Dennis Broe

Dennis Broe

Dennis Broe taught at the Sorbonne. His books include: Maverick or How The West Was Lost; Film Noir, American Workers and Postwar Hollywood and Class Crime and International Film Noir: Globalizing America’s Dark Art. He is a film and television critic for “Arts Express” on the Pacifica Network in the US, for Art District Radio and Television in Paris and for the British websites Culture Matters and Crime Fiction Lover. His latest book is Birth of the Binge: Serial TV and The End of Leisure.

Class and Culture in Los Angeles: Fear and Loathing in the City of the Angels
Monday, 19 August 2019 15:44

Class and Culture in Los Angeles: Fear and Loathing in the City of the Angels

Published in Architecture

Dennis Broe excavates the contradictions of class and culture in the architecture, art and culture of Los Angeles

Race is the way class is spoken in America, as Cornell West wisely pointed out, and that is especially true in the sprawling multi-cities that comprise Los Angeles. Money is the other way that class is constituted, regulated, and enforced. Both race and money are used to segregate this city of multiple contradictions and rigid, though often invisible, boundaries and barriers dividing one class from another.

Language, living quarters, and mode of transport are some of the ways class structure is imposed and this is visible in the architecture and layout of a city that was developed with no real centre, but rather an endless sprawl that grew up wherever the next profitable real estate market appeared.

As Mike Davis points out in what is still the best book on LA, City of Quartz, LA was the only major American city that lacked an industrial base – that is, a city mired in illusion and an illusory consumer and entertainment economy. Downtown LA did finally by the 1940s establish an industrial base including becoming a textile centre, but then Ronald Reagan stripped that base and promoted its migration to Asia in the neoliberal era of the 1970s, before becoming president and applying this principle to the country as a whole.

The mural district in Downtown LA

The mural district in Downtown LA

Entire areas are continually remade as Downtown – whose motto is now “Live, eat, play in DTLA” – once the financial heart of the West, became a ghost town by the end of the 1950s and was then in the 1960s and 1970s inhabited by the Hispanic and particularly Mexican populations as Anglos fled to the suburbs. This section is being reclaimed, gentrified, as the sons and daughters of those who fled move back to this left-for-dead area, now become an arts centre, and begin ousting its Hispanic inhabitants as property values rise. This recolonization is marked by the transformation of what were once peasant markets into trendy, shi-shi eateries serving the latest craze “avocado toast” with names that transform ordinary breakfast into a rarefied and eroticised meal such as the currently wildly popular franchise “Egg Slut.”

There are whole sections of the city, particularly in the Mid-City and South Central areas where Spanish is the dominant language. Those areas are among the city’s poorest, with many of their homeowners struggling to survive by supplementing their day jobs by at night ferrying the city’s upper middle-class elite, as Uber drivers. The poor ride buses, once referred to by the Anglo population as “shame trains,” but which today are being talked about as a source of public transportation which may allow the city to cut down on its pollution.

The boundaries between neighborhoods, enforced by real estate prices, are so rigid that a most common question is “Where do you live?” since the answer will determine one’s socio-economic status. If there is an incongruity in the answer, i.e. the person seems to be for example a bohemian living in a rich district, the second question to determine status is “What do you drive?”

This is also a city of class-based contradictions, with its class structure embedded in its cultural life and marked by division in its approach to monuments, museums, sports centres and even its symphony orchestra.

The Mission Mural

The Mission mural

This is starkly evident in two murals in the Olvera Street section of the city, itself a kind of tourist and cleansed celebration of the Mexican population complete with a clothing and trinket market and “authentic” restaurants. At the top and heart of the street is a mural depicting the “Mission” view of Hispanic culture with the Padre blessing the animals, a feast traditionally celebrated on the street, while the brightly garbed Mexican peasants, in a colour depiction that resembles a Disney animation, kneel in humble adoration of the benevolent Spanish preacher.

America Tropical

America Tropical mural

This view of California as spiritually sustaining its Hispanic population is undercut however by a nearby mural titled America Tropical, painted in 1932 by the famous Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros. The mural deploys a triptych construction within the same frame to show at the centre – in traditional religious iconography the place for Mary, God the Father or Jesus – a Mexican worker crucified, with the American eagle perched above him, haughty and oblivious to his suffering. To the right are two armed Mexican peasants readying themselves to fire on the conqueror. To the left is a mass of tangled industrial pipes that resemble tree trunks and that represent the transformation of a natural space into a for-profit, capitalized space.

After its well-publicized opening this mural was quickly painted over, that is “whited out” – particularly the section with the armed Mexican peasants – and Siqueiros was deported. It is an accurate depiction of the Mexican struggle in the US, and was somewhat restored by the Getty Foundation, but can now only be seen from the roof of a museum dedicated to its origin with the colours now washed out unlike the perpetually bright colors of the far more visible “Mission” mural, with its docile peasants.

Getty Villa

Getty Villa

A striking aspect of museum life in LA is that of the four major museums – the Getty, Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), UCLA’s Hammer and The Broad – three are privately owned, with the Getty collection far outweighing the public LACMA offerings. Both feature a kind of Noah’s Ark approach to art history, that is, one of each kind of major painters and movements, but the Getty is a more supercharged turbo-Mercedes ark, featuring three to four of each kind compared to LACMA’s public, more impoverished Toyota, with barely one of each. Plans to construct a museum quarter around LACMA have been criticized because due to the dominance of car culture, there is no safe place to cross the street for access to the multiple museums.

Museum culture also raises the idea, central to the city, of illusion. The Getty Villa this summer is displaying articles from the city of Herculaneum on loan, because the Villa is a reconstruction of the city near Pompeii which was levelled by the Vesuvius volcano in 79 AD. The striking aspect of this recreation is that the oil magnate Getty, once the richest man in the world, had the money to rebuild the Roman city so that his vision of the city is now more “lifelike” than what one sees in visiting the actual ruins outside of Naples.

Equally, Downtown LA is filled with abandoned, once palatial, movie theatres that are now only rented out for occasions such as Oscar parties, while one former restaurant functions only as a rentable site for which Hollywood period restaurant scenes are staged. This all pales into insignificance behind The Grove, in West LA near Beverly Hills, which is an artificial neighbourhood that boasts high-end products, anchored by The Apple Store. Its false recreation of neighbourhood complete with trolley recollects in tranquillity quaint non-virtual ways of being such as pedestrian blocks, a former sign of working-class solidarity, and their artifacts: “newsstands,” “movie theatres” and, that most vanishing breed destroyed by Amazon, “book stores.”

Most touching in terms of monuments is a simple obelisk at the corner of Lincoln and Venice, marking the site where Japanese-Americans were herded into transports taking them to concentration camps at the onset of World War II. The purpose of the plaque is to preserve the memory of this painful incident so that it will not happen again, even as a former camp at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, is now being used as a detention centre – i.e. concentration camp – for immigrant infants separated from their parents. The contemporary television series The Terror, now in its second season, centres around the deportation.

Dodger Stadium

Dodgers Stadium

More prominent than museum culture in LA is sports stadium culture, with the baseball team, the LA Dodgers, having one of their finest seasons. A number of games have virtual expressions, like a YouTube broadcast of a mid-day game against the St. Louis Cardinals, which the Dodgers won thrillingly in the last out. Here too the spectacle, itself a palliative in a city awaiting, as is the rest of the US, a looming recession, is always mixed with commercial gain. When the organist played the traditional baseball theme “Take me out to the Ball Game,” the neon video streamers displayed all of the various Coke products so that Coke supplanted the song’s more ancient “Buy me some peanuts and crackerjacks.”

Stadium building with its subsequent displacement of often poorer populations in the surrounding area is accelerating, especially in Inglewood, soon to be the site of the football Rams stadium, housing 70,000, and the basketball Clippers arena. There is a section of Inglewood known as the “Black Beverly Hills,” home in former times to musical luminaries Ray Charles and Tina Turner, which now may be on the stadium chopping block, as LA also gears up for the 2028 Olympics.

The creation of the Dodgers stadium was the initial massive stadium land grab in the heart of the Chavez Ravine Latino community. In the 1950s it was constantly expanding and needed additional housing, which was proposed by the mayor but was red-baited at the time and declared an un-American socialist solution. This failure to develop the land allowed the Dodgers and the city to claim it. Inside the stadium are photos of the bulldozed and levelled land, portrayed as barren and remade as the site of a majestic ball park. In the combination of Dodger stadium and the remaking of downtown LA’s Bunker Hill into a corporate site, now overlooking or “looking down” on the city, over 12,000 residents lost their homes.

Dudamel and YOLA

YOLA with Gustavo Dudamel

To end though on a note of resilience, this summer also saw the continuation of the Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles (YOLA), headed by LA symphony orchestra conductor Gustavo Dudamel, celebrating his 10th year as head of the orchestra. The tradition, in line with U.S. tradition like the Leonard Bernstein Young People’s Concerts, but inflected with Dudamel’s experience with his Bolivarian Young People’s Orchestra in Venezuela, reaches out to poor and minority communities across the country to fashion a high-school orchestra of the highest calibre, which then holds a final concert, partly conducted by Dudamel.

The passionate conductor began the night with his simple, “I am from a country called Venezuela,” a statement which with him surrounded by this diverse young orchestra brimming with talent, zest and confidence was a powerful and understated political statement, his way of contradicting current US propaganda waged in its quest to short-circuit oil competitor Venezuela and steal its assets.

The concert included an Asian and African-American conductor (Soo Han and Roderick Cox) preceding Dudamel, an orchestral number conducted by Dudamel which featured Venezuelan folk musicians backed by the orchestra, and a repertory boasting the contributions of early African-American symphonic pioneers William Grant and Florence Price. The concluding number, Brahms’s “Hungarian Dance No. 5,” illustrated the way the classical canon is partially made up of contributions from minority groups with the melodies in the piece largely drawn from Roma or Gypsy music.

It was here, in this touching melding of so many culturally disparate spirits, that a truer vision of an evolving Los Angeles, took shape and form. It is an alternative vision that counters the city's history of land and cultural appropriation, and suggests a more inclusive society and a breaking down of its still rigid class barriers.

 

Godzilla vs. Bambi? American monopoly capitalism vs. European public service broadcasting
Monday, 15 July 2019 13:36

Godzilla vs. Bambi? American monopoly capitalism vs. European public service broadcasting

Dennis Broe reports from the recent Fontainebleau conference on series TV, and the growing conflict between American-owned media companies and European public service broadcasters

The Americans are coming! The Americans are coming! This is the cry of alarm of European broadcasters, the majority of whom are part of publicly owned TV, who are trying to figure out how they can compete with the capitalist media giants, Netflix and Amazon. Then, at the end of the year – just in time for faster streaming on more devices on an enhanced 5G network – they will be facing Disney+, which also owns the majority stake in Hulu, ATT/Time Warner, NBC Universal, Apple and Facebook. If this Big 8 is starting to sound like the old Hollywood studio system, with its Big 5 and Little 3 studios, that’s because the attempt to monopolize the market is very similar.

Chambers

Netflix, which now has indeed gone global, with over half of its profits and subscribers coming from outside the US, is also behaving more like a traditional television network, having just cancelled three of its series prematurely, with two of the series it pulled the plug on having actual social content. Chambers, cancelled after one short season, where the complaint was that it was unfocused, instead was sharply focused on class tensions in the Sedona area of Arizona where upper middle-class me generation Sufism was exposed in the series as simply another mode of privileged behavior because viewed from the perspective of its half African/half Native American heroine, who was being tortured by class privilege masquerading as spirituality.

One Day At A Time

One Day at a Time, in the 1970s a Norman Lear show about a single white mother raising a family, and here reimagined as a charming sitcom about a Hispanic mom anchoring three generations in her apartment, was cancelled after three seasons with Netflix then refusing to let CBS all-access pick up the show because it would then be a streaming service competitor. These recent Netflix cancellations proved that just as with the networks of old, progressive social content, far from being given a break or encouraged, needs to quickly justify itself in the ratings – or algorithms, the new version of ratings – or it will be extinguished.

The dominant force in television in Europe, and at the Série Series conference in Fontainebleau, was publicly owned stations, which are under attack from this coming onslaught in a number of ways. First, as has often been detailed here, with Netflix attempting to whittle down their ratings, and in the case of Canal Plus, the French pay per view network equivalent to HBO in the US, encroach on their subscribers. Indeed, Netflix now has more subscribers in France than Canal Plus. This is important because 12.5 percent of the Canal Plus revenue is mandated to fund French film and television as well as global production and this money is behind some of the most progressive content in the world, along with Britain’s Channel 4, which is also under attack. Fewer subscribers means less revenue and thus less support for the French industry.

Just prior to the conference, the British writer of Wolf Hall, Peter Kosminsky, called for a tax on the streaming services to make up for the lost revenue. France and Germany have a nominal, 2.5 to 3 percent tax, but the solution is to tax these services at the 12.5 percent rate. Netflix’ argument is instead that they are financing European production with their own creations, pointing for example to their new centre in Madrid as proof of their serious intent. Sounds benevolent, but it’s not. They are now required by law to have 30 percent of their productions in Europe and the kind of material they promote tend to be either Europudding, one-size-fits-all series or dumbed down blockbusters – can you say Marseille?— that are generally detested in their local region.

What is happening with the streaming services is happening of course with the digital economy in general with the FAANGS – Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix and Google – now monopolizing a larger portion of online life and behavior, to be used as data to sell to advertisers and attract subscribers. France is now proposing to tax the FAANGS, and Trump is threatening to retaliate, since under what might be called the Trump Doctrine any attempt by any other country to curtail US dominance is a threat to national security.

The Americans, Netflix and HBO with Game of Thrones most especially, are also driving up the cost of production, attempting to short-circuit the local public competition which cannot keep up financially, since the streaming services are drawing on global revenue, which outmatches any single country. Whereas an average series episode cost $1.57 million three years ago, an episode, in the wake of Game of Thrones and Westworld, is now $2 and a half million, with production costs more than doubling over the past decade.

Both Canada and Australia are now complaining that while Netflix originally was a godsend, and simply a participant in the television ecological landscape, American-led streaming service production is now taking over. Production volume in Canada for example has increased nearly 50 percent in the last five years, from almost $6bn to almost $9bn. However, only 47 percent of that production is local, as opposed to 65 percent 5 years ago. In Australia, meanwhile, only 2 percent of the content on Netflix is Australian, so the country with its plentiful natural landscapes and cheaper labour is being used as a backlot for the streaming service.

Our Planet

Netflix also, like the Hollywood studios of old, is stealing talent that might have stayed on public television. David Attenborough, whose nature series were a BBC pivot, has now moved to the streaming service where his Our Planet is a huge hit.

At the conference we saw two coping mechanisms, neither of which seem like they will be successful. French television previewed a series of Une Belle Histoire, a dramedy with a supercharged opening which adds a new wrinkle to removing key characters early in the series in an eerie mountain-climbing scene, but which then seems to settle into being warmed-up This is Us, which is really just middle-class self-congratulatory fluff.

A far more effective way of challenging the steaming services is now playing on French TV and that is a series titled Jeux d’influence, Game of Influence, by far the best series of this year and which hopefully will be available in the American and British markets soon. The series is a thinly veiled swipe at Monsanto and its allegedly cancer-causing best-selling pesticide, as a legislator with a conscience reacts to the poisoning of his farmer friend by attempting to ban the substance. The series details the way murder and all kinds of nefarious deeds, including drugging and branding as insane a teenager who pursues the murder of her whistleblower father, are part of the effort, which includes the legal pressures of lobbying, to falsify the truth to keep the product on the market. The series couldn’t be more topical, as Monsanto is pulling out all the stops to keep the European Union from banning its number one seller glyphosphate, including suppressing reports the company itself commissioned and as President Macron attempts to stonewall legislation so the product can stay on the market for another three years.

A worse coping strategy was unveiled by the other leading public broadcaster in Europe, Danish TV, called the DR. The station was home to such series as The Killing, The Bridge and Borgen, all of whom have been adapted in other countries but a right-wing attack on the station’s funding – because it is also fiercely independent and critical of the government – caused the writers to leave to set up their own company. Now with a lack of funds and talent, programmer Christian Rank has chosen to tell what he calls local “human” stories. However, this language conceals a conservative, sensationalist turn by the station, with one series (Deliver Us) actually a veiled attack on immigrants as a small town conspires to kill a rabble-rouser, and another (When the Dust Settles) a fear-mongering series about a terrorist attack.

Floodlands

Nevertheless, three series at the festival were worth cheering and will be coming your way soon. Floodlands is a Belgium-Netherlands co-production, with a lead Afro-Dutch cop whose subject is cooperation and tensions in the border region between the two countries, as the detective investigates the brutalization of a young African girl. The shared border culture detailed by the series reminds us that the residents on both sides of the US Mexican Border similarly cooperate, and oppose Trump’s wall.

Equally stunning was an extremely kinetic action sequence unveiled at the festival, in the upcoming Gangs of London, for HBO/Sky Atlantic. The series illustrates the way the City of London survived the 2008 financial crisis by greatly increasing its global lead in money laundering, here for a London gang. The series is directed by Gareth Evans, who crafted The Raid 1 and 2 from Indonesia. He brings the same beyond frantic pace to this series, in a story about a black Londoner’s rise in the gang.

DB Back to Life

Finally, there is the magnificent Back to Life, on BBC Three and hopefully soon on BBC America. Daisy Haggard, who created and stars in the series, is an alumnus of Episodes, a brutal and vicious satire of the American television business. Like Stephen Mangan, also from Episodes who then went on to create the very funny Hang Ups, her sense of humour is slyly underplayed, here as a woman who returns from prison to the town where the crime she is accused of was committed, and where she must face the town’s resentment.

Much funnier – because more socially grounded – than the merely frivolous The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and in terms of examining small town prejudice endowed with the dramatic weight of Rectify, this stunning series, with a sad and hilarious opening job interview that recalls the iconic opening of Girls points the way, along with Game of Influence, to how European Public Broadcasting can combat the increasingly more insipid fare of the streaming services.

           

Rembrandt the outsider
Wednesday, 26 June 2019 16:59

Rembrandt the outsider

Published in Visual Arts

Dennis Broe reviews the recent Rembrandt exhibition at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Rembrandt the outsider? At first glance nothing could be further from the truth. Rembrandt is being feted throughout the Netherlands this year, the 350th anniversary of his death in 1669, with over 23 exhibitions celebrating not only his painting but also the ascendancy of Dutch naval and trading power in his century, the 17th, with Amsterdam becoming the world’s largest port and Holland the empire that succeeded the Spanish and Portuguese. Rembrandt became the most prominent, one of the best paid, and most successful portrait painters of the Dutch merchant class that powered this empire, so in what sense could he be thought of as an outsider?

Here is the argument: His drawings in particular show him in active sympathy with the downtrodden and poor in a society that considered poverty a disgrace; his affinity with the Italian painter who was exiled from Rome, Caravaggio: his fall into disgrace and ruin for the last 20 years of his life where as a painter he was ignored which cast him into obscurity, not totally dissimilar to the way the contribution of the fertile lands and exploitation of the Indonesian peasants obscured the source of Dutch wealth; and, finally, his possible exposure of the violence of a Dutch militia which may lay at the heart of his and the Golden Age’s most famous work, The Night Watch. This violence at home echoes the violence in the colonies and reminds us, as Edward Said so elegantly pointed out in Culture and Imperialism, that the two cannot be separated.

The celebration includes the Rijksmuseum’s ‘Alle Rembrandts,’ ‘All the Rembrandts’ which saw the museum for the first time empty its treasure trove of 20 paintings, 60 drawings and 300 prints as well as a major exhibition, ‘Young Rembrandt,’ to open in Leiden, 35 minutes from Amsterdam, in November. Leiden is where Rembrandt was born, was trained – you can also visit the studio of his teacher – and spent off and on the first 26 years of his life. The show features 40 paintings, 120 etchings and 20 drawings. Again at the Rijks, there is both ‘Rembrandt-Velazquez’ in October, featuring the master’s relationship with other painters and over the summer, a ‘live’ restoration of The Night Watch.

The Dutch Golden Age, which lasted for much of the 17th century, was fueled at home by windmills and peat, that is cheap energy, and abroad by its powerful ships which dominated world trade, so that the Dutch controlled a high percentage of all trade in Europe. They were pillars of and pioneered the techniques of much of contemporary corporate and financial capital. Their primary trading business, the Dutch East India Company, the world’s first multinational and first to be financed by the stock market, was also supported by the Bank of Amsterdam, the first central bank. The Dutch operated monopolies in European trade on nutmeg, cloves cinnamon and cornered the market in coffee, tea, cacao, tobacco, rubber sugar and opium. Much of the first part of the century was spent gaining their independence from Spain, finally conceded in 1648. Before that, a 12-year truce, where they were at peace in Europe, allowed them to train their weapons on Indonesia, the source of many of these goods, which the Dutch declared officially as their property in 1619.

Max Havelaar

The Dutch had guns, the Indonesians spears, and so Indonesia, and most particularly Java, or as the Dutch called it, the East Indies, fell, and a landowning people whose earth was rich in fertile volcanic soil began to lose their land and were forced either to cultivate crops that profited Dutch trading or were forced to leave the soil to work on Dutch plantations. This subjugation, which is the underside of the Dutch Golden Age, is partially recounted in the great Dutch novel of the 19th century Max Havelaar, sometimes referred to as ‘the book that killed colonialism.’ Its author, who called himself Multatuli, Latin for “I Have Suffered Much,” was a disgruntled colonial administrator who had what D.H. Lawrence termed ‘a passionate, honorable hate’ for the colonial system and a penchant for social satire that Lawrence equated to Jonathan Swift and Mark Twain.

A new edition of the book has just been published and in Amsterdam there is a Multatuli house which tells his story. A pastor in this multi-voiced novel, whose apt name is Blatherer, speaking to the Dutch merchant class from the pulpit, explains and rationalizes the colonial system in the following homily: ‘The longer the Dutch have to do with the Javanese the more wealth there will be here and the more poverty there will be there. It is God’s will that it should be so!’

Rembrandt Peasant Scene

Multatati, like Rembrandt, ended impoverished but in his final years pleading the cause of the Dutch working class, which was just starting to organize. Rembrandt in his time, especially in the drawings and etchings of his early years on display at the Rijks, demonstrated a great sympathy and reverence for the poor in Dutch society, often displaced peasants, as well as a Bosch-like attention to the raucousness and physicality of this class and a sharp at times almost Hogarth-like ability to display the actual vulgarity of those in power. There is the gorgeous cross-hatchings which illuminate a drawing of a bearded old man with a high forehead, all his dignity intact. There are as well leprosy sufferers, a beggar woman with a gourd, a ratcatcher doused in rats plying his trade to a shirking homeowner, and side-by-side etchings of a peasant man and woman ‘making water,’ seen simply as a natural act.

der something

A painting from 1639 is a Chardin-like genre scene of a boy watching two pheasants, one hanging from a hook, the other sprawled on a ledge. The viewer’s sympathy though is not with the plump boy, but with the slaughtered pheasants. A rape scene of a monk with his female prey in a cornfield from 1646, a little after The Night Watch, and reveals the exploitation of the clergy. Finally, at the point where Rembrandt is being forced out of his home by his creditors, there is a pen and brown ink drawing of the biblical Susanna being accosted by two elegantly attired elders who, having surprised her at bathing, point to her nakedness and in a majestic economy of line implore her to surrender herself to them.

susanna

Rembrandt also has historical and aesthetic affinities with another outsider artist, Caravaggio, whose dark palette and mastery of light and shadow – with the emphasis on shadow in his violent and bloody biblical scenes – influenced the Dutch artist. Rembrandt, who purportedly never left Holland, was likely exposed to the style, which would become crucial for his own mastery of light and shadow, by a group of Dutch artists, called Caravaggisti, who brought the dark style back to Holland. Caravaggio was exiled from his home in Rome as Rembrandt was forced to leave his. The Italian artist also had an affinity for street people, having been exiled for public brawling, and also died with little recognition, not to be rediscovered until the 20th century by Roberto Longhi, Pasolini’s teacher, as Rembrandt was himself only reclaimed as a major artist in the 19th century because of the attention of the Impressionists.

In his late 40s, Rembrandt was forced to sell his house and the many art objects and antiques he had acquired, supposedly due to poor financial investments and lack of commissions. It was the turning point of a descent into poverty. He died in 1669, was buried in an unmarked grave, and as was the custom for paupers his ashes were dug up and discarded 20 years later.

One reason his sales no longer flourished was that in the 1650s and 1660s, in the high era of the Dutch empire, a new style, ‘courtly, elegant, and smooth,’ that is more imperial, was coming into fashion and erasing the taste for his animated brushwork and anything-but-restrained use of colour.

Greenaways JAccuse

There was perhaps another reason and that is examined in Peter Greenaway’s film Rembrandt J’Accuse which, through what it terms a forensic examination of The Night Watch, makes the argument that the painting is anything but celebratory and solemn in its presentation of an Amsterdam town guard or militia as a brawling band. It was an expose of its central figure, the militia captain Banning Cocq, as being a violent ruffian who may have murdered his way to the top and may have taken part in an unsuccessful attempt at overthrowing the city government. A gun goes off behind the captain, indicating the violent and thuggish quality of his charges; a rooster in the lower portion of the painting mocks his name; and Rembrandt himself appears near the centre, cupping his hand and seemingly whispering in someone’s ear potentially about the official and his dirty secret. In Alexander Korda’s 1936 fiction film about The Night Watch, a disgusted Cocq who supposedly hated the frenzied violence of the painting, asks Rembrandt, ‘Do those look like gentlemen of rank and position?’ Greenaway claims that Rembrandt’s ostracism was in part due to his exposé in the work.

wallpaper rembrandt the night watch ok

Greenaway argues his case from a spectral and minute analysis of the work itself, with little supporting evidence, but the view that Rembrandt was ostracized for exposing the plot and the officer – a view the BBC took seriously enough to recently refute and which may be gathering steam – is simply one more indication that far from being the primary representative of the Dutch Golden Age, Rembrandt was one more victim of it.

rv

One of his most tender drawings in 1658, at the time he was forced to vacate his house, has a woman, exhausted from the day’s activity, sitting by the kitchen stove fire, her shirt at her waist, and unable to move so that her half-nakedness is not voyeuristic, but an expression of her exhaustion at a world that has made life hard and almost unbearable for her. Her resignation seems an almost autobiographical representation of the artist’s own struggles under an empire that had rejected him and his sympathy for its exploited and oppressed outcasts.

Global Cinema, Global Wounds: Slings, Arrows and Outrageous Fortune at the Movies
Tuesday, 11 June 2019 07:23

Global Cinema, Global Wounds: Slings, Arrows and Outrageous Fortune at the Movies

Published in Films

Dennis Broe presents a round-up of Cannes 2019          

Everyone else has gone home but here I am still walking or haunting the Croisette, the Cannes boardwalk. I’m watching the films that in world cinema will be released, or more likely dumped, later in the year in the Anglo world: and alerting you to films to keep a look out for before they quickly disappear. I wish I was joking about this, but it’s true. Three years ago Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake, about the inhumanity of applying a privatized ethos to public services, won the Palme d’Or, the top prize in cinema at Cannes and in Europe. The film, whose subject could not be more relevant, barely got an opening in the US, was only marginally reviewed, and lasted in cinemas only about a week. Things have only gotten worse as the country becomes more insular and as Hollywood by contrast extends its tentacles across the world, in the form of streaming services.

First, some unfinished business from the main competition. Two French films, the first by each director, both caused a stir, and both were prized. Both are also promising and in certain ways also disappointing, or at least not quite the film they’re cracked up to be.

Les Miserables by Ladj Ly has a sensational opening which presents a truly multicultural France with a multitude of black, Arab and white faces, led by one black teenager, streaming into Paris to celebrate the country’s win in the World Soccer tournament last year. This is alas a utopian moment, as the film proper instead reveals the level of deterioration in the banlieues, the areas that ring Paris comparable to the US inner cities, as every day is a battle between cops and especially the teenage inhabitants of this particular area. This is where Hugo set his novel, and which exploded in 2005 in a rebellion that was a cry for help that in the film’s strongest moment is described as having changed nothing.

Unfortunately, the film is predominantly told from the eyes of the police, who late in the film find themselves in possession of a tape showing their own violence as one cop tells another to ‘Do the Right Thing,’ one of the models for this film, and publicize the tape. The director came to prominence for having documented police violence and made it public, but the film takes a tamer approach and contradicts itself as we see the police incapable of doing the right thing, though the film hopes they will.

The last confrontation scene between the cops and local teenagers is a direct copy, or steal, from the far better La Haine, (The Hate), an earlier film about the banlieues. Amazon grabbed the film as an early attempt to duplicate Netflix’s Oscar success with Roma, but the comparison in quality is slight.

Atlantics

Atlantics

Also prized and in many ways a better film was Atlantics by female director Mati Diop, a relative of deceased Senegalese director Djibril Diop Mambetty whose Hyenas was one of the landmarks of African cinema. Diop is from France, but she sets her film in Senegal, in the Dakar suburb of Thiaroye. This is the site of a famous massacre by the French of the Senegalese, recounted in the other most famous Senegalese director Ousmane Sembene’s Camp Thiaroye.

Diop’s film is about a modern massacre, but one that occurs daily as again a very promising opening details how workers at a construction site, not paid for four months, make a hasty decision to board a large canoe for Spain. The film is a love story between the woman who one of them leaves behind and a worker; and the second half has a number of these women haunted by the disappearance of the men, with one retelling their inevitable demise in a powerful zombie recreation and imagining of their canoe being engulfed, just as they are about to reach Europe.

The switch from almost documentary realism to horror is an effective way of dramatizing the capsize of the canoe, but leaves the story nowhere to go, and the entry of a cop who investigates the deaths and the burning of a wedding bed, to add a noirish touch, fails completely. Still, the film has some powerful moments in recounting this love affair and the woman’s rejection of the more western, materialist fiancée she is supposed to marry, whose wedding gift of an iPhone she sells to gain her independence. All this bodes well for Diop’s future projects. This one was grabbed by Amazon competitor Netflix in a duelling Oscar bid.      

A film of nothing but powerful effects was Lighthouse, Robert Eggers’ follow-up to his marvellous debut The Witch, about how Salem trials exposed the moralistic, puritan strain which endures in American thought. This film, about an epic 19th century duel between a salty dog, an Ahab-like lighthouse keeper (Willem Dafoe) and the debutant who comes to assist him (Robert Pattison), begins as a class examination of power, a master-slave dialectic between boss and apprentice. Unfortunately it evolves instead into yet another display of fractured masculinity, which at this point seems like just another excuse to do an all-male film.

The expressionist black and white cinematography, recalling early cinema, is stunning as is the performance, yet again after last year’s Van Gogh, by William Dafoe, delivering Melville-like sea monologues that might be entirely from his own imagination. The screenplay, the cinematography and Dafoe will be remembered at Oscar time but since the performance is all effect, what looked like a great seafaring adventure in the end only amounts to Moby Schtick.

Much better in its destination is Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernals’ Chicuarotes, a look at a left-for-dead area on the outskirts of Mexico City. Much of the film is about the stifling male power in this area, where the inhabitants seem to be trapped as if in a miniature bottle. The film not just takes its cue but is almost an exact duplication of Bunuel’s Los Olvidados, with the surreal touches, like the opening clown sequence, falling flat. However, the last third of the film takes a turn for the better as the female members of the community, a battered wife and a girlfriend – who is watching herself being remade into the wife – assert themselves and overcome this male power. It is at this point that the film comes alive and generates its own, original, energy.

The Halt

The Halt

Three of the best films in the other competitions were from Latin America; all will have difficult times finding North American audiences but all are worth searching out. Philippine director Lav Diaz’ The Halt, like Brazil’s Bucarau and The Dead Don’t Die from the US, describe the three legs of the real axis of evil – the US under Trump, Brazil under Bolsonaro and the Philippines under Dutarte.

Diaz’ film, which views the Philippines as part of a coming wave of repression in Southeast Asia, is shot, like many films in this year’s festival, in creepy, gloomy black and white which forecasts a bleak future. Diaz sees Dutarte as the reappearance of the former dictator Marcos, and describes a fascist future where drones appear like fireflies to search the populace. It’s actually, a lot like the present – as in Bucarau, first world technology is used as surveillance on the third world. ‘A halt’ is the way Diaz describes life under Dutarte who has legalized death squads to wage a war against drugs, the only economy left to the poor in Manila.

A psychoanalyst is disappeared by the military, a female militia member must execute her lesbian lover, and the mysterious “Model 37” lives a double life as a high-class prostitute and a history teacher, with history all but forgotten under this regime. Diaz’s imaginative dystopia resembles not only life under Duterte, but also under the Bolsonaro regime, which has now authorized a so-called “war against delinquency,” that is, open season on gunning down teenagers in the favela where snipers now hover on the roofs and a family fleeing the chaos was recently executed with 200 bullets.

Diaz’ dystopia is a protest, whereas the other most prominent Philippine director Brillante Mendoza, whose recent film Alpha, The Right to Kill while exposing corruption on the police force also validates the basis for this slaughter which is called a war on drugs. It was Mendoza who was selected by Netflix to tell the story of this ‘war’ in its new series Amo.

Peru’s Song Without a Name, another film shot in grainy, unpolished, black and white, is set in a dark period in that country when the right came to power to combat The Shining Path (1988) is all about illustrating a single phrase. An Indian woman falls prey to a baby-snatching agency and begs a journalist to help her find the newborn that was taken from her. The journalist exposes the company but when he demands the baby be returned, a senator tells him the baby is better off elsewhere, meaning being spirited-off and sold in the North. The film is then a refutation of that statement, illustrating through the indigenous woman’s agony at losing her child, and the rituals of the vibrant indigenous culture, that the baby was born into the falsity of the claim.

The Invisible Lifejpg

The Invisible Life of Euridice Gusmao

Finally, there is the prized Brazilian film The Invisible Life of Euridice Gusmao, billed as a ‘Tropical Melodrama’ and delivering on that claim. This lushly shot recounting of male dominance over two sisters in Brazil in the 1950s summons up the ghost of Douglas Sirk and the still-active Todd Haynes, in its flurries of music at emotional moments, its tale of a female friendship broken up under patriarchy, and its deliberately weepie scenes.

Euridice, as the Greek goddess before her, is enraptured with the power of music, a power her husband feels is dangerous. Her sister Guida falls for a sailor who leaves her and is then exiled from her middle-class, Portuguese, white home by an unforgiving father who keeps the two sisters apart. She finds an actual family in the African quarters of Rio, where she is loved and taken into the home of a black woman, recalling but reversing the black, white structure of Imitation of Life.

The film at first seems like just a recollection in time, but with the Alabama attack on abortion, and a protest at Cannes around a documentary highlighting a similar attack in Argentina, there is an attempt – a backlash response to metoo# – to reinstall the repressive male regime of the 1950s and so, alas, the film couldn’t be more topical.

Fire Will Come

Fire Will Come

Best environmental film of the festival was not the documentary Ice on Fire but rather the fiction film titled literally Fire Will Come, but which should be titled more poetically Comes The Fire. The film opens with a massive and terrifying bulldozing of a section of forest in what was once a remote section of Spain, rural Galicia, but which is now being invaded by profiteers. The film concludes by putting the spectator in the middle of a horrifying conflagration as a fire consumes all around it. We are reminded of the recent devastation of California and the way we are made to feel the awesome power of this tragedy, magnified by global warming, recalls the pounding of the earth as violent transgression in the Hollywood eco-disaster film Deepwater Horizon.

The fictional component of the film details how rural life is being devastated for a mother, son and their three cattle while the son’s reaction to it all was to become an arsonist. This disintegration of the region is highlighted by the remaking of one of the monuments of the area, the bell in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, the endpoint of a famous pilgrimage.

Three films about the US each present jaundiced takes on the country from the foreign perspective of their directors, though none are totally successful. The best of the three, Give Me Liberty by the Russian Kyrill Mikhanovsky, is a presentation of the disabled and poor in Milwaukee which also includes its Russian population. It’s Gorki’s Lower Depths as Americana, with a hopeful core of a budding love story between the Russian driver of the disabled van, and a jilted but proud African-American caregiver for this population.

Lillian, produced by Ulrike Seidel, the Austrian wry commentator on the capitalist leisure industry, is a trip across a devastated America by a young woman whose initial gambit to stay in the country is to get work in porn, but who is turned down because of her passport problems. She’s a sort of hot Huck Finn character, who wanders across the countryside and meets a woman in Jersey who recounts how after 2008 she was forced to close her restaurant and now has put all the articles of her life up for sale. The film is an odd combination of Frederic Wiseman-type documentary of America, though better and sharper than his recent Morovia, Indiana, and a voyeuristic spotlighting of this waif/model that doesn’t quite gel.

Wounds

Wounds

More problematic still is Netflix’ Wounds, a horror film set in Nawleans, as the just deceased Doctor John would say, though the horrific imaginings haunting its going-nowhere-bartender spring entirely from digital devices with the horror itself driven more by the sounds from those devices than images.

It’s Tennessee Williams meets Black Mirror, the flagship series from Netflix, supposedly about technological dystopia which Netflix presents itself as the antidote to, that is, the inoffensive use of technology. In the end the bartender gives over his body to the haunting, but we can’t help thinking that we are being asked to do the same by Netflix itself, whose algorithms now program our sub-conscious through its series. So the dystopia, as in Black Mirror, becomes only a glorified and gleaming way of wallowing in our own submission.

Blow It To Bits

Blow It to Bits

I’ll conclude with a documentary titled in French On Va Tout Peter and in English Blow It to Bits, which is the companion piece to the out-of-competition market documentary Capital in the 21st Century. That film detailed the new vast accumulation of wealth by the few – the one percent. This film by Lech Kowalski, most known for his punk doc D.O.A., details the life of the 99%, the many, those left for dead by capital.

The GM&S automobile parts plant in the Creuse, in the middle of France, is made up of workers who have been together for 25 to 30 years and for whom the plant is their family. When we pick up the tale, the plant is closed and the film details the workers in the process of trying to find a new owner, and in their desperation threatening to blow up the plant.

In his commentary Kowalski mentions revolution. But this is not revolution, it is barely hanging on and battling for subsistence, by a community that has simply had their life-blood drained and whose threat rings hollow. A busload of workers attempt to shut down the local Renault and Peugeot plants and petition the state, part owner of both companies, to help them save the plant.

Macron famously made an appearance at the plant, as an attempt to appeal in his campaign to working people but quickly retreated when the workers confronted him and his minister for the economy is shown stalling the workers. The eventual buyer strips the plant, employing only 120 of 277 workers and we watch in a very sad moment as one worker begs the owner to hire all of them and another gets his pink slip and says his goodbyes.

The film also details how the now-jailed Renault CEO Carlos Ghosn, in contrast, had an annual salary of over $15 million. Blow It To Bits is a companion piece to Comes the Fire, tracking rural and industrial ruin in the wake of an unfeeling economic system which produces profit at the expense of people.           

Best 5 Films outside the main competition:

Fire Will Come

Blow It to Bits

First Love

Nina Wu

Invisible Life of Euridice Gusmao

You can find all the titles mentioned here at the James Agee Cinema website under Bro on the World Film Beat.

Parasite, winner of the Palme d'Or
Sunday, 26 May 2019 19:16

Cannes 2019: Asian cinema triumphs, despite Trump

Published in Films

Dennis Broe wraps up Cannes 2019, which witnessed tthe continued rise of Asian cinema

It’s official. Cannes 2019 is in the books and the biggest story is perhaps the continuing rise of Asian cinema not only in its popular form – in the Korean violence epic The Cop, The Gangster and The Devil – but more importantly in its independent cinema. This year there was a marked social and critical aspect in three films in particular: South Korea’s examination of contemporary class struggle Parasite, winner of the Palme d'Or for best film; China’s laying bare of a poor people’s economy in the guise of a cop and gangster film in Wild Goose Lake; and Taiwan’s examination of the film industry’s exploitation and fracturing of the consciousness of a young actress in Nina Wu.

During the festival, Trump upped the ante in his now all-out economic war against China by banning Huawei – for the sin of outstripping US technology in both innovation and price – from laying the infrastructure for the development of the 5G network, pegged as essential for future expansion of the streaming industry in its coming attempt to incorporate film viewing under its wing. China is less of a presence in the market here, also because of Trump’s embargo. Meanwhile, however, Chinese audiences are advancing in their level of sophistication. They are largely rejecting fluff aimed at them by Hollywood such as Crazy Rich Asians which took in only $1.7 million in what is soon to be the largest film market in the world. Instead those audiences have been clamouring to see films like last year’s Cannes winner Shoplifters, about a quasi-family of scammers whose compassion is greater than the bourgeois family next door, and Capernaum, a film set in Lebanon about life on the streets.

Less of a presence this year also is Saudi Arabia, being more cautious, after the Khashoggi killing than last year’s spreading of money around the Croisette which saw AMC Theatres sign a deal to open cinemas in the kingdom which they did not relinquish, though the Endeavor agency did give $400 million dollars. French investigative reporters broke stories about French arms sales to the Mohammad Bin Salman dictatorship which they implied were used in the war in Yemen, potentially to kill women and children, which no one in the film industry seems to be upset about as this year the Saudi deals were done more quietly. Khashoggi’s Washington Post editor described this slinking around as evidence, if any is needed, that “Hollywood is putting profits over everything.” That was the view from the much improved Hollywood Reporter. The more mercenary Variety just described the situation as still posing “a risk for business ventures.”

Parasite

Parasite, directed by Bong Joon-Ho, starts with a hilarious opening of its first segment as a family living in a basement and feeding off a neighbor’s internet loses the connection, and attempts to find another Wi-Fi network they can latch onto. They live in a poor section of Seoul, with one neighbour often urinating near their house. All of which contrasts sharply with the verdant lawns of a modern mansion where the son, Ki-woo, is hired at as a tutor. This first segment, as he cannily smuggles his whole family into the service of the rich corporate magnate, recalls last year’s Japanese film Shoplifters. The next segment, with the family celebrating when the rich family leaves for the weekend but then being trapped when they return unexpectedly, is an absurdist farce along the lines of Home Alone. But the final segment overturns the mood of the first two as the poor family’s house is flooded and they must accept clothes from a gym which is contrasted to the splendor and extravagance of the rich parents’ closet.

The mood here, as the class struggle worsens, turns grim – moving from a Hollywood feelgood comedy where class tensions are concealed, to more of a Claude Chabrol-type confrontation of the two lifestyles a la La Ceremonie. And indeed there is nothing feelgood about the fact that one family suffers while the other has it all. The rich family is not evil, simply rich, but their walled-off position in contrast to the utter misery of those around them makes them a target, with the husband continually displaying his indignation at anyone who, as he says, “crosses the line.” This is marvellous social filmmaking from director Bong Joon Ho, who here and in such films as The Host, Memories of Murder, Snowpiercer and Okja proves himself to be the contemporary director today who best combines a social conscience with a popular appeal, which makes him in my opinion the best director in the world.

wild goose lake 

Wild Goose Lake, by Diao Yinan, whose previous Black Coal/Thin Ice used the sleaziest of thriller clichés – the serial killer – as an excuse to portray the desperateness of a region in Northeast China whose coal economy had deadened its souls. Here the spotlight is on central China, with Diao employing the tropes of the film noir – the cop and the femme fatale – to again deliver a survey of contemporary rural sprawl in China and to comment on a situation where every move made by the gangsters is matched by the cops, who seem not to be their opposites but their sideshadows. The film is about how relations have fractured in this new money economy but in a last turn, the emphasis is instead on how people care about each other and the desperate lengths one must go to, including multiple betrayals, to assert human kindness.

Finally, there was the very remarkable Nina Wu, which in the age of Me Too is a kind of Harvey Weinstein meets Mulholland Drive. Torture the woman, Hitchcock proclaimed, as a key to his films and this film, with screenplay co-authored by its director Midi Z and lead actress Wu Ke-xi, is that dictum from the point of view of the tortured actress. Humiliated in her film audition, almost killed on the set in order to get her to properly emote in the last scene of the film, and witness to her dog – named Oscar in a nod to her industry ambitions – being annihilated. The film uses fantasy sequences to depict the schizophrenia this treatment induces, but ends with the sexual manipulation that is the ultimate key to a madness brought on by the male power structure of the industry. The film references Uma Thurman, who had complained of rough treatment by Quentin Tarantino in Kill Bill and Tarantino was in the audience, coming to support its Taiwanese director, but in so doing perhaps confronted with his own valued position in what was the house of Weinstein, with Pulp Fiction, lauded at Cannes, having secured Harvey’s career.

 once upon a time in hollywood

Tarantino’s own film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, is reactionary, though narratively brilliant in its time leaps, in its incorporation of his memories from growing up in the Hollywood of the late 1960s, on the cusp of a change that would be announced with 1969’s Easy Rider lauded that year at Cannes, and in the way it blends a fictional world with our own knowledge of the Manson murders. Once singles out women and hippies, and particularly liberated women, as participating in the demise of an entirely masculinist studio system that had utterly lost touch with reality.

At the same time Tarantino premiered his film on the red carpet, the biggest budget film at the festival, an old partner of his, Robert Rodriquez, about ten minutes further down the beach, demonstrated how a film could be made for 7000 dollars similar to the film that secured his place in the industry – El Mariachi. Rodriquez shot Red 11 in the downtime as he waited for the rushes to be edited in his big budget Alita Battle Angel. His film is about a big pharma company experimenting on subjects who become guinea pigs because they are too poor to pay their debts. Based on Rodriquez’ own experience when he became a test subject to finance his first film, Red 11 looks credible and has in the end a more distinguished and relevant subject matter than Tarantino’s.

 Ice on Fire

Also on hand at Cannes was Once Upon a Time star Leonardo DiCaprio. On the day after the premiere he introduced a climate film produced and narrated by himself called Ice On Fire, which usefully details the effect of climate destruction – to call it climate change at this point is simply to obscure the issue – on the polar ice caps and the equally harmful and less discussed effects of releasing methane, stored in the earth for millennia, into the atmosphere. What is not so useful is its position that climate destruction can be stopped by technology and by the goodwill of capitalists. A German scientist explains, with a straight face, that one need only build 300,000 of his giant balloon-like sucking structures and spread them across the globe to capture 1% of the carbon released by fossil fuels. Later, a New Mexico rancher who notes the leaks inherent in a fracking device near his ranch suggests that if the CEOs of the fracking companies could come look at the leaks, they would immediately stop them. The authors of this film need to read Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything about the actual steps it will take to change the situation the film adequately and with gorgeous photography describes.

A Hidden Life Cannes 2 825 

Finally, there was Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life, about a conscientious objector in Austria who refuses to go to Hitler’s war. The early scenes in the Austrian countryside recall the wheat fields of Days of Heaven, and the squalor in the pacifist Franz’s prison cell likewise conjures up a sequence in The New World where the Indians visit the settlers who have degenerated over the winter. The film itself depicts not the sprawling physical combat of The Thin Red Line, but instead the psychological battle between the Nazis and the Austrian peasants favouring the war and the stolid courage of Franz and his wife Fani in the face of his moral decision which everyone tells him will change nothing but which we see having an effect in the anger it unleashes in those around him who are suppressing their own moral qualms.

In the opening documentary sequence of Hitler parading in his motorcade to cheering throngs, one cannot help but think that this is not just a film about World War II. It is also about the way a thinking, caring director like Malick is experiencing Trump and John Bolton’s Axis of Oil, er, Evil in attempting to provoke wars with Iran, Venezuela and North Korea while at the same time sparking big power confrontations with China and Russia. The world must seem mad to Malick and indeed it may be, though the character in his film has the courage to oppose this madness.

My Cannes Prizes:
Best Film: Parasite
Best Actor: Willem Defoe in Lighthouse
Best Actress: Valerie Packner (Fani) in A Hidden Life
(both actor and actress will resurface at Oscar time.)
Best Screenplay: Paul Laverty for Ken Loach’s Sorry We Missed You
and Midi Z and Wu Ke-xi for Nina Wu
Best Direction: Terrence Malick for A Hidden Life

Top 5 films at the fest, in competition or out:
Parasite
Nina Wu
Capital in the 21st Century
Sorry We Missed You
Bacurau

Ken Loach's Sorry We Missed You: the gig economy as agony, not freedom
Tuesday, 21 May 2019 16:40

Ken Loach's Sorry We Missed You: the gig economy as agony, not freedom

Published in Films

From Cannes, Dennis Broe reviews Ken Loach’s latest film, about the slow breakdown of a family exposed to the 'freedom' of the gig economy

The first scene of Ken Loach’s new film Sorry We Missed You, which premiered at Cannes this week, is a masterful laying out of the job requirements by a burly foreman. That terminology has changed, however, and now he is simply an ever more impersonal “manager” (which makes him even more a bully) of a down-on-his-luck worker who has, like Richard Kimble in The Fugitive, toiled at many jobs.

The worker recites a litany of part-time work – hauler, builder, even gravedigger – that he has done in trying to stay afloat and the burly company front man assures him that his troubles are over. Now his hours are his, because he is a franchise owner of a delivery van, and the sky and his own ambition are the limit on the amount of money he can make.

The rest of the film is an exposure of this lie – of the desperate condition of a husband and wife and their son and daughter, caught in the agony of this new version of “freedom” which is in some ways much closer to a form of slavery. Ricky is forced to sell his wife Abby’s car to buy the delivery van and the required to work 14 hours a day 6 days a week to meet the company’s demands.

Drivers in the Amazon Warehouse

Just as with workers in the Amazon warehouses, Ricky is given a bottle to urinate in by a fellow driver and told that this is his most precious work tool, since he does not have time to stop for a bathroom break. Abby meanwhile, a care worker for the elderly, on a “zero-hour” contract which means she is only paid for the actual time, usually not enough to do the job, that she is allotted to the “client,” itself a term which attempts to distance her from the desperate aged people she is committed to helping.

All expenses and any damages for both workers are of course theirs to repay, and Ricky is told that his most valuable possession is the black box which orders him around and tracks his every movement. He becomes the servant of these algorithms which treat him not as a human being, but as a replaceable cog who does their bidding. As Shoshana Zuboff describes this condition in Surveillance Capitalism, he is caught in a digital profit system that “has no appetite for our grief, pain, or terror, although it eagerly leeches from our anguish”; a system that is “indifferent to our meanings and motives.”

This is a film by Loach and perennial screenwriter Paul Laverty on an extremely topical subject. A British court last year laughed Uber out of the courtroom when it tried to claim that it was not a company employing workers but rather simply a clearing house. The judge called out the digital charade, and told them they behaved exactly like owners but without having to pay any benefits. In the US on the other hand, a judge recently reaffirmed the position of a gig economy company as simply a clearing house, so the matter is extremely contentious at the moment.

Like Loach’s last film, the Cannes prizewinner Daniel Blake, the film is set in Newcastle, once the heart of the British industrial revolution, and the capital of coal, as signified in the British idiom about it being pointless to “carry coals to Newcastle.” But the Newcastle of the last two films by Loach and Laverty is a devastated place, left for dead in the Thatcher revolution which drained the area of its factories. But as one of Abby’s “clients” reveals, it was also one of the sites of a magnificent last-ditch effort in 1984 by the miners to keep their jobs.

Its a Free World

A recounting of Loach’s and Laverty’s films over the last more than 15 years at the height of neoliberalism displays this downward trend for the British, and indeed the Western, working class. 2002’s Bread and Roses detailed the ultimately winning efforts of Los Angeles, heavily-female, Latino janitors to organize and unionize. But the highly underrated and more relevant everyday It’s A Free World in 2007 instead presented the opposite scenario, as two working-class female “entrepreneurs” attempted to turn their back on any class solidarity, and instead become exploiters of itinerant African labour, only to fall victim themselves to exploitation from above.

In the world of Sorry We Missed You, the title itself is not just the note the driver leaves if he cannot make a delivery, but also, in the wider sense, a sign of workers passing in the night, trying to maintain a semblance of fellow feeling but driven to distraction as they attempt to merely survive. Abby is consoled by a woman at a bus station who offers her comfort that she barely has time to accept, and Ricky engages in good-natured banter with his working-class customers, but the exchange is always short-lived, cut-off by the pressure to get onto the next delivery.

Latina Janitors on Strike in Bread and Roses

Like the Latina women of Bread and Roses who clean downtown LA business offices at night, Ricky and his ilk, the other drivers, are supposed to be invisible automatons who simply carry out the imperatives of the new digital economy, while actually being crucial to it. Shooting the film from their perspective therefore becomes a scintillating act that calls the nature of this economy into question.

The film is also clear about the other problem, besides precarity, pressure at work and low wages that plagues these workers, and that is the increasing price of housing. Ricky and Abby nearly had enough money to buy a house in 2008, but then had their loan squashed in the market crash. The hope of buying a home is what drives Ricky to the delivery job. It is this pressure and the inability to own a home that makes workers susceptible to the growing exploitation of the gig economy. Loach often uses a fade to black to end his scenes and in the latest film the black or bleak lasts longer before the next scene begins – a sign of the deepening loss of agency and even hope in his protagonists.

The casting adds an autobiographical and real element to the film’s texture. Kris Hitchen, the poor man’s Damian Lewis (who is squandering his talent on 1% drivel like the TV series Billions, sometimes referred to as ‘wealth porn”) described himself at the press conference after the film as a part-time electrician, part-time actor and thus himself susceptible to precarity in two professions. He comes from Manchester, not Newcastle, and the rivalry between the two cities in soccer figures in a lively debate between Ricky and a customer. Debbie Honeywood, Abby, worked in education for 20 years, itself a caregiving profession that is also being stretched to the limits.

Loach Laverty and cast at the Cannes Press Conference

Loach and Laverty were lively and engaged at the press conference for the film, which took place in what for Loach is the very friendly confines of Cannes, where he is the director with the most appearances in the competition. A Reuters reporter, echoing the neoliberal mainstream media soundbite, asked what are we to do in this time where the centre has broken down and there is only the radical right and the radical left. Loach responded by asking who in the room was part of the “radical left.” No one raised their hand and the question was a clever way of calling attention to the fact that anyone outside the new business ethos is labelled “radical.”

The term is also a way of tarring those who want progressive social change by grouping them with the immigrant-hating, actually pro-business nationalists of Nigel Farage and Marine Le Pen. Laverty pointed out that with the growing disparity in income between the wealthiest 1 percent (or fraction of a percent) and everyone else has come an overall decline in life expectancy in many of the Western countries ,and in the US for the first time in almost a century.

Loach pointed to the British Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn as a potential hope, citing the fact that the ever-growing membership made it the second largest party in Europe but also cautioning the audience that if they opposed the contemporary corporate “consensus” they will be attacked in ways that often have nothing to do with the argument, since the argument for equality is irrefutable.

To return to the film, one of the most impressive aspects of Loach and Laverty’s films is the way they avoid the standard melodramatic turn. Thus, Ricky announces in the opening interview that he has a 100 percent safe driving record and so we wait for the inevitable car crash to come. Except it doesn’t. There is instead a moment where he is so exhausted from driving that he nods off but the truck glides to the side of the road.

loach

Instead, what we witness at the end is the increasing tension in his face and sheer exhaustion from he and Abby trying to support a family which is constantly threatening to come apart, because of their inability to be around to raise their kids. It is not the melodramatic turn of the horrible and disfiguring accident that marks Ricky’s slide into oblivion. It is the slow and increasing tension and weight of the everyday struggle within this supposedly free economy that is the ultimate and most often silent tragedy that these left-behind workers face. Death, and the death of the soul, comes not suddenly and dramatically in Loach’s film but just as inevitably by a thousand cuts every day.

 

 

Cannes 2019: zombies and deadbeat tax evaders lunching on the boardwalk
Sunday, 19 May 2019 13:03

Cannes 2019: zombies and deadbeat tax evaders lunching on the boardwalk

Published in Films

Dennis Broe reports from Cannes 2019, where zombies, aliens, manhunters and the ghost of Netflix walk the cinemas

Welcome to Cannes 2019. Zombies, aliens and manhunters walk the cinemas in Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die, the Cannes premiere, and the Brazilian Bacurau where a North Brazilian Afro-village is stalked a la The Most Dangerous Game by tech-savvy Anglo killers.

These are just two of several versions of the apocalypse onscreen, while the offscreen apocalypse which these films are only slightly overdramatizing continues apace. The Kering luxury goods company, largest in the world, and key sponsor of the festival, has just paid 1.25 billion dollars for tax evasion. Meanwhile Monsanto and Coca-Cola have each been implicated in padding and suppressing their own company scientific research about the alleged cancer- causing elements of Monsanto’s pesticide used in much of our food, and denying research on the diabetes and obesity that results from indulging in Coke’s sugary drinks.

The European elections take place just as Cannes ends and France’s president Macron is attempting to convince everyone here that the only choice is between his neoliberal globalists in En Marche which features the market-oriented and anti-labor policies of this ‘President of the rich’ as he is now most often referred to, and the neoliberal nationalism of Marine Le Pen, who under the guise of being for working people simply promotes anti-immigrant hate while economically also doing the bidding of the rich.

In the US it’s like saying there is absolutely nothing beyond Joe Biden and Donald Trump, while in Macron’s case the entire gambit is not to encourage democracy but to prevent it by damping down the hopes of people who might really vote for change, in order to keep them away from the polls.

This 2019 edition also evokes two previous versions of the Festival. The first is the 80th anniversary of 1939, the first year where the festival was slated to open but which instead showed only Hollywood’s Hunchback of Notre Dame – and then closed because the Nazis invaded Poland the day the festival began. The Nazis were eventually defeated, but for the opening the French did invite in Hollywood as their alternative to the fascist powers, which has proved much more difficult to get rid of. Hollywood is now in the midst of its latest attempt to overwhelm European film production through Netflix and Amazon and the forthcoming streaming services like Disney, now merged with Fox and Warner/ATT&T.

Netflix hangs over the festival

The threat of invasion by the streaming services, aligned with the impending arrival of 5G to enhance streaming, hovers in the background of this edition of the festival. Netflix is still banned from the main competition, though all the streaming services are very active, if not above ground in the competition in the Palais, then below ground in the market where they are gobbling up product for their onslaught to come.

Fest Pres Pierre Lescure is very savvy about the potential to simply short-circuit the distribution process of cinema to television to DVD to Video on Demand, by simply releasing worldwide in streaming, and he pleaded with Disney to be lenient on this distribution chain and respect its own stake in cinema releases. It is not likely that plea will be answered.

The other spectre that haunts the festival this year is that of the 50th anniversary of Cannes 1969, a year after the festival was halted by directors Jean-Luc Godard and Francoise Truffaut, who in the wake of the ‘68 Paris student protest against Vietnam asked “why speak about cinema when the world is burning?” ‘69 carried that rebellion into the cinema, and was the year of If, Easy Rider, the emergence of the Brazilian Cinema Nuovo, with the Cannes winner being Costa Gavras’ political anti-Greek dictatorship thriller Z.

This year filmmakers have on their minds two overwhelming questions. One is inequality and the increasing gap in income not only between North and South in the globe but everywhere between rich and poor, addressed metaphorically in Bacurau and directly in Ken Loach’s masterful examination of the gig economy Sorry We Missed You. The second is climate change – or more accurately climate destruction – addressed in The Dead Don’t Die.

Variety did not like Jim Jarmusch’s zombie film, finding that it did not advance the genre and add yet more heightened zombie elements or more rampant splatter effects. More likely what the trade publication did not appreciate was the way it did advance the genre, making the politics of the zombie film explicit, calling attention to itself as a vehicle to break the fourth wall, and being enacted by a cast of outsiders who magnified the genre’s subversive potential and lifted it out of the apocalyptic-for-the-thrill-of-it, Walking Dead approach.

The zombie outbreak is caused by polar fracking, impacting Trump’s America in the remote and average town of Centerville. The zombies themselves, both victims of and then victimizers in the climate catastrophe, are also imprinted with the material memory of their strongest desire which is often simply their favorite commodity, pointing to the way desire has been channeled.

Iggy Pop in The Dead Dont Die

Thus Iggy Pop’s zombie intones the word ‘Coffee’ again and again, while later zombies mention ‘Chardonny’ and ‘Wi-fi.’ It’s true that George Romero has covered this ground in Night of the Living and Dawn of the Dead but Jarmusch, in breaking the fourth wall – Adam Driver’s lanky hayseed cop keeps predicting it will end badly because, he finally reveals, he read it in the script – is pointing to the fact that the political content of the film is more important than playing referential games. Though they are also there is abundance – the tombstone the first zombie rises from is labelled ‘Samuel Fuller,” a revered B-movie director.

Tom Waits’ hermit comments on the action of humanity in the thralls of destroying and then feasting on itself as the world goes to hell in a handbasket, in a role that is much like what his songs accomplish outside the film.

Bacurau

Another stunning metaphor was that of Kleber Mendonca Fihlo’s Bacurau, about a remote village in Northern Brazil, the site of massive slave uprisings in the country’s history and always a seat of rebellion, nowadays against the US inspired ultra-right wing regime of Jair Bolsonaro. The village has had first its water supply cut off by a corrupt politician of a larger township, and then faces invasion from the sky and the ground, first by armed motorcyclists from Sao Paolo, the financial capital, and then by European and American hunters out for sport.

The film cannily mixes Brazilian folklore from the Cinema Nuovo era – one of the producers is Carlos Digues whose Quilombo charted the history of slave rebellion in the North – with cheesy ‘50s science fiction in a flying saucer drone and the use of that eras wipes between scenes and Sergio Leone-style close-ups in a battle scene that is about the Southern hemisphere’s resistance to this new, now technologically driven invasion from the North.

Mendonca Fihlo was last seen at Cannes with Aquarius, featuring an ageing Sonia Braga battling a rapacious landlord. At Cannes he and his crew protested the coup that ousted Dilma Rousseff and led eventually to the installation of Bolsonaro. This is a much tougher, harder, violent film but perfect for a time when the struggle in Brazil has hardened, now that Bolsonaro has declared war on Brazil’s environment and its indigenous peoples.

Bull

Also exhibiting this harder moment is the American indie Bull, which we assume is going to be about the triumph of a poor Texas teenager who eventually fulfills her dream of riding in the rodeo. That film, director Annie Silverstein has decided, belongs to the not-so-distant past. Instead the story centres on the girl’s battle to remove herself from selling drugs in the wake of the OxyContin epidemic, and tackle her own prejudice about being befriended by an African-American ex-cowboy, in order to be able to just get in the saddle. The narrative, though it does end in a glimmer of hope, displays the way the American success story for the poor may instead play itself out now as agony and defeat.

A word now and more later, about two films which do not employ metaphor but use the genres of documentary and of socially conscious cinema to make explicit the criticism of the inequality spawned in the neoliberal era. One is a film not in competition but which should have been, the market entry Capital in the 21st Century, based on Thomas Piketty’s book, with Piketty explaining that the level of inequality in this century sets back the clock and begins to look like the aristocratic, colonial era of pre-World War I and of the 19th century.

Capital in the 21st Century

It’s a condition that this film – expertly peppered with film clips, concerned economists, and graphics – claims also sets up for the kind of desperation that brought Hitler to power. Finally, there is Ken Loach’s stunning examination of the gig economy from the point of view of a male and female worker and their family caught up in it, in Sorry We Missed You.

Sorry To Have Missed You

Loach’s focus on how a delivery worker is oppressed by a system that supposedly makes him his own boss but which finally leads him to exhaustion at every level shuns genre emphasis on exaggerated catastrophe, but is the most eloquent depiction of what the pressure of the gig economy – where the most precious work tool is the bottle the driver is given to pee in so he doesn’t lose time and wages by taking a bathroom break – does to those workers who are supposed to remain faceless and invisible and who are now subjugated totally to that economy’s algorithms.

Cannes 2019 so far is an onscreen dose of reality, in both its genre and more realistic films.

from Trapped
Saturday, 20 April 2019 20:24

The noir novel: crime and corruption at the heart of the capitalist world

Published in Fiction

Dennis Broe reports from the Quais du Polar conference in Lyon, and discusses some examples of  noir novels which depict and criticise the environmental depredation and social inequalities which lie at the heart of the modern capitalist world

Noir fiction is distinguished from simple crime fiction by adding a darker element that often reflects a darker worldview than simply solving a crime. It has now brought more mainstream crime fiction into its orbit, and was on display again this year at what is probably the world’s top international convention of the form, the Quais du Polar at Lyon.

Polar is the French term for noir fiction, and is distinguished from the policier, which deals with the police investigation of a crime. The policier often has a more restricted worldview, where to catch the criminal ends all wrongdoing, while the polar suggests a world of perpetual crime and corruption, often referencing (and critiqueing) capitalism, directly or indirectly.

noir 6 we shall inherit the wind

Several countries were present and different areas and layers of corruption unfolded in the works of the authors from each. The festival honored Scandinavian noir, which most thoroughly incorporates a social critique with a crime investigation – seen in the Varg Veum novels of the Norwegian Gunnar Staalesen, and currently on series TV in the second season of the Icelandic director Baltasar Kormakur’s Trapped, both of which deal with what is viewed as the seat of corruption in the Nordic countries, the energy industry.

Noir sirens

The Anglo authors, American and British tend to conceive their work in narrower terms, as Manchester chronicler Joseph Knox described his book Sirens as a cry against gangland exploitation of women, while Chris Offutt and Ron Rash both center their crime novels on Appalachia, the poorest region in the country. Rash, a poet and novelist, spoke about how the destruction of the language has gone along with the destruction of the resources of the region and outlined his project of attempting to preserve regional dialect and thought in his novels.

Scandi noir

The noir novel, film and television series is now a major product of the Scandinavian countries of Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Iceland and Finland. Each has expanded the traditional British crime story or murder mystery to encompass a more global portrait of these societies, while adding the tougher and more class-tinged elements of the American hard-boiled novels by Hammett and Chandler.

All five countries ‘punch above their weight’ in the area of literature. Sweden, for example. is by population the 92nd largest country in the world, yet has the 8th most books translated into other languages, while Iceland, with only about 330,000 people, boasts a Nobel Prize winner in literature. Just as everyone in Los Angeles has a film script in the trunk of their car, everyone in these countries has a novel in their desk, perhaps due to the persistence of long winters where there is no light and often nothing to do inside but write. Iceland’s Ragnar Jonasson’s novels center on an isolated region in the northern extreme of that country and all have titles referring to this total blackout – Snowblind, Whiteout, The Darkness. Jonasson related that he writes in the long winters so that he can be outside during the summers where, in contrast, there is continual sunshine and no darkness.

Perhaps the origin of the use of the noir novel to tell untold truths about the society lies in the still unsolved death of the Swedish Prime Minister Olaf Palme, in 1986. Palme was a fierce critic of US domination, one of the first to recognize Cuba and other Third World struggles for liberation, and proponent of the non-aligned movement during the Cold War. Multiple theories circulate around his death and who would have reason to assassinate him, with the Millennium and Girl with the Dragon Tattoo author Stieg Larsson for a long time on the trail of the killer, and with cover-up rumours fuelling a notion that the Scandinavian democracies, famous for their welfare state and pacifist polices, have become corrupt servants of the global order.

noir 2 man who played with fire

Larsson’s notes have been picked up by fellow journalist Jan Stocklassa whose The Man Who Played With Fire: Stieg Larsson’s Lost Notes and the Hunt for an Assassin, written in the docu-fiction style of a Truman Capote or Norman Mailer, contains 30 pages of Larsson’s own writing. It supposedly goes some way toward exposing a conspiracy involving the Swedish far Right, and Stocklassa claimed at the conference that the murder will probably be solved in the next few years.

Scandinavian noir in its contemporary manifestations is often concerned with exposing tensions based on the collusion of foreign and domestic capitalistic energy interests who combine to plunder resources, pollute the land and profit from seemingly benign forms of energy that may have harmful effects – what we might call greenwashing. One of the most durably popular of these authors is Norway’s Gunnar Staalesen, creator of the Varg Veum detective series of 20 novels.

Varg means wolf in Norwegian, and Veum is nothing if not tenacious, as seen in We Shall Inherit the Wind where the detective doggedly pursues a murder that may have been committed to allow a global energy company Veum had confronted previously named Trans World Ocean or simply TWO to profit from the sale of land to build a wind farm. Wind power, which in the US would be a huge step forward, is debated in the book as instead being a form of energy that with its omnipresent whirling blades would dilute and plague sections of an untrammeled coastline, with hydropower being posed as a less intrusive alternative.

Norway is famous for – and wealthy from – its oil digging, which the book describes cynically as ‘the sunny side of life where it’s all fun and laughter and liquid gold from the North Sea’ and which is elsewhere depicted as ‘spilling CO2 into the atmosphere every day.’

noir 5 trapped season 2

The accompaniment to this piece is Baltasar Kormakur’s Trapped, whose second season describes the destruction of northern Iceland by the combination of a Reykjavik Interior Minister and what is called the American Aluminum Company. The effect of this combination is seen most elegantly in the elegiac end of one episode, where an Icelandic cop and a regional activist look out from above onto a lake strewn with the corpses of dead geese. This looting and raping of the environment by Capital is also seen in the series as fuelling right nationalism, in this case that of a secret group, the Hammer of Thor.

French noir

Noir 1 disko

French authors are also very taken with the European far north, as Mo Malo’s Disko focuses on the continual breakup of the icebergs, with an American climatologist found frozen in one of them, just before a global scientific truth-telling conference on climate destruction. The investigation occurs against the background of Greenland itself as an Inuit stronghold, still colonized by Denmark, which is anticipating an ever-easier path to the island’s wealth of natural resources as the melting continues.

noir 4 requiem for a republic

Colonialization in the French past is explored by journalist Thomas Canteloube’s first novel Requiem for a Republic. Canteloube works for the investigatory website Mediapart, which the US website The Intercept is partially modeled after. Here he exposes the involvement of present and past French leaders, including the right-wing Jean-Marie Le Pen, the Socialist Francois Mitterand and the Nationalist General de Gaulle in a secret and bloody war against the Algerian independence movement, the FLN.

noir 3 Piranhas

From Italy, Roberto Saviano described the hopelessness of Southern European youth, in the specific case of the areas outside of Naples where boys 10 to 18, emissaries of the drug trade, ride scooters and kill and be killed as if there is no tomorrow – and for many of them there isn’t. Piranhas, Saviano’s first novel, subtitled The Boy Bosses of Naples, is a recounting of the dead-end life in a country where unemployment for youth without a high school degree is 45 percent, as they struggle to carve out a life in a country where 30 percent of the wealth in in the hands of the top 10 percent.

American noir

Elsewhere on the American side, besides the regional Appalachian flavor and the New Orleans noir of James Sallis, whose Drive was the inspiration for the film of the same name, the festival premiered a documentary about Michael Connelly, known for his Harry Bosch series on Los Angeles, where he is interviewed by Olivier Marshal, a former French cop turned actor.

The film is a paean to the Los Angeles police, who Connelly apparently can’t praise enough either in actuality, in his Bosch books, and in a new series with a female cop, Renee Ballard, who patrols the city alone at night. The film seems to be blithely unaware of the racist and corrupt reputation of the LAPD. At one point, Connelly takes the French ex-cop out onto his balcony in the Los Angeles hills in a lap of luxury overlooking a city with intense poverty. He worries about not being able to write crime fiction with its social awareness, since he is now so rich.

The takeaway from the scene is not Connelly’s false guilt, but its illustration of the fact that authors who praise the power structure and remain uncritical of it are rewarded in an unjust society. It probably wasn’t the intention, but the film exposed the seamy side of an uncritical crime fiction written purely for profit, and which is simply a liberal, bourgeois way of cultural accommodation to the rampant destruction let loose by an increasingly unequal, capitalist world.

Call the wealthy to account! Serial incest in Game of Thrones and Taboo, and serious tax avoidance in the real world
Wednesday, 17 April 2019 16:02

Call the wealthy to account! Serial incest in Game of Thrones and Taboo, and serious tax avoidance in the real world

Dennis Broe finds parallels between the rich and powerful in the final season of Game of Thrones, and their modern-day equivalents in the real world

It’s wildly and devilishly seductive, glamourous, and the ultimate expression of unbridled passion. It functions as a key plot device driving the story in shows, purporting to give a glimpse into how the wealthiest live or lived. It is the new incest, brothers and sisters who break social bounds and seem entitled to because of their elevated position. Because of its prominence in the most prestigious serial series at the moment – Game of Thrones – and its appearance in what amounted to the best series of 2017 – Taboo – the implications of this plot device are worth exploring.

It’s crucial to note the absolute centrality of sibling love to Game of Thrones. No spoilers here but the entire saga of the breakup of the Stark family, whose wanderings in the Westeros wilderness make up the core of the series, is occasioned by the father Ned and the son Bran discovering the incest of the queen Cersei and her brother Jaime Lannister. It is the precipitating incident for the entire action of the plot. In addition, at the end of season seven, another incident of incest occurs, this time unpremeditated but casting a shadow over what has been presented as a meeting of characters whose purity is unquestioned.

Taboo

In the BBC series Taboo, the lead character, played by Tom Hardy, returns to 1830s England as a kind of more noir-ish Count of Monte Cristo, with a plan for revenge on the East India Bay Company. He’s a sort of prince of darkness or devilish outsider, and part of his nonconformity is his absolute unfettered desire for his stepsister, the only person he loves, with that desire seen not as forbidden as the title might suggest, but as sanctioned because of the pure nature of the character’s lust. He tells her in the opening that he will have her, though this pledge eventually drives her insane. Jaime and Cersei’s forbidden lovemaking in Game of Thrones is among the sexiest soft-core scenes of the series – that is, is granted a patina of seductiveness enhanced and made more titillating by its forbidden quality. In both series incestuous love among the very rich, rather than being frowned upon, is presented as fetish object of fascination.

There are two crucial points to make about the new incest. First, the seductive quality is possible because it seems to be taking place between equals – it is brother and sister love. The more destructive, yet more common forms of incest, father-daughter, mother-son, are not discussed since there the harm is more obvious. In terms of media presentation, for a long time the subject itself was taboo, though of course we know it has been a factor in all social strata, with Freud focusing prominently on the subject in the upper middle class of Vienna in what used to be called “family violence,” but is now being presented as sexy groundbreaking escapade.

bluevelvet

The topic was previously most often approached obliquely and is the subject of David Lynch’s most spectacular work. In Blue Velvet there is a scene where Jeffrey, hiding in the closet, observes his surrogate “parents” Dorothy and Frank in an abusive violent interchange that harks back to Freud’s primal scene where the child first knows that its parents make love, and which is replayed in Game of Thrones with Bran Stark’s discovery of Cersei and Jaime. Jeffrey then sleeps with Dorothy which results in an eruption of violence.

Lynch’s most explicit statement about the destruction caused by incest is of course the first version of Twin Peaks where the killing of the teenage prom queen Laura Palmer, the focus of the mystery of the series, is revealed to be the result of an incestuous coupling. But Lynch’s presentation of incest is critical of the destructive violence, psychic and physical, let loose by this uneven power relationship exercised by adults over still unsuspecting children. In GOT and Taboo the act itself is seen as pure meeting of equals, though this is seldom the case.

The second point may be more crucial. The incest presented on the two shows is lodged in the upper classes, the (as we would say today) one tenth of one percent. In Game of Thrones it takes place among the royals, the elite of the elite, which the series focuses on, with only glancing interest in the common people. In Taboo it takes place between the inheritors of the owner of a shipping company, with a baronial mansion. Taboo though does not just display upper-class privilege: it is also sharply critical of British capitalism, with its villain being the East India Bay Company, presented as a powerful rival to the state.

Incest among the lower classes is of course always frowned upon, and often the subject of jokes about inbreeding, seen as the background for a kind of primitiveness and backwardness that is part of the tissue of lower-class representation. On television this ranges from The Dukes of Hazzard to a more knowing comment on the misery of poverty in Justified. GOT emphasizes not only the off-handed sexy nature of Jaime and Cersei’s coupling, his famous line in dispensing Bran, “The things I do for love,” but also the melding of a new kind of power couple that by comparison make Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie seem like welfare recipients.

What is emphasized is not the secrecy of the couple but their lust for power. Jamie tells Cersei (in language I’ve cleaned up) “Curse prophecy, curse fate, curse everyone but us. Everything they’ve taken from us we’re going to take back and more.” And what is equally emphasized is the exclusiveness of the couple and their position above everyone else as Cersei later replies to Jamie, “We’ve always been together, we’ll always be together, we’re the only two people in the world.”

download

What this last sentiment suggests is that the new incest in GOT’s allegorical past is an expression of the present-day upper strata of the upper class, which since they are so much richer than everyone else and since there are increasingly fewer and fewer of them, their mating choices are now limited and they are almost forced to keep it within the family. It’s a sign of their increasing isolation and withdrawal from the life of the planet, as sociologist Serge Paugam reports in a recent study of the rich in Rio de Janeiro, Delhi and Paris. He describes how the upper strata lock themselves in what are called golden ghettos, disdain taking public transportation, and in fact no longer frequent public spaces, preferring to take refuge in their highly securitized residences and send their children only to private establishments where they will never encounter those outside their class.

Recently the Paradise Papers revealed that for example, the family of the richest man in France, Bernard Arnault, which owns the luxury umbrella company LVMH which includes Louis Vuitton, Dior, and Mark Jacobs and has a net worth of over 60 billion dollars, shelters itself at a secret complex outside of London with covered swimming pools, private gym and separate quarters for guests.

They reveal corporations and their wealthy owners concealing wealth either illegally or operating on the edge of legality, in another analogy to incest. Le Monde economist Gabriel Zucman, in studying the revelations of these leaked documents, found that 600 billion dollars is transferred offshore each year by multinationals, with Europe losing one-fifth of its tax base, 60 billion euros, in hidden funds and with France alone losing 11 billion.

tax avoidance

Zucman declares that this secret tax avoidance is the principal motor increasing global inequality, with 10 percent of global wealth now hidden in offshore accounts. Since it is so secret the heightening disparity of income, which has been so much fretted over in recent years, is much greater than anyone had imagined. Clearly, the very rich are getting much richer and are keen to keep their wealth secret, hiding it from nation states not only to avoid tax but also because to flaunt it in public is to encourage a reckoning.

Further evidence of the incestuous nature of these relations can be seen in the banks narrowing their client lists, as HSBC’s Swiss bank which carried 30,000 clients with a combined net worth of 3.9 million dollars in pre-crash 2007, by 2014 carried only 10,000 clients, that is two-thirds less, but with almost double the net worth of 6.6 million.

75 percent of assets stowed in foreign countries are undeclared, which deprive governments around the world of taxes needed to improve the shared wealth of the nation and this crisis is particularly acute in developing countries where the need is greatest. The Lannisters and their contemporary equivalents are, in their interior enclaves, oblivious to the fact that their wealth is accrued at the expense of those most in need.

The solution according to Zucman harks back to the incest question, and that is public accounting. Today’s wealthiest corporations and leaders, sheltered in incestuous enclaves like Cersei and Jaime sequestered in their extravagant love nest at King’s Landing, must face the reckoning of those they have ruled over so unfairly since the global crash of 2008.

           

Uma Thurman at Series Mania
Wednesday, 10 April 2019 13:00

Serial TV: Platforms, Concentration and The Same Old Thing

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

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

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

DB sereismania

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DB the red line

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

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

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

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

DB Exit

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

DB folklore

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

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

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

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

DB chimerica

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

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

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

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

Page 1 of 3