The Good, the Bad and the (possibly) Interesting: Previews of some Spring global TV series
Saturday, 18 May 2024 09:58

The Good, the Bad and the (possibly) Interesting: Previews of some Spring global TV series

Dennis Broe previews some upcoming TV series. Image above: Machine, now streaming on Arte 

What follows are a few global series worth watching in the coming months, along with a few not worth watching, and a few that have at least a curiosity quotient. These prereviews are of series at two French TV Fests: Series Mania, which bills itself as “where series begin” and is the largest festival of its kind; and from the International TV Festival titled Canneseries, on the site of the more famous Cannes Film Festival.

Each festival gives out final awards in different categories, and there were telling moments at each awards ceremony. At Series Mania, with the grand jury prize about to be bestowed, a young woman with a mild teargas canister took to the podium to garner support for the farmer’s protest, the “Cause Agricole,” that has shaken France, with farmers on their tractors barricading key cities including Paris because of the rising price of supplies. She was quickly led off the stage and not a word was said or written about her protest – in a way a fitting reminder that series TV usually fails to confront or else represses the crises going on around it.

At Cannes, the grand prize was awarded to The Zweiflers, a German series about the history of a Jewish family delicatessen which links the family’s contemporary survival to their enduring the Holocaust. One of the team members noted that the series was important because it was made for and appeared on German TV, allowing the creators to “confront their perpetrators.”

However, as the cast was leaving another member returned to the podium to make a positive reference to Israel. This seemed to be a deliberate attempt to counter the brave message from Jonathan Glazer, director of The Zone of Interest, at the recent Academy Awards, questioning the Zionist perversion of the principles of Judaism in Israel’s genocidal actions in Gaza. The twin pronouncements illustrate how the Jewish Holocaust is both a bitter reminder of European violence and of how it can justify ongoing contemporary holocausts.

The Good

Machine —This series, written by Thomas (A Prophet) Bidegain, available to be streamed for free on the Arte website https://www.arte.tv/fr/videos/RC-025010/machine/ crosses the always vibrant French social realist tradition with Kung Fu sequences. A young woman, escaped most likely from the French military, hiding out in a small town and counselled by a Marxist worker of colour, combats factory goons intent on breaking a strike in support of keeping the factory in France instead of the buyer’s intention of moving it to Poland to save money. The male-female camaraderie and the concealed power of the female combatant echoes the Gina Davis/Samuel L. Jackson film The Long Kiss Goodnight and makes for a compelling ride.

Dates IRL—This Norwegian series touchingly and with a good deal of humour confronts the problem of a generation raised in a virtual reality and not as the titled phrase suggests “In Real Life.” A 25-year-old, Ida, with an online relationship in the U.S. must enter the dating world when he “cheats” on her by having a physical relationship in his town. The dating world she enters though shows the strains of the online “reality” as she encounters one date whose sex life seems to have been torn from his own online porn activity and another who, possibly also for the same reason, climaxes “in eight seconds.” Very wise, satirical rendering of our current shattered reality, pointing up also that English is the digital language shared by the online couple, with its prominence indicating the global dominance of American tech.

DB1 

Disko 76: liberation on the dance floor 

Disko 76—This is the most exuberant and liberatory of all the new series. Fleeing a bland marriage and an overbearing father whose oppressive rigidity recalls the Nazi era, the young German woman Doro and her more reluctant brother discover the glamour and freedom of the dance floor through the intervention of Black American G.I.s, and then open their own disco in the small town of Bochum. The music hums and the dancing, especially of a dance team, the male member of which Doro falls for, is a sensational revival of how, like rap later, the Disco era liberated not only the dance floor but the zeitgeist around it.

Operation Sabre—A tight, taut Serbian series which recounts how a Prime Minister falls victim to gangsters. The series set before the NATO bombing is very pro-NATO intervention, but it does offer a brisk recounting of an investigation into the affair with the music, which quotes Mission Impossible, constantly throbbing in the background and keeping this tale—which recounts how a TV journalist and an ingenue mob member helped bring the scandal to light— humming. The kind of ’70s Alan (The Parallax View) Pakula-type political thriller that has almost disappeared in the West.

Dark Horse—A Danish series about how the sins and insecurities of a mother, who constantly packs up and flees, are visited on her daughter as she lands in a tiny Danish town and tries to accommodate herself to the school “hot” boy by cooking her mother’s ketamine, leading to disastrous results. A cautionary tale where the blame falls not on the daughter, but on the parent’s own anxiety and neglect.

Blackout—A Korean series about a teen drunkard whose last high school binge may have resulted in the death of two girls. He cannot remember what happened because he drank so much, but his traces are all over a bloody scene that might have been the murder location. He is sent to prison, released ten years later, and now must confront his past and figure out who may have actually committed the crime in a town that hates him. A well-worn trope (Savage River, Back to Life, Rectify) but one that always, as here, produces an invigorating series that challenges the justice system.

The Bad

 DB2 Hors competition Maxima

Maxima: 10 percent dates 1 percent  

Maxima—Billed as “The Crown but in the Netherlands,” this series about an Australian investment banker working in New York who slowly falls for a Dutch prince is not a rags-to riches but rather a rich-to-richer tale. It asks the poignant question, “Can a girl from the 10 percent ever really be happy with a boy from the 1 percent?” Opening teaser, supposedly the most dramatic moment of the series, has the banker screaming at her royal mate, “You’re telling me my father can’t come to the wedding?” It’s all downhill from there.

Fiasco—This Netflix French production is about a fledgling director whose adventures on the set go horribly wrong. As so often happens with French humour, it punches neither up – that is, at the power structure (Netflix) financing the film – nor (thankfully) down at the crew, but rather sideways at the foibles of the “well-meaning” director. The fiasco is not only in the onscreen production but also in the meagre attempt here at satire-less humor. TV biz satire is done much better, pointedly and with actual humor by The Larry Sanders Show and the underrated Episodes.

The Source—This French police series, titled Ourika in French, views the 2005 uprising in the banlieue or Parisian ghetto from the point of view of a rookie cop and his gangster brother, neatly eliding the protest of a people who are the constant victims of French state neglect. Disgusting elitist claptrap.

DB3 Hotel 

Hotel Cocaine: a series that disappears up your nose 

Hotel Cocaine—This mirthless series by Narcos creator Chris Brancato, centred around a Miami hotel at the height of both the disco and cocaine frenzy, unlike Disco ’76, misses the exuberance of the moment in the decision to save money by not buying the rights to disco hits, and by its ill-conceived idea that watching gangsters put stuff up their nose is sexy and engaging. It traces the conflict of two Cuban brothers, the manager of the hotel and a drug lord, in a well-worn trope which is executed grimly and unimaginatively. 

Soviet Jeans—Latvian series set in Riga in the 1970s whose hero, presented as a rebel, is a petty crook on the lookout for blue jeans and Walkmans, which to him signify freedom in a heavily regulated and surveilled society. The problem here is the commercial alternative to an oppressive state is the detritus of market capitalism.

After The Party—New Zealand show starring Brit Commonwealth stalwarts Peter Mullen and Robyn Malcolm in a series where Malcolm’s rude, offensive, and self-righteous schoolteacher is gaslighted by Mullen’s superficially endearing ex-husband. The problem with the series is that the Malcolm character is not just a difficult woman – we’ve seen that before and it often works – but rather a domineering and oppressive one who is right at every turn, even as she attempts to control her students. It’s like cheering on the bellicose Kissinger disciple Hilary Clinton over the corrupt racist Donald Trump, when in fact it’s very difficult to tell which one is more insidious. In this series, as in real life, the answer is both.

The (possibly) Interesting

 DB4 Camo

Ben Gazzara’s mob boss pontificating in Il Camorrista 

Il Camorrista/The Vatican—The first, directed by Cinema Paradiso’s Giuseppe Tornatore, stars Ben Gazzara as a Southern Italian mobster. The 1986 series, which was also shot as Tornatore’s first film, was never released because the mobster it was clearly based on threatened the director and producers both legally and physically. With he and his wife now deceased, the series is finally getting a release. High point of a series that features a flawless Gazzara is his appearance in episode 4 before the magistrate where he is charged with over 300 killings. He waves his hands and professes (the original English title of the film was The Professor) to have no idea why he is there since he only ever wanted to help people.

The Belgium documentary The Vatican, a kind of lukewarm treatment of the corruption and sexual crimes of that institution, has a remarkably similar scene of a cardinal, himself perhaps implicated in embezzling funds, claiming that likewise he also “only wants to help people.”

Herrhausen – The Banker and The BombAn almost documentary portrayal of the Deutsche Bank high official who created a sensation in the financial world by in 1987, at the height of the global and particularly Latin American debt crisis, proclaiming that banks should be in the business of forgiving debt to allow Third World countries to grow. Herrhausen then “pioneers” female integration into the banking hierarchy and embraces computers as part of the beginning dominance of financialization. He is monitored by the CIA for his stand on debt but also eventually the victim of, as the series has it, a combination of the East German Stasi and the Red Army who are sheltered and aided in the Arab cities of Baghdad and Damascus. Yeah to the expose of the “dangers” of Herrhausen’s wanting to cancel debt. Nay to the way the series represents his latter “improvements” as neutral and the paranoid way it brings together disparate elements which oppose him.

Apples Never Fall—New centre of conservative luxury, West Palm Beach, is the site of this family expose and mystery series starring an imposing Annette Benning as a supposedly happy wife gone missing. Apples is yet another adaptation of a Liane Moriarty novel, incisive in Pretty Little Lies, insipid in Perfect Strangers. The mystery element works well here but the supposed “exposing” of family secrets mostly amounts to sibling bickering about which parent loved who the best.

DB5 Malays 

Three Tears in Borneo: where have all the Malaysians gone? 

Three Tears In Borneo—A Taiwanese series set in Malaysia about three brothers who get commandeered into the Japanese army and must participate in atrocities performed on the Australian prisoners in World War II. An unusual setup but a strange perspective, that in points exonerates the jailers while never mentioning the Malays surrounding the prison, thus mimicking the Japanese imperialism of the time.   

House of Gods—The positive part of this series is that it offers a perspective on the customs of an Iraqi mosque in Australia. It has been described as “Succession in a mosque,” and that’s the negative part, the overlay of Western politics on a series that could have shown more of the inner workings and manners without the ultra-competitive,“electoral” overlay.

The Decline of Streaming Services and the Exploitation of AI for Profit
Saturday, 18 May 2024 09:58

The Decline of Streaming Services and the Exploitation of AI for Profit

Dennis Broe explains the decline in the quality as well as quantity of streamed series, and the exploitative use of Artifical Intelligence by the industry. Photo above: SORA’s “artificial” creation of a walk in Tokyo 

Last year’s retrenchment in the world of streaming TV is continuing with Netflix holding even on bankrolling series at $17 billion but with all the other streamers cutting back. The big money players are searching for, as one studio exec put it, the “right show shot in a cost effective location,” where “it is possible to make a whole series for the cost of an indie film.”

The industry way of portraying these cutbacks, seeing the glass half full, is there is now an emphasis on “quality over quantity,” but when one observes what is coming down the road it’s hard not to see these cutbacks as simply less quantity amid decreasing quality. The new emphasis on safe investments is being translated into increased concentration on what the industry terms IP, intellectual property, ie going with what has already been established in another medium (books, films, music) or in television itself.

S2 

Baywatch uber alles: beefcake meets cheesecake 

One look at the low end of production, that is the TV network pilot season, is a scary reminder of what this trend entails. CBS is chiming in with: Matlock, perhaps with an AI Andy Griffith; a Young Sheldon spinoff with the original, itself a spinoff of Big Bang Theory, having just ended; a Young Sheldon version of NCIS titled NCIS Origins with Mark Harmon’s narration (like Sheldon’s in Young Sheldon) of his on-screen younger self; and Watson, a Sherlock Holmes series without Sherlock and with the good doctor taking up the crimefighting duties.

Fox, in an even less daring move, is reviving the sexist Baywatch and NBC, besides Suits: L.A., a spinoff of the cable series, is dressing up its revivals as St. Denis Medical could easily be St. Elsewhere and Dr. Wolf’s gruff medical practitioner is supposed to remind viewers of House.

The high end of this lack of originality was on display in a Max (Warner Bros) presentation which trumpeted Season 2 of Game of Thrones, The Penguin from the DC Batman franchise and a series based on the Harry Potter books and films. All three of these fall into the blockbuster category, that is the streamers copying the Hollywood studio format that began in the ’70s while shelving original series, which were what brought Max subsidiary HBO to prominence in the first place, as recounted in Peter Biskind’s new book Pandora’s Box: How Guts, Guile and Greed upended TV.

As more and more series rely more and more on IP or already proven material, what was once a “Golden Age” of originality begins to skew close to the now partially abandoned Hollywood studio format of sequels and comic book adaptations, a format that is working less and less for the movie studios as audiences decline, because of the lack of creativity.

 S3 gone

Gone Producer, a synthetically created game show 

The other major trend, which has creators terrified and investors and studio executives “excited”, is the rapidly expanding use in every phase of the business of artificial intelligence, AI. Perhaps the scariest projection of the technology, described by one longtime independent film assistant director as “nothing but plagiarizing software,” is a new gameshow on Korean TV titled Gone Producer. In this nightmare gameshow scenario, the entire series is cast, directed, and produced by AI which also judges the videos that contestants submit in a competition.

According to the studio, “The fun factor is not only that the show is produced by AI, it is also the contestants getting confused and bewildered confronting the AI.” In other words, the show not only uses the service to replace jobs, it also makes a virtue of the fact that, as everyone knows, AI often “hallucinates,” that is returns incomprehensible information and opinions.

The contestants and the viewers are asked then, as the media critic Theodore Adorno put it, to participate in their own demise. Korea is well-known for its game show formats, having produced a “spin off” of the Emmy-winning fictional series Squid Game and Gone Producer has already been sold to Sweden and Norway.

Less Is More?

These observations about the business come from two recent French TV festivals, Lille’s Series Mania, one of the largest of its kind in the world, and Cannes’ MIPTV, with this year’s meeting of buyers and distributors ending the convention’s 61-year run. The latter had 130 companies represented but was still a shell of its former self, a sacrifice to the new austerity where, because of the entry fee and the Cannes boardwalk prices, buyers consolidated by going to a February conference in London or to the larger MIPTV conference in October.

Walking through what was once production house stalls and was now an empty space that looked like a parking garage, one former attendee mourned the passing of a place in which she said she had spent many years.

The streamers and television magnates in general are attempting to combat churn (subscribers signing in watching the few creative series on the streamer then signing out), the fact that working-class audiences have less to spend because of continuing inflation, and the streamers’ raising of their subscription rates.

The way they are choosing to combat this situation though betrays a lack of imagination, with the same assistant director suggesting that instead of AI replacing writers and actors, the technology might better be used to replace CEOs and studio executives.

At the Series Mania Forum, discussing the business of television, it was reported that “Peak TV” was over, because in the U.S. the number of series declined from almost 600 two years ago to 516 last year. In Europe not only are the number of series declining, but so are the number of episodes, by an average of one episode per series – and also the length of each episode, now cut by almost 10 minutes. One of the original promises of streaming TV was both would be determined by what was needed to tell the story and that priority is vanishing.

 S4 Isabelle

Isabelle Adjani on television 

There is also more monetization of back catalogues, using former material to create series and the sale of catalogue entries, so that subscribers who are looking for a show on their service may find that it has been sold to another service.

European series are trying to nab viewers by bringing to television now more faded film stars, a trick that was formerly used on American TV. In France Isabelle Adjani (The Story of Adele H.) is starring in a series about family secrets and in the Netherlands Famke Janssen (Golden Eye) heads a cast in a series on the Amsterdam marijuana scene.

Another way of monetizing content without the peril of trying something new and original is selling the format to a different market, as the BBC has done with Ghosts, a hit on CBS in the U.S., harking back to, or trivializing, Hawthorne and the New England horror tradition and now being developed in a German version which commercializes the Romantic tradition in that country.

Sony TV’s Wayne Garvie explained to the Series Mania forum audience that the answer to the end of peak TV, “the boom,” is not necessarily “a bust” but rather just fewer shows with more quality. He almost immediately contradicted himself by then citing the superhero series The Boys which he said with its spinoffs “will go on for years”. In the same vein he noted that the problem with single season series, which have often been some of the most creative and awarded (think Chernobyl) is that “you can’t build a business on mini-series.”

The result of this cost-cutting and budgetary as well as creative retrenching, described at the Forum as the industry “looking for more reassuring content,” plus a demand on Wall Street that streamers show a profit, is that streaming audiences are declining to the point where the S&P accounting firm recently downgraded Paramount’s debt to “junk.”

The race is now on to see who will buy the streamer or if it will simply go under, since any buyer is now saddled with the company’s debt. In Europe the French streamer Salto is now defunct while the Scandinavian Viaplay, which was expanding into the U.S. and Britain, has had to cease that effort and return to its local audience.

Here Come The Machines

A main topic of both events was AI which, as in other industries, is being touted as a money-saving, cost-cutting entity. The “buzz” at the industry-oriented MIPTV centered around what the technology could do for producers and studio profit margins. Pre-conference,  The Hollywood Reporter ran a full page on AI’s “Buried Perils” without mentioning the thrust of its creators toward job destruction – and nowhere was there a conversation about how the lost jobs will be replaced.

The Series Mania Forum debated the issue but began with an opening presentation from two shills for the practice, who showed articles from the business press, including Bloomberg News, “proving” that AI was a boon to job creation. In The Future of Work, the French theorist Bernard Stiegler, citing an Oxford study predicting an ultimate 50 percent loss of employees when the technology was fully developed, decried the development as “the negation of know-how itself,” inducing “a functional stupidity.”

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Shoshana Zuboff in Surveillance Capitalism described the technological solution which is dreamed of by producers and studio execs which offers the illusion of “omniscience, control, and certainty” but where “the idea is not to heal instability – the corrosion of social trust and its broken bonds of reciprocity, dangerous extremes of inequality, regimes of exclusion – but to exploit the vulnerabilities produced by these conditions.”

The Series Mania Forum day was titled benignly “AI: The Technology We’d Love to Like” with one panel called “Past the Sideration,” a French word that the panel defined as “fascination” but which equally – and in this case more accurately – means “disturbance.”

A YouTube representative, a company owned by Google which is a leader in the race to dominate the field, proclaimed AI would allow “unprecedented speed” and its use would be “bold and responsible.”

Curbing the power of the unions

Clearly the implementation of AI is one part of a studio attempt to curb, in the wake of last summer’s writers’ and actors’ strikes, the growing power of the unions. Kate Ballard from the U.S. Writers’ Guild acknowledged that AI is moving faster than any contractual or legal limits that can be imposed on it, and said that the Guild had done the best they could to ensure that AI be a tool for writers, not a way of getting rid of them and that they would revisit the situation again in two and a half years, when the current contract expires.

One of the claims for AI in job creation is that the machines need “prompters,” since it is crucial that what is fed into them be specific and limited, but the host of one of the panels revealed that she had just read an article stating that AI creators were now working on machines that could learn to prompt, thus eliminating the most fruitful arena for new jobs.

S5 cotton

The Cotton Club, the movie and not the AI fabrication, erroneously set in Chicago

At MIPTV, one developer, who claimed that AI could be used in every phase of film and television production, listed for example programs such as Storyfit, designed to predict whether a story will be commercially successful; Storyboarder, which produces storyboards for shooting; and SORA, which creates synthetic AI images and which produced an intriguing image of a smoky 1920s nightclub but which claimed that The Cotton Club, the title of the film, was in Chicago, not in New York’s Harlem.

A scarier development was that another CEO had trained AI to identify the predominant emotion of each scene (happy, sad, fearful, joyful) in a film or series and select clips aimed at enticing particular audiences. The ultimate goal, one CEO claimed, was “to be able to make a complete film from your bedroom.”

Craig Peters, from Getty Images, stated that the answer to controlling the device was not in legislation, such as the recent European Union Artificial Intelligence Act, but rather through “all of us putting our collective minds together.”

We are not in severance 1 

Perhaps the unions will also put their collective minds together?

This solution seems like a naïve way of warding off legislation in the U.S., but what Peters did explain was that with the drive to feed more and more data into the machines to train them, the IP of books, movies, films, songs would soon be exhausted. The current drive is to feed as much personal data into the machines as possible, that is, to turn each of our individual experiences into training vehicles and to “harvest” this “personal IP.”

It wasn’t long ago that the major catchphrase in the information industry was “big data” used for its predictive capabilities. Now that has been replaced by the quest for synthetic creation, which might someday eliminate the human element entirely and which would be the next level up in current cost-cutting.

Instead of, as the writer and showrunner Frank Lipsitz (X-Files, The Man in the High Castle) put it, making “us as writers, better, faster smarter”, studio heads envision using AI to ‘scale’ creativity, that is to simply produce more, faster.

The battle is on around AI in the film and television industry, like everywhere else. Will it simply become a cost-cutting tool fostering mass unemployment, or an enhancement to creators in the industry, enabling leaps in original and relevant content?

The imperialist problem of '3 Body Problem'
Saturday, 18 May 2024 09:58

The imperialist problem of '3 Body Problem'

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

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

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

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

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

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

Picture19 

Oxford, multicultural source of technological progress 

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

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

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

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

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Reviving the dynastic emperor 

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

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

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

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

Culture for All: Why Digital Culture Matters
Saturday, 18 May 2024 09:58

Culture for All: Why Digital Culture Matters

As part of the Culture for All series, supported by the Communication Workers Union, we're proud to present a short film about why digital culture matters, by Adam Stoneman

Why Digital Culture Matters

by Adam Stoneman

During the Covid-19 pandemic, with cultural venues closed, the internet was a portal to a world of creativity; there was an explosion of initiatives offering free access to culture online, an acceleration of what had already been developing. Museums and galleries published virtual exhibitions; plays and concerts were made available to stream; thousands of ebooks could be downloaded for free as part of a ‘National Emergency Library’.

The internet has opened up new possibilities for culture to flourish. Never before has it been so easy to share music, video, text with people across the world in an instant. The digitisation of collections and archives has opened a level of access to culture and knowledge that would have been unimaginable only a generation or two ago.

Digital technology allows us to examine paintings in breathtaking detail, interact with museum objects in 3D, collaborate with others creatively to build systems, solve problems and experiment with new forms of digital media.

The internet does not replace physical experience - whether its enjoying a play with friends, visiting a museum, going to the cinema, when we have a cultural experience with others we create a sense of community. But digital technology can complement and enhance how we experience culture.

The principle of free access to information goes back to the earliest formation of the internet in the counterculture of the 1970s. It is a fundamental principle at the heart of the Open Access movement, which fights for transparency and to extend the public domain online.

Universal, democratic access through broadband communism

But ‘free culture’ internet ideology can also disguise unequal social relations, especially when it comes to production: digital giants offer free apps, email and content as bait to hook us and then sell our information to advertisers; and then struggling independent artists are expected to provide their work for next to nothing.

It is not illegal file-sharing that has made cultural workers so precarious, but a system designed to reward the shareholders of Spotify while it pays musicians as little as $0.0032 for every time their song is played. The promise of the digital era - a level playing field of universal, democratic access - turns out to offer little compensation to artists and cultural producers.

The distribution of culture is not equal either while the internet is dominated by five big tech firms that mediate our journeys online through hidden algorithms. The commercial logic of streaming services like Spotify and Netflix - now worth more than Exxon - privilege certain forms of culture to the detriment of others. Streaming is predicated on high consumption ‘bingeing’ and repeated playbacks and works better for creating certain moods (‘Netflix and chill?’) than widening access to more complex or intellectually demanding culture.

All this while so many in the UK continue to be excluded through lack of access to digital technologies. A recent survey found almost one in ten households with children did not have adequate home access to the internet. One solution is free fibreoptic broadband for all, paid for by a tax on tech giants, and implemented through the renationalisation of parts of the telecoms industry. The BBC calls this ‘Broadband communism’.

Culture wants to be free

Despite the limitations, we must draw on the possibilities opened up by the communal production and distribution of open-source software and systems of repudiated ownership to widen access to and participation in culture.

Cultural workers organising as part of the labour movement can ensure the post-pandemic world is one in which artists earn a decent and secure living. The Union of Musicians and Allied Workers recently organised worldwide demonstrations against Spotify, demanding increased royalty payments and transparency. Workers at Amazon are also fighting an uphill battle to unionise and achieve better, safer working conditions.

Alongside this, we must defend and extend publicly funded arts and arts institutions; privatised models of arts funding, reliant on philanthropy and sponsorship have been decimated by the pandemic while public institutions have been more resilient. Post-pandemic we have the opportunity to go further, to strengthen and extend public funding to ensure everyone has the same opportunities to participate or even make a career in the arts.

At local, regional and national level, public funding can provide artists with patronage that breaks from a commercial logic, allowing more radical and challenging forms of culture to emerge. Jennie Lee, Labour’s Minister for the Arts under Harold McMillan, wrote in her famous White Paper: “There is no reason why gaiety and colour, informality and experimentation should be left to those whose primary concern is with quantity and profitability.” Digital culture must not be beholden to the laws of the algorithm - the Netflixification of culture needs to be resisted.

‘Information wants to be free’, an expression used by technology activists to refer to the human urge to share information and collaborate freely. The digital domain is far too important to be left to private corporations; we must tackle the underlying forces that shape technologies and build a society in which culture and knowledge are shared for the common good. Culture too, wants to be free.

Culture for All: Why Television Matters
Saturday, 18 May 2024 09:58

Culture for All: Why Television Matters

As part of the Culture for All series, Dennis Broe introduces another short film made with the support of the Communication Workers Union, on Why Television Matters.

 

Why Television Matters

by Dennis Broe

Hi I’m Dennis Broe, I write about film and television. I’m now writing a book about television watching in what for some is a lockdown and for others in a dangerous time where because of the virus just going to work can be risky, especially the kind of work, like that done by postal workers and engineers, that requires facing the public.

Previously I wrote a book on something you’re probably all familiar with, binge watching TV series. Where you watch the whole series in a weekend or a day.
Of course, part of this is pure addiction and you feel terrible afterwards, feel like the show just manipulated you into watching episode after episode, and that’s partly what it’s trying to do.

The satisfaction then may not be intrinsic to the show, that is a part of it, but rather the satisfaction is to have accomplished the feat of getting to the end of the show. Netflix was the first to design shows in this way, where they could be consumed all at once with shows such as House of Cards and the current addictive series The Crown and The Queen’s Gambit.

But there is another kind of satisfaction that for me comes from watching Serial TV Series, which is what I call this form, that have an actual point to them and teach some truths about the society we live in. I don’t know about you but when I have discovered one of these series, which are actually few and far between, instead of feeling empty afterwards I feel that my time was well spent, that I learned something or had my view of the world challenged in a way that allowed it to expand.

Most of these series deal either directly or symbolically with everyday struggles. A series from last year that was surprising in how it dealt directly with the struggle of black people in the U.S. with a criminal justice system that is always waiting to entrap them was For Life, produced by the rapper 50 Cent and based on a true story, available on YouTube and Hulu. The first season has the man imprisoned unjustly, framed by a District Attorney who used the defendant’s trial to climb the ladder to success. Rather than simply wallow in prison, the man becomes a lawyer and then takes on the attorney in court and in the media. The show then uses one of the oldest genres, or types of shows, the courtroom drama but updates it with the struggle for justice of a black prisoner who every week demonstrates his brilliance in court in front of judges, having each time to change out of his bright orange prison outfit into a business suit to plead his case and that of his fellow inmates. In the second season the show has become even more topical, taking on in one episode, prisoners dying of Covid and in another bringing a brutally violent cop to justice.

Snowpiercer

Another series, available on Netflix, is Snowpiercer. This series is set in the near future, which gives it some latitude in creating a metaphor for today’s situation. The characters are trapped aboard a train keeps travelling an earth frozen and uninhabitable because world leaders decided, a la Trump, that the way to prevent global warming was to fire nuclear weapons into the earth’s atmosphere.

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The train itself has three cars, the one in the front is peopled by the rich, in lavish clothes and served meals grown in the other sections. The middle section is workers also dedicated to serving the rich but perform jobs necessary to the train’s functioning. The back section is inhabited by “the tailies,” those left to die when the train took off who stormed the train to carve out their own place in it.

The first season charts the rebellion of the tailies who subsequently take over the train and make it a more equal place for all, while the second season is about the return of the owner of the train, Mr. Wilford, who wants to reinstate the old order and put everyone back in their place. This is a big budget action series but with a point to it, deliberately making a comment on the organization of today’s world and on today’s workers. We are watching more wealth, power and more of the world, here the train’s, bounty going to satisfy their lifestyle, with those in the middle cars, who in today’s world are still needed workers like engineers and the technical and communications workforce, shrinking and with those in the last car, who must degrade themselves merely to survive, expanding.

The producer of the series is the South Korean director Bong Joon-ho who directed the 2019 Oscar winning film Parasite, which you might have seen. It tells a similar tale, about contemporary Korea divided between a poor family living in a basement where they have to “steal” internet service and which often floods and a rich family who they go to work for and who live in a mansion surrounded by acres and acres of green lawn and a gate to keep others out.

What I wanted to show is that series can be both addictive and instructive and that it is important if we want to see more of an emphasis on the latter to watch and talk about those series which can be useful in shaping contemporary struggles.

After Life
Saturday, 18 May 2024 09:58

After Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

Edgy or unkind?

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

Tmck2

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

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

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

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

Character or caricature?

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

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

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

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

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

Let's think about bread: the internet moves from community forum to shopping mall
Saturday, 18 May 2024 09:58

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

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

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

DB netflix graph

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

DB not broken

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

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

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

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

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

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

DB 6 bread riots

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

DB 5 marie antionette

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

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