Fearless – starring at the height of her Peaky Blinders success, Helen McCrory that show’s irrepressible and slyly seductive elder Polly – was not renewed for a second season, with its strong and effective message about government deception almost surely contributing to its untimely demise.

One British tabloid blamed the show’s cancelling not on its strong stand on government deception, with its opening credits citing Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair and Donald Trump as liars and spin doctors, but on “wobbly camera movement.” It was the camera movement apparently, and not the revelation of the conspiracy itself, that made the newspaper dizzy. The New York Times pigeon-holed the show as being only for “the conspiratorially minded.” The show does purport to unearth and show anger about a monstrous conspiracy – though one that was later revealed as entirely true. It resulted in the deaths of millions and was the opening salvo in the wholescale destruction of both Arab nationalism and much of the Middle East.

Emma Bannville is a crusading defense attorney with a radical past, out to save a wrongly convicted client whose dogged defense of her client leads her up the ladder to the highest levels of government corruption and malfeasance. She channels the activism of the women’s British anti-nuclear movement in the Thatcher-Reagan era, and the radical spirit of a dead lover, in her quest to find a buried truth. Her determined pursuit leads to the revealing of a personal crime by the US military and the British government, covered up in order to allow the headlong rush of both countries into an illegal war with Iraq.    

Opposing her is an equally resolute female American intelligence agent who is paid big bucks – the effect of which is seen in her opulent home in a DC suburb – to clean up her government’s mistakes. To do so, she employs an underhand bag of tricks that does not stop at murder. 

Michael Gambon

Michael Gambon’s complicit government official 

The series also focuses on a Tony Blair-like Labour politician on the rise, who the US government is supporting, who rather presciently is not unlike the Blairite leader now in power after the ousting of Jeremy Corbyn. The finale comes down to Emma threatening her own suicide in a way that finally forces the guilty party to confess. The ruse is not quite convincing, since it is not easy to believe a callous official would ruin themselves to save someone else. However, the confession itself, which sheds light on the ruthlessness of the British-American march to a fabricated war, and the persistent machinations needed to continue to conceal the truth around that rush to war, is utterly convincing.

Fearless does a superb job of beginning with a hopeless legal case and then having that case have far-reaching implications. Its uncanny truth-telling and clear anger almost a decade and half after the fact about the criminal chicanery that led to a silencing of a people’s movement in the US and in Britain against an unjust war more than justified the show running multiple seasons. But its stark political clarity most likely acted against its being continued and instead it was cancelled after one season.

Perry Mason and The Case of the Careless Remake

Which brings us to the obscurity and overwrought “complexity” of HBO’s Perry Mason finale. Here complexity becomes a way of tampering with the emotional truth that the series demands, tamping it down and dissipating what could have been a much more impactful conclusion.

Perry Mason

Raymond Burr’s Perry Mason grilling witnesses and forcing confessions in court

The former series was of course known for its climax, where Perry broke down a witness on the stand and got them to confess, thus freeing his client who the police and prosecutor tried to convince a jury was guilty. Yes, this was highly clichéd and the contemporary series cannily acknowledged it when Hamilton Berger, who will become Perry’s perennial foe in court but is here assisting his legal team, tells the team that they will never get the LAPD officer guilty of the murders to confess on the stand, that no one ever breaks down and confesses in court.  

But we still want to see the officer brought to justice and exposed for his crimes. Instead, the series then substitutes one cliché for another. Perry, instead of trying to expose the officer, instead makes an impassioned summary designed to sway the jury, a far more persistent cliché in the contemporary courtroom drama than that employed in the old Perry Mason. The officer finally gets his just rewards but this is out of sight, almost as an aside, and never acknowledged in public. The show might better, after acknowledging the cliché, have one-upped it by delivering a surprise that forced the confession on the stand. That would have given the audience the emotional lift that the former show offered in seeing justice wrenched at the last minute from a rigged system that almost never allows it.

Clearly that was something fans of the books and the series responded to. The thrill of seeing the lackadaisical, lazy or corrupt work of police and prosecuting attorneys exposed each week was an important part of what the series offered. The HBO show denies that pleasure to its audience, instead sacrifices it on the altar of middle-class “complexity” and “ambiguity,” which is simply about that classes mixed feelings at being trapped between a working class which pushes for more and an upper class which simply takes more.

The HBO show

Matthew Rhys’ Perry Mason as a lawyer who does not expose injustice 

The remake also does not save the final court scene for last. The scene takes place at midpoint in the episode. After, there is a whole lot of tying up various strands of the series, but the only one with much emotional resonance is Perry’s secretary Della Street asserting that she is not a secretary but rather a legal partner who wants a percentage of the client fees, and to be put through law school herself.

A faith healer subplot, which might have resulted in a romantic interest for the young Perry, is also disdained in favor of Perry and the woman exchanging pleasantries about the place of faith in life, a conversation which is philosophically trite and emotionally sterile.

Fearless ends with a stark conclusion that drives home its exposure of the corruption of two governments in promoting an illegal war. Its reward for such truly fearless honesty was cancellation. Perry Mason ends not with a bang but with a whimper, in an ending that blunts its critique of the LAPD and the Los Angeles political power structure. Its reward was to be renewed even before the series ended.

The fate of the two shows is a sad indictment and illustration of how Serial TV, a supposed return to a television Golden Age in which showrunners exercise unprecedented freedom, is instead often bound by rigid social and industry conventions around radical questioning of the powers that be.

The Left Forum Presents: 

Friday September 4, 6-8 PM, EST: Perry Mason and the Case of the Careless Remake with Dennis Broe talking about the new and old Perry Mason, HBO and the new streaming services, and about giving the audience and not giving the audience what they want. 

Register here.

Coal mines become gift shops: Black Suns at Louvre Lens
Tuesday, 18 August 2020 11:42

Coal mines become gift shops: Black Suns at Louvre Lens

Published in Visual Arts

Dennis Broe reviews Black Suns at Louvre Lens in France, on until the end of January 2021

Lens was a small but highly important town in the industrial era of the late 19th century, located in the former French-Belgium coal belt. It is now the home of the satellite museum Louvre-Lens and the site of the first major post-coronavirus lockdown exhibition in France – and perhaps the first in the world.

Soleils Noirs, or Black Suns, traces artists’ use of the colour black. It also reminds us of the spell that coal – visible in two pyramidal slag heaps just outside the town and visible from all parts of it – has cast over a city which has now transformed itself from a coal-exporting to a tourist economy.

This change from a productive to a symbolic economy is all the more startling because Lens was at the heart of a Franco-Belgian region that was the industrial capital of the world in the late 1800s, outdoing even northern England, the centre of industry in the earlier part of the century. It was near here that Emile Zola came to do his research for Germinal, his seminal work on a strike in a coal mine.

DB20

Louvre Lens: Corporate Glass in a Verdant Park 

The last of the mines closed in 1968, at the beginning of the Western transformation from an industrial to a service economy, as European jobs started to be shifted overseas or to Eastern Europe. Today, Louvre visitors eat lunch outside, on the covered-over entrance to mine shaft number 9. The Louvre Lens building itself, in the centre of a verdant park that was constructed over the mining grounds, is a ’90s flat corporate glass structure by the Japanese firm SANAA, that seems to have been airlifted into Lens from some alien space. It’s the opposite of Frank Gehry’s Bilbao museum, a fish-like structure that suggests that city’s historical relation to the sea. Here the museum design effaces history.

The town itself, besides being subjected to the environmental devastation of the coal economy, was also in the centre of the fighting in World War I. This second assault by Capital on the working class wreaked even more havoc on the town. Lens was utterly destroyed as a result, and had to be rebuilt from scratch after the war.

DB80

Lens, February 1918

A mini-tour which the city offers of the miners’ quarters outlines the power structure of a mining town. The mine’s owner lived in the more cosmopolitan nearby city of Lille, comfortably sheltered from the suffering at the mine. The workers lived in mostly single family units built by the mining company, which also ran the school their children attended – where no doubt they were informed this was the best of all possible worlds. The place of honour and the larger homes in the town were occupied by the mine’s engineer, the mine’s police and security director, and the pastor, each concerned with maintaining order and profitability.

The workers’ cottages seem ample. However, when one recalls that black lung disease claimed many of them at an early age, the neat, white entrance doors are perhaps closer to an upright coffin, which echoes a clip in Black Soleils from FW Murnau’s Nosferatu in which the vampire’s exit through his castle door suggests an eerie tomb.

The lobby exhibit is another pyramidal pile of coal, but unlike the actual slag heaps just outside the city, this one is made of pieces of black confetti. It suggests the way the town, whose industry is now a combination of tourism, banking and retail, has transformed itself from the heaviness of actual coal into an economy that is lighter, airier but also – especially in these COVID times, more fragile. The Lens attempt at transformation is echoed in England in Liverpool’s and Manchester’s recreation as arts centres, and in the US of Pittsburgh’s incomplete changeover from coal and steel capital to an eastern US version of Silicon Valley.

The exhibition itself is a major examination of darkness, and the thrill and energy it exerted in the history of art. To its credit, the exhibition also never strays far from the pall that black in the form of coal has cast over the town and that artists have represented.

Though not present in the exhibition, the originator of the contrast between black and white, darkness and light, in highly distorted settings, is Caravaggio and his traces are everywhere in the show. Prior to Caravaggio’s early 17th century chiaroscuro, there is Tintoretto’s 16th century Renaissance portrait of a man holding a handkerchief, clothed almost entirely in the darkness of the Venetian nobility, with the handkerchief being a single splotch of white. Piero della Francesca’s portrait of an Italian nobleman with brown skull cap, which subtly takes on the black sheen of the background, is outdone by Leonardo da Vinci’s startling depiction of another nobleman whose black bonnet blends utterly with the murky background in a way that suggests that regal bearing returning to primordial ooze.

v Honthorst Christ Crowned w Tho

van Honthorst's Christ Crowned with Thorns

There were Northern European Caravaggistes, represented here in the Dutch Gerrit van Honthorst’s illumination of the faces of what looks like Dutch merchants peering out of the darkness to torture Christ. And there is Rembrandt’s etching of a white mass of figures wrenching Christ’s body down from the cross and out of the darkness.

DB40

Ribot's St. Vincent and The Raven

The Spanish Caraviggistes are more bountifully represented with Jusepe de Ribera’s Plato holding a book of ideas, seeming to wrench light from the darkness, and with Murillo’s Christ chained to a column, his gaunt body about to succumb to the shadows behind him.

The most stunning Caravaggio-influenced paintings though are those by the French artist Theodule Ribot, more than 200 years later. His 1870 Good Samaritan shows nothing of the Samaritan of the biblical story, instead focusing in the foreground on the twisted frame of a man beaten and robbed by thieves and in shadowy background the Pharisees, the religious zealots, passing him by. Ribot’s other work, which echoes Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven, is the contorted corpse of Saint Vincent with a black bird perched on top, cawing and eager to feast.

The Romantics are well represented in the exhibit in their combination of a welcoming of the mystery of the night and of the force of nature. Emile Breton’s Storm has four peasants as tiny specks on a landscape, trying to find shelter from a monstrous wind that is tormenting and twisting the trees around them.

Equally tumultuous is the landscape that Mephistopheles and Faust gallop across on their steeds in Delocroix’s lithograph, which has the Devil importuning the scholar as he invests him with the glamour and decadence of the night.

DB30 RM

Robert Mitchum’s murderous minister in Night of the Hunter

Just as stunning are three film clips that recall the Romantic era. Hitchcock’s opening of Rebecca has the innocent young bride in voiceover recounting her entry into the haunted estate, a bastion of male power, as the camera pans up a road covered with underbrush to alight on a dark and foreboding mansion. The evil and seduction of the night is also highlighted in the man’s midnight meeting with his mistress in Murnau’s Sunrise, and the pursuit through a swamp of the children by Robert Mitchum’s rampaging murderous preacher, in Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter. This is a film that lays bare the subconscious evil that was the underside of pristine corporate, capitalist America in the 1950s.

The Symbolists of the 1880s and 1890s also embraced black and the night for its shimmery, translucent, ethereal qualities. Odilon Redon’s illustration of a combination of Poe’s poem The Raven and his short story “Elenora” has the woman and the bird appearing as if from beyond the grave, with each shaded in black. Gustave Dore’s woodcutting The Wolf and The Lambs displays the penned-in creatures being eyed in the moonlight by a crew of hungry wolves, in a night not only where all cows are black but where all lambs are eaten.

It is in the Realist and Impressionist era though that the night begins to symbolise the dark weight of industrialism in the lives of the bourgeoisie – and more pointedly on the mass of workers who suffered from it. Manet’s portrait of the future Impressionist painter Berthe Morisot in black dress has her gaunt fingers twisting around a fan as she stares pensively at the painter. Philippe-Auguste Jeanron’s 1833 A Paris Scene is more class conscious, with three children in the foreground crouched around a slumping, bandaged father, as in the background a bourgeois couple stroll blithely across the same bridge. The father’s bandage represents the unsuccessful attempt at a Paris uprising in 1832, which the royalty and industrialists put down as they increased their wealth through capitalist exploitation.

In the same vein, in 20th century photography, two photos from the 1950s by the aptly named Jean-Philippe Charbonnier (charbon is the French word for coal) capture first a little girl running though a mining tenement, her clothes taking on the omnipresent dark element of soot, which is also captured in a second photo of a garment on a mining tenement clothesline. Near the end of the mining period, in 1960, a series of miners’ photos are highlighted by one of a stolid, unblinking face of a miner in whose gaze is captured both the pride of his work and the hardship it inflicts on him.

Malévitch Kasimir (1878-1935). Paris, Centre Pompidou - Musée national d'art moderne - Centre de création industrielle. AM1980-1.

Malevich’s Cross

Painting in the 20th century moves toward an embracing of the symbolic economy, as representation gives way to abstraction. The Russian Suprematist Kasimir Malevich’s 1915 Cross is a huge oversize, weighty black cross, almost tipping over on its white background. This is not pure abstraction though. The bulk and oppressive weight of the cross, with Russia at war with Germany on nearly the eve of the Russian Revolution, suggests not only the Iron Cross, the German military badge of honour, but also the pulverizing weight of the Orthodox Church in maintaining the Czar’s power as he sends his subjects off to die. The painting predicts that both are about to collapse.    

DB60     

Reinhardt's Ultimate Painting    

Finally, there is Ad Reinhardt’s Ultimate Painting from 1960, a black rectangle where one can only dimly perceive even different shades of black. This void is perhaps meant to signify the end of painting, but what it may also signify, given its place at the beginning of the changeover in the West from an industrial to a service economy, is the dawn of a symbolic regime where finance and fictitious capital will outpace industrial and productive capital. That is, Western capital itself is at the beginning of a movement to a level of abstraction where the stock market, currency speculation and a nascent digital economy will dominate the productive and industrial economy. This moment thus also calls into being Abstract Expressionists such as Reinhardt who represent it on their canvases.

This transformation is also strikingly visible in the geographical setting in which the painting is displayed – the transformation of Lens from mining economy to museum economy.

Green Frontier and Wild District: The Bolivarian vs. The Bolsonarian Revolution
Sunday, 16 August 2020 08:30

Green Frontier and Wild District: The Bolivarian vs. The Bolsonarian Revolution

Dennis Broe reviews Green Frontier and Wild District, two shockingly different approaches to South American struggles for political liberation. The image above is from Green Frontier

Two series from Colombia, Green Frontier and Wild District, both Netflix originals and both made by the same production house, Dynamo, stake out the left and right of Colombian politics.

The iconography of the progressive series, Green Frontier, links it with a history of Latin American films dealing with the continent’s indigenous peoples, a part of the tradition of Magical Realism which charts the expression of indigenous cultures in a colonized landscape. The theme of the series is the destruction of the Amazon on the Colombian-Brazilian border, and a lost tribe trying to ward off the loggers who would destroy them and the forest, along with the deeper, more insidious and more persistent menace of Western colonialism.

Wild District on the other hand employs the iconography of the American action film in its more reactionary and caricaturing forms. It depicts guerilla forces as savages, and its characterization of the slums of Bogota is racist and classist – just another jungle, as primitive and untamable as the actual jungle inhabited by the rebel group FARC, rather than the habitat of one of the continent’s poorest and most deprived populations.

Progressive ecological and political awareness

Since both series are Netflix originals, it would seem the streaming service is interested in covering all bases. With the more independent, left-field Green Frontier, whose pilot is directed by the superb Ciro Guerra, it’s trying to attract a progressive audience who are committed to the ecology of preserving the rainforest and the country’s indigenous people. With the straightforward action series, which boasts a superb performance by Juan Pablo Raba, veteran of Narcos, the service seems to be playing to the populist and far right, in a show that openly rationalizes the work of the death squads, an auxiliary of the former Uribe government.

The pilot of Green Frontier owes much to Guerra’s visual acuity and his thematic concerns. His first global success, the film Embrace of the Serpent, was about the relationship between two aging members of their respective civilizations. One was a German social scientist in the jungle at the turn of the last century, in the vanguard of what would become a pillaging and patenting of its secrets for Big Pharma, and the other was his guide, an indigenous last member of a tribe wiped out by the European colonizers. The indigenous guide recalled this devastation in a series of scattered images that operated more from an intuitive and unconscious logic than the Western scientist’s rational mapping of this world. In Green Frontier a warrior, one of the last members of his tribe, communicates with a female member both in this world and in another, with the otherworldly images shown in a negative silvery tint.

Guerra’s second film, Birds of Passage, adopts codes from the gangster film to recount how an Amazon tribe succumbs to the profit-making inducements of the drug trade and how the ensuing greed for material objects utterly demolishes their centuries-old customs and ways of life. It’s The Godfather or Scorsese’s Casino in the jungle, as it maps the changes wrought by money. It is even closer to Gangs of Wasseypur, a stunning Indian film about the changes in an Indian province over 40 years by the introduction of a profit-making gangster economy.

DBB

The jungle under the heel of a Nazi demon in Green Frontier

Green Frontier also presents the jungle under attack from the loggers who are stripping its assets, from a mysterious white man who is a demon with a history that extends back to the Nazis, and from the local corrupt police whose leader “Uribe” orders the killing of the Bogota female agent who instinctively acts to protect the jungle.

The series opens with the slaughter of both an indigenous woman Ushe and a group of nuns and is in the present an investigation by the Bogota agent Helena and her partner Reynaldo, who has been outcast from his indigenous community, into the killings. A flashback narrative recounts the relationship of Ushe and Yua, the male protector of the jungle. The jungle itself is defined as both holder of the secret of life and as female.

The flashbacks are not so much backstory, as they would be in a more Euro-centered narrative, as they are a parallel world with the jungle itself acting to protect Yua and at times making him invisible. The series is elegantly filmed on the Colombian-Brazilian border and the loggers, whose boisterous chainsaw at one point interrupts a conversation between Ushe and Yua, are the visual and aural sign of the Bolsonaro-Trump assault on the environment, waged in the Brazilian case against the rainforest and in Trump’s case against public lands which he is now opening to drilling and mining.

The series ends with an epic battle between the Bogota agent Helena, now in touch with her roots in the earth and allied with the jungle, and the white demon Joseph, a remnant of the Nazis, the ultimate degradation of Western civilization. It’s a monumental struggle and one those who want to save the earth are engaged in each day.

Far-right nonsense

Wild District on the other hand is far-right nonsense that misses completely the changes that are going on in Colombia, a traditional bastion of Latin American conservatism and a U.S. ally which is in the process of attempting to get out from under the thumb of its history of violence and right-wing death squads. The recent arrest of the hit-squad aligned former president Alfaro Uribe for corruption is a sign of these changes.

The question in Colombia at the moment is the question of peace as the FARC, the revolutionary guerrillas, have been more than willing to lay down their arms and accept a peace deal in order to challenge the right wing at the polls as a political party. However, despite overwhelming popular support for the peace process, the current president Ivan Duque, a protégé of Uribe’s, opposes it and allows the guerrillas to be assassinated by still highly active right-wing killers as the former guerillas, having surrendered their weapons, are now defenseless.

DBC

“Untamed savagery” in a poor section of Bogota

None of this is even hinted at in Wild District which is not much more than a sounding board and rationale for far-right sentiment and continued slaughter in the country. The FARC are portrayed as bloodthirsty kidnappers of children, ignoring any rooted connection they have with the peasantry, and as simply sadistic killers and grudge-bearing executioners of those who would desert them, forgetting that the FARC as a unit has pushed for peaceful disarmament. There is no mention of the far-right death squads who hunt them.

The series is so far right it would have difficulty even finding a place on the Fox Network, though it might fit comfortably in an evening slot on the Fox News Network between discredited Fox commentators Bill O’Reilly and Megan Kelly. This series makes Jack Webb, the McCarthyite-era creator of Dragnet, look like Bernie Sanders. It lacks the subtlety of even a 24 or a Homeland where at least the ideological message is more complicated, and subtly obscured.

DBD

Juan Pablo Raba as an ex-guerilla fighter in Wild District

Its one positive feature is the lead character, Jhon Jeiver, a “light foot” FARC former assassin who creeps up on everyone but whose effort to insert himself into everyday life is touching and includes his attempt to reestablish a relationship with his son. In a well-drawn scene in the market where he has found work, Jhon tells a female customer seeking a solution for a burn to forget a pharmaceutical remedy, and instead shows her how to apply the healing plants aloe and calendula (marigold) that he learned in the jungle. His nemesis on the series is of course the snivelling, sadistic jungle revolutionary who wants to continue the fighting, the exact opposite of the contemporary Colombian reality.

The difference in the two series is strikingly apparent in the use of the names of the Colombian leaders. In the far-right Wild District, “Duque,” the current leader now accused in the press of corruption and who opposes the peace process, is the name of the tough on the outside but heart-of-gold female detective who is Jhon’s handler. In Green Frontier, “Uribe” is the corrupt head of the local police who orders the assassination of Helena, the eventual protector of the jungle and of the authentic Latin American heritage.

The ideological difference between the two series is shocking, although ultimately of course both series contribute to the profits of Netflix. However, there is still a stark contrast between two views of Latin America. Green Frontier is allied with the Bolivarian Revolution which attempts to redistribute wealth and raise the living standard of the continent’s poorest, often those with an indigenous or African background. Wild District aligns itself with the Bolsonarian Revolution which attempts to sell off both the natural and cultural heritage of the continent in its return of wealth back to the richest.

One revolution attempts, as does Helena, to preserve the continent. The other, which like Wild District characterizes all efforts at change as savage, instead attempts, as can be seen in the murderous spread of the coronavirus out from Brazil to its neighbours, to destroy the continent and keep it under the colonial heel.

A Strange Bird: Comcast and Universal's Peacock streaming service
Monday, 27 July 2020 09:59

A Strange Bird: Comcast and Universal's Peacock streaming service

Dennis Broe continues his review of series TV with a sceptical look at Comcast and Universal's Peacock, the latest streaming service from the world of capitalist media conglomerates

Do we need yet another television network/movie studio/cable station conglomerate turned into a streaming service whose main contribution is to put its back catalogue online?

This question is prompted by the conservative cable network Comcast’s launching of Peacock, its entry into a crowded field. The name summons up the NBC logo and is designed to invoke fond memories of that network, bought by Comcast to combine with the Universal film studio and challenge the likes of Netflix, Amazon, Disney+, AppleTV+ and HBO Max in what is becoming an increasingly crowded not to say polluted field.

Not very progressive......

These “hyperconglomerates,” media giants combining telecommunications, satellite systems, and digital delivery and transmissions, are often reactionary in nature. AT&T, the parent company of HBO Max, called “the most Republican of any publicly traded company” has long pushed for increased business deregulation and deeper tax cuts. Comcast, now spreading its tentacles across the world with its acquisition from Rupert Murdoch of the main European satellite service Sky, only recently withdrew from the thinktank ALEC, which promoted the murderous and racist stand-your-ground laws and is involved in a voter ID campaign to disqualify black voters.    

The Office: An American Workplace (NBC) season 1Spring 2005Shown: B.J. Novak (as Ryan Howard), John Krasinski (as Jim Halpert), Jenna Fischer (as Pam Beesley), Rainn Wilson (as Dwight Schrute), Steve Carell (as Michael Scott)

The Office: a brutally honest look at corporate capitalist office culture

The answer to the question of Peacock’s relevance, given what has been proposed to anchor the channel so far, is a resounding ‘No!’ The streaming service flagship series is Brave New World, based on the Aldous Huxley dystopian novel. Peacock is using the old cable model of trying to make a splashy debut with a high-powered series which will conceal the fact that most of the content, as is always true on cable channels, is not new but simply cable-ready reruns of old shows and movies. A major draw here is The Office, whose brutally honest look at corporate capitalist office culture has made it one of the most watched shows in the world. The show ran on NBC but at this moment is still lodged in Netflix and won’t premiere on the streaming service until January 2021.

There will supposedly be an Office reunion episode which is designed to make viewers remember the magic of this highly satirical and often hilarious series. However, if the 30 Rock reunion is any indication, what it will do instead is evoke anger as viewers of the 30 Rock “reunion” thought they were tuning into an hour-long episode of the series and instead got what was predominantly an extended infommercial for Peacock, with some bits from the series sprinkled around the promos.

Not very hard-hitting......

Instead of fond memories, the show might have made viewers question how hard-hitting or edgy 30 Rock, whose title celebrates NBC’s corporate headquarters, ever was to begin with. The series was always made up more of slight jibes rather than actual pokes at the industry. It didn’t bite the hand that fed it in the way that actual satires of the industry such as The Larry Sanders Show or Episodes, did. Instead it sprinkled magical fairy dust over a network that had been largely out of touch since The Office ended, perennially caught between the aging conservative heartland audience of CBS and the hipper, female, urban and sometimes progressive audience of ABC. For the better part of a decade it has not been able to make up its mind what it was, while frequently floating blandly between the two poles.

The stellar program on the network at the moment is Seth Meyer’s Late Night. His segment “A Closer Look” (available on YouTube) has become much harder-hitting during the lockdown, at it pounds away at Trump, Senate Republicans and police and paramilitary strongarm tactics in the streets. Increasingly grabbing the spotlight though, especially in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protest, has been one of its writers, Amber Ruffin, whose recounting as a black woman of her daily humiliating and intimidating experiences with the police was a series highlight.

DB 22 True Television Satire Seth Meyers and Amber Ruffin

True Television Satire: Seth Meyers and Amber Ruffin 

The funniest and baldest satirical moment on network TV this season was Seth and Amber’s faux “trailer” for White Savior, a send-up of trash like The Green Book where Meyer’s white guy constantly appears to take the credit and get the attention for the hard work Ruffin’s characters carry out. At the end it is Meyer’s liberal sitting on the bus who invites Ruffin’s Rosa Parks to “take a seat” next to him, hogging the limelight in her challenging of racial inequality. Amber Ruffin’s show on Peacock is being rushed into production, and given the lack of quality material on the service so far, it can’t come fast enough.

Not very accurate.....

Which brings us to Brave New World, (soon available on Sky in the UK) a soft-focus gauzy mess of a show that gets Huxley completely wrong. It turns his criticism of the way technology in the wrong hands is capable of promoting conformity into an Ayn Rand, Trump-like paean to narcissistic and suicidal individualism. There is indeed a way the novel could be effectively updated in the digital age to talk about how all experience is being flattened by monopolistic entities like Amazon, and by streaming services like Peacock. But that might be hitting too close to home!

DB 21 Trump era individuality

Trump era 'individuality'

Instead the series has the ultra-rich mainly worried that they can’t have multiple dates with the same lover as monogamy is outlawed, replaced by titillating soft-focus orgies. Outside this Valley of the Dolls shtick are the poor who live in the Savage Lands in a kind of Mad Max broken-down world. But here too their major concern is not that they have no food, shelter or employment but that they have “lost their individuality,” whatever that means. The satire and description of a devastated world with a rich urban centre and an utterly left-for-dead periphery, one where our world is heading, is much sharper and accurate in the dystopian movie series The Hunger Games. Compared to it, this version of Huxley doesn’t even have the heft and weight of Netflix’s version of Sabrina the Teenage Witch.   

Far more effective and affecting is Peacock’s other revival, the second film of the long-running USA series Psych, titled Lassie Come Home (available on Prime Video in the UK).  USA is owned by NBC, as the major network’s owned many of the prime cable channels, but did not own up to that fact, making it appear that cable was a land of plenty divorced from network television when in fact it was dominated by it.  

The heart of Psych, a series about a fake psychic detective, was always the repartee between the bumbling would-be Sherlock Holmes Shawn Spencer (James Roday who co-wrote the film) and his number two, his sidekick Gus (the African-American actor Dulé Hill). There is certainly an uncomfortable element to the unequalness of the bantering, with Shawn always coming up with his own names for Gus, barely addressed in the follow-up film as Gus now gets to choose which name Shawn comes up with for him that he can tolerate. But their playfulness and knowledge and revelling in the more obscure and degraded back alleys of pop culture can be infectious.

The second film follow-up to the series is built around affectionately honoring a member of the cast, Timothy Omundson, who played Lassiter, the hard-edged official police foil to Shawn and Gus’s lackadaisical – but ultimately always more effective – sleuths.

DB23 Timothy Omundson in Lassie Come Home

Timothy Omundson in Lassie Come Home 

Omundson had a stroke and was unable to be a part of the first film. This second film is written around him, with the stroke explained in the film as the result of a gun battle, resulting in his actual inability to speak in the former stern voice of the character, and with his physical paralysis incorporated into the film. The last sequence has him overcoming both in a way that is touching and heartfelt, a tribute to working with the disabled, who themselves are rightly beginning to demand a place on network television and at the centre of modern life.

....so really, not very necessary

The sincere and warm sentiment of the cast and writers for the actor and his condition comes through strongly in the series and makes it authentic, everything the promo hucksterism of the 30 Rock reunion and the misguided banality of Brave New World are not. There is a long way to go before Peacock spreads its wings and displays its colourful plumage, or for that matter even justifies its existence.       

They Stream Movies Don’t They? City of Tiny Lights and Hamilton
Monday, 13 July 2020 15:35

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.”   

Page 3 of 9