Dennis Broe

Dennis Broe

Professor Dennis Broe teaches Film and Television at the Sorbonne. He is the author of: Film Noir, American Workers and Postwar Hollywood; Class, Crime and International Film Noir: Globalizing America's Dark Art; and Maverick or How the West Was Lost. His segment "Bro on the World Film Beat" appears on Arts Express on the Pacifica Radio Network and is also available at The James Agee Cinema Circle. 

Let's think about bread: the internet moves from community forum to shopping mall
Sunday, 10 December 2017 21:22

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

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

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

DB netflix graph

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

DB not broken

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

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

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

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

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

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

DB 6 bread riots

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

DB 5 marie antionette

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

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

 

                                     

                         

Framing the Russian Revolution
Monday, 27 November 2017 13:37

Framing the Russian Revolution

Published in Cultural Commentary

 Dennis Broe takes Western cultural institutions and critics to task for their failure to properly convey the revolutionary energy of Soviet art and politics after 1917.

This month marks the 100th Anniversary of the Russian Revolution, October 25th on the Russian Calendar at that time which was November 7th in the West. The Centennial is being celebrated and/or denigrated with various events, exhibitions, and interpretations here in Europe. What is now emerging as the dominant interpretation is a picture of the event in which the February 1917 overthrow of the Czar in Saint Petersburg is now celebrated as the beginning of a democracy that was brutally extinguished with the October Revolution, in which Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks conspiratorially seized power and which led inevitably to the foundation of an undemocratic regime in the guise of a dictatorship of the proletariat.

DB Cult Leader Vladimir Lenin

Likewise, the art of the period immediately before and after the Bolshevik Revolution, a flourishing of all the arts including photography, graphics, painting, theater, cinema and music, is now for the first time being branded as the murderous expression of a totalitarian regime, and this in the heroic period of 1917 to 1932.

All kinds of former truths are being challenged, with the French magazine Telerama now referring to the “myth” of Franco-English imperialism ready to aggress Russia as an excuse for the Bolshevik takeover and with the supposedly left-wing daily Liberation choosing on the week of the centennial to run instead of a consideration of that event an extensive book review of the political camps, with the caveat that before marking the revolution it is first necessary to read the book The Goulag.

The most prominent anti-revolutionary book though is Berkeley professor Yuri Slezine’s The House of Government which essentially presents the Soviet leadership as a cult that lived in the same state-owned building. The book sees the revolution itself as a secular form of fanaticism and the Soviets as fanatics who took the religious version of the final days and the apocalypse and reinterpreted it as the inevitable coming of a global revolution that would redeem humanity.

To this liberal onslaught must be added the attack by the British newspaper The Guardian’s art critic Jonathan Jones on a monumental exhibition on the “Art of the Revolution” at the Royal Academy claiming that the celebration of one of the most fertile periods in the history of art instead “sentimentalises” a “murderous chapter in human history” and comparing the Bolsheviks in this early period of the Revolution to the Nazis.

RR The Defence of Petrograd Alexander Deineka 1928

Alexander Deineka, the Defence of Petrograd, from the RA exhibition

The review appeared before the exhibition opened and functioned as British liberals replaying Churchill’s dictum about the Soviets that he would strangle the baby in its cradle, here strangling the exhibition before it could be seen. It is worth noting that the attack is largely being waged by the liberal press, coinciding with a new McCarthyism being led in the U.S. by the Democrats, in which everything Russian is and now must be demonized.

No doubt the failures of the October Revolution were numerous, including famine and starvation in the Ukraine and a rapid installation of camps for political prisoners, but so were the triumphs. Lenin seized power with the support of the army and the workers on one burning question, an end to the war which was decimating the working classes of Europe. He was nearly the only person to urge what he called “Revolutionary Defeatism,” claiming that a defeat for the capitalist nationalists in the war meant a victory and a halt to the slaughtering of working people by each other in the trenches and by new technologies of increasingly deadly and remote killing machines.

It is very easy to make the claim that it was the Soviet takeover and the actual threat of international revolution that ended World War I since the Western powers recognized they no longer had the luxury of slaughtering each other since there was now a real threat to their existence and they, the U.S., France and Britain most prominently, at the time of signing the armistice, sent expeditionary forces to destroy the Soviet state.

DB SovietWoman1920

Soviet Poster, 1920.The inscriptions on the buildings read "library", "kindergarten", "school for grown-ups", etc.

To this may be added that it was yet again the Soviet “cult” and the Russian people that two decades later halted the next form of Western capitalist barbarity in the guise of the Nazi conquest of Europe. At the height of the Civil War, 1918-22, while battling for their survival, Lenin’s Bolsheviks pursued a policy of combatting illiteracy, teaching reading and writing in the various republics in 40 different languages and dialects and refusing to impose Russian Cyrillic. In 1919, at the worst moment of being attacked and under siege, the Soviets boasted 1200 reading clubs and 6200 political, scientific and agricultural circles and by the end of the war 5 million children were in schools, reversing the Czar’s policy of education only for the elite under which only one child in five was educated.

Along with this new literacy, during the war and after, until the end of the first five year plan in 1932, went a flourishing and democratising of especially the visual and more crucially the graphic arts, particularly posters with elaborate and splashy typography and image and photo collages which appeared in trams, on factory walls and throughout the cities in places where crowds passed.

This was a kind of embracing of popular media which in the West would simply be absorbed into the advertising industry. Theatere began to incorporate popular elements of the circus as Meyerhold countered Stanislavski’s psychological realism with a biomechanical method stressing collective and machine-like movement. Constructivism, likewise an incorporation of the power of the machine into painting and cinema, took the pre-war dynamism of Italian Futurism at a moment when that form was embracing a fascist militarism and instead reinterpreted the machine as a source for good in the service of the people and not as simply a killing machine.

Soviet avant-garde art, the currents of which began before the war and was let loose by the earlier Revolution of 1905, greatly influenced the West in the theatrical experimentation and de-psychologizing of Brecht, in the bringing of abstract notions of design to mass production in the Weimar Bauhaus School, and in the ways Eisenstein’s montage in the films Strike and Battleship Potemkin were incorporated into the cinema of Hitchcock.

The period also featured a rethinking of the purpose of the museum, opposing the collector instinct of museums in the West as being dead archives or conversely as simply presenting art as utterly separated from life and only related to its own history. To counter this, the Soviets proposed open air museums integrated into the community, and a broader definition of what constituted art to include folk art and street design. These innovations are now official policy - uncredited to the Revolution of course - of many museums such as the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art whose director boasts their incorporation.

The Revolution though in the year of its centenary has in many ways been sidelined. The Royal Academy exhibit was Europe’s most extensive. Paris’s Pompidou on the other hand chose instead to highlight Russian dissident art in its exhibit Kollektsia, which traced extensively the decades from the 1950s to the 1970s, an uninspired period which broke down into Sots Art which was the Russian equivalent of Pop Art and various returns to the Constructivism.

Elsewhere, there is a current exhibit at the library of the Museum of the Army titled “And 1917 Becomes Revolution” with examples of this flourishing of the arts alongside Western figurative paintings of the pope blessing and sanctioning the slaughter of the troops. There is also a recounting of how two French members, out of a delegation of four, sent to convince the Soviets to stay in the war instead “went native” and converted to their side in favor of the revolution.

It’s a nice exhibit but very difficult even to find in the museum and overshadowed by the current Army blockbuster about the everyday life of a soldier, an exhibit more in favor of war. And indeed World War I over the last three years is everyday honored in its centennial while the event that halted the war is slighted.

CL Beat the whites with the red wedge by El Lissitzky 1919

By far the most interesting European exhibit was in Venice at the Palazzo Zatere which has been taken over by the V-A-C Foundation, a joint Moscow-Venice group that staged “Space, Force, Construction” which attempted to update the radical thrust of the arts in this period with contemporary art with a political bent over the last three decades. Here was: Lissitzky’s “Beat the Whites With the Red Wedge,” a geometrical description of the Soviets outnumbered and surrounded but surviving by ingenuity......

DB Tatlins Tower

......and a recreation of Tatlin’s Monumental “Tower of the Future” which was an attempt to address the mistakes of the Tower of Babel.....

DB Rodchenkos lunchroom

........and Rodchenko’s design for a worker’s lunchroom/study center, where eating and acquiring of knowledge go on simultaneously.

DB Kuleshovs By The Law

Lev Kuleshov's By the Law

Probably the continent’s most thrilling exhibit of Soviet art though is the currently ongoing French Cinematheque series “The USSR of Cineastes” which covers the period of the 1920s through the end of World War II. Beyond Eisenstein’s Strike and Potemkin, the series contains screenings of the anti-petit bourgeois House on Trubnaya Street, a comedy by Boris Barnet about the maltreatment of a peasant woman by the building’s small business elite; Lev Kuleshov’s By the Law, a montage experiment and adaptation of a Jack London short story about how the greed of an international mining expedition in Alaska turns deadly; and The Yellow Ticket, Feodor Ostep’s portrait of a wet nurse, abused by her baronial employer and then cast out into prostitution.

DB Feodor Osteps The Yellow Ticket

Feodor Osteps, The Yellow Ticket

Why the downgrading of the Revolution? Is it not because in these times which due to increasing income disparity in the West, the brutalisation of the world by industrial climate change, and the ever disappearing support of the state for any form of worker aid or comfort, Revolution is certainly on the table and discomforting to an increasingly shrinking cadre of elites?

Yet the dissatisfaction in whole deindustrialized areas left for dead in France, the US, and Britain is being channeled into pro-nationalist, anti-immigrant sentiment that is the opposite of Lenin’s call for an international joining of the workers across the West and the world to rise up.

Instead the Russian Revolution, which twice halted capitalist barbarity on a global scale, is characterized as merely barbarous itself. At the moment when the world is most in need of it, Western elites have been very careful in this year of the centenary to ignore or deny the energy that inspired one of the great hopes of humanity in the twentieth century.

Framing the Russian Revolution
Friday, 03 November 2017 21:20

Framing the Russian Revolution

Published in 1917 Centenary

 Dennis Broe takes Western cultural institutions and critics to task for their failure to properly convey the revolutionary energy of Soviet art and politics after 1917.

This month marks the 100th Anniversary of the Russian Revolution, October 25th on the Russian Calendar at that time which was November 7th in the West. The Centennial is being celebrated and/or denigrated with various events, exhibitions, and interpretations here in Europe. What is now emerging as the dominant interpretation is a picture of the event in which the February 1917 overthrow of the Czar in Saint Petersburg is now celebrated as the beginning of a democracy that was brutally extinguished with the October Revolution, in which Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks conspiratorially seized power and which led inevitably to the foundation of an undemocratic regime in the guise of a dictatorship of the proletariat.

DB Cult Leader Vladimir Lenin

Likewise, the art of the period immediately before and after the Bolshevik Revolution, a flourishing of all the arts including photography, graphics, painting, theater, cinema and music, is now for the first time being branded as the murderous expression of a totalitarian regime, and this in the heroic period of 1917 to 1932.

All kinds of former truths are being challenged, with the French magazine Telerama now referring to the “myth” of Franco-English imperialism ready to aggress Russia as an excuse for the Bolshevik takeover and with the supposedly left-wing daily Liberation choosing on the week of the centennial to run instead of a consideration of that event an extensive book review of the political camps, with the caveat that before marking the revolution it is first necessary to read the book The Goulag.

The most prominent anti-revolutionary book though is Berkeley professor Yuri Slezine’s The House of Government which essentially presents the Soviet leadership as a cult that lived in the same state-owned building. The book sees the revolution itself as a secular form of fanaticism and the Soviets as fanatics who took the religious version of the final days and the apocalypse and reinterpreted it as the inevitable coming of a global revolution that would redeem humanity.

To this liberal onslaught must be added the attack by the British newspaper The Guardian’s art critic Jonathan Jones on a monumental exhibition on the “Art of the Revolution” at the Royal Academy claiming that the celebration of one of the most fertile periods in the history of art instead “sentimentalises” a “murderous chapter in human history” and comparing the Bolsheviks in this early period of the Revolution to the Nazis.

RR The Defence of Petrograd Alexander Deineka 1928

Alexander Deineka, the Defence of Petrograd, from the RA exhibition

The review appeared before the exhibition opened and functioned as British liberals replaying Churchill’s dictum about the Soviets that he would strangle the baby in its cradle, here strangling the exhibition before it could be seen. It is worth noting that the attack is largely being waged by the liberal press, coinciding with a new McCarthyism being led in the U.S. by the Democrats, in which everything Russian is and now must be demonized.

No doubt the failures of the October Revolution were numerous, including famine and starvation in the Ukraine and a rapid installation of camps for political prisoners, but so were the triumphs. Lenin seized power with the support of the army and the workers on one burning question, an end to the war which was decimating the working classes of Europe. He was nearly the only person to urge what he called “Revolutionary Defeatism,” claiming that a defeat for the capitalist nationalists in the war meant a victory and a halt to the slaughtering of working people by each other in the trenches and by new technologies of increasingly deadly and remote killing machines.

It is very easy to make the claim that it was the Soviet takeover and the actual threat of international revolution that ended World War I since the Western powers recognized they no longer had the luxury of slaughtering each other since there was now a real threat to their existence and they, the U.S., France and Britain most prominently, at the time of signing the armistice, sent expeditionary forces to destroy the Soviet state.

DB SovietWoman1920

Soviet Poster, 1920.The inscriptions on the buildings read "library", "kindergarten", "school for grown-ups", etc.

To this may be added that it was yet again the Soviet “cult” and the Russian people that two decades later halted the next form of Western capitalist barbarity in the guise of the Nazi conquest of Europe. At the height of the Civil War, 1918-22, while battling for their survival, Lenin’s Bolsheviks pursued a policy of combatting illiteracy, teaching reading and writing in the various republics in 40 different languages and dialects and refusing to impose Russian Cyrillic. In 1919, at the worst moment of being attacked and under siege, the Soviets boasted 1200 reading clubs and 6200 political, scientific and agricultural circles and by the end of the war 5 million children were in schools, reversing the Czar’s policy of education only for the elite under which only one child in five was educated.

Along with this new literacy, during the war and after, until the end of the first five year plan in 1932, went a flourishing and democratising of especially the visual and more crucially the graphic arts, particularly posters with elaborate and splashy typography and image and photo collages which appeared in trams, on factory walls and throughout the cities in places where crowds passed.

This was a kind of embracing of popular media which in the West would simply be absorbed into the advertising industry. Theatere began to incorporate popular elements of the circus as Meyerhold countered Stanislavski’s psychological realism with a biomechanical method stressing collective and machine-like movement. Constructivism, likewise an incorporation of the power of the machine into painting and cinema, took the pre-war dynamism of Italian Futurism at a moment when that form was embracing a fascist militarism and instead reinterpreted the machine as a source for good in the service of the people and not as simply a killing machine.

Soviet avant-garde art, the currents of which began before the war and was let loose by the earlier Revolution of 1905, greatly influenced the West in the theatrical experimentation and de-psychologizing of Brecht, in the bringing of abstract notions of design to mass production in the Weimar Bauhaus School, and in the ways Eisenstein’s montage in the films Strike and Battleship Potemkin were incorporated into the cinema of Hitchcock.

The period also featured a rethinking of the purpose of the museum, opposing the collector instinct of museums in the West as being dead archives or conversely as simply presenting art as utterly separated from life and only related to its own history. To counter this, the Soviets proposed open air museums integrated into the community, and a broader definition of what constituted art to include folk art and street design. These innovations are now official policy - uncredited to the Revolution of course - of many museums such as the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art whose director boasts their incorporation.

The Revolution though in the year of its centenary has in many ways been sidelined. The Royal Academy exhibit was Europe’s most extensive. Paris’s Pompidou on the other hand chose instead to highlight Russian dissident art in its exhibit Kollektsia, which traced extensively the decades from the 1950s to the 1970s, an uninspired period which broke down into Sots Art which was the Russian equivalent of Pop Art and various returns to the Constructivism.

Elsewhere, there is a current exhibit at the library of the Museum of the Army titled “And 1917 Becomes Revolution” with examples of this flourishing of the arts alongside Western figurative paintings of the pope blessing and sanctioning the slaughter of the troops. There is also a recounting of how two French members, out of a delegation of four, sent to convince the Soviets to stay in the war instead “went native” and converted to their side in favor of the revolution.

It’s a nice exhibit but very difficult even to find in the museum and overshadowed by the current Army blockbuster about the everyday life of a soldier, an exhibit more in favor of war. And indeed World War I over the last three years is everyday honored in its centennial while the event that halted the war is slighted.

CL Beat the whites with the red wedge by El Lissitzky 1919

By far the most interesting European exhibit was in Venice at the Palazzo Zatere which has been taken over by the V-A-C Foundation, a joint Moscow-Venice group that staged “Space, Force, Construction” which attempted to update the radical thrust of the arts in this period with contemporary art with a political bent over the last three decades. Here was: Lissitzky’s “Beat the Whites With the Red Wedge,” a geometrical description of the Soviets outnumbered and surrounded but surviving by ingenuity......

DB Tatlins Tower

......and a recreation of Tatlin’s Monumental “Tower of the Future” which was an attempt to address the mistakes of the Tower of Babel.....

DB Rodchenkos lunchroom

........and Rodchenko’s design for a worker’s lunchroom/study center, where eating and acquiring of knowledge go on simultaneously.

DB Kuleshovs By The Law

Lev Kuleshov's By the Law

Probably the continent’s most thrilling exhibit of Soviet art though is the currently ongoing French Cinematheque series “The USSR of Cineastes” which covers the period of the 1920s through the end of World War II. Beyond Eisenstein’s Strike and Potemkin, the series contains screenings of the anti-petit bourgeois House on Trubnaya Street, a comedy by Boris Barnet about the maltreatment of a peasant woman by the building’s small business elite; Lev Kuleshov’s By the Law, a montage experiment and adaptation of a Jack London short story about how the greed of an international mining expedition in Alaska turns deadly; and The Yellow Ticket, Feodor Ostep’s portrait of a wet nurse, abused by her baronial employer and then cast out into prostitution.

DB Feodor Osteps The Yellow Ticket

Feodor Osteps, The Yellow Ticket

Why the downgrading of the Revolution? Is it not because in these times which due to increasing income disparity in the West, the brutalisation of the world by industrial climate change, and the ever disappearing support of the state for any form of worker aid or comfort, Revolution is certainly on the table and discomforting to an increasingly shrinking cadre of elites?

Yet the dissatisfaction in whole deindustrialized areas left for dead in France, the US, and Britain is being channeled into pro-nationalist, anti-immigrant sentiment that is the opposite of Lenin’s call for an international joining of the workers across the West and the world to rise up.

Instead the Russian Revolution, which twice halted capitalist barbarity on a global scale, is characterized as merely barbarous itself. At the moment when the world is most in need of it, Western elites have been very careful in this year of the centenary to ignore or deny the energy that inspired one of the great hopes of humanity in the twentieth century.

The Shape of Water
Tuesday, 19 September 2017 07:59

Venice Film Festival 2017: Part Two

Published in Films

Dennis Broe, on the World Film Beat, gives a windup report from the Venice Film Festival.

This was truly a festival that had something for everyone with its top prize, which coincides with my top film, going to Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water, making it by far the frontrunner for this year’s Best Picture Academy Award.

This 74th edition of the festival had Virtual Reality, Hollywood mid-level and indie productions, Netflix, and a host of Italian films including, most bizarrely, an animated up-to-date Napolitane version of Cinderella caught in the web of the mob in Gatta Cerentola, or Cinderella’s Cat, an animated version of the tale set in Naples, where the story actually originated in the 17th Century.

DB cinderelas cat

This modern version, which spans 15 years, recounts an evil stepmother and her gang of cutthroat children, though all in the thrall of the Camorra head who seduces their mother while singing traditional Neapolitan love ballads and wants to make the city a drug haven. Luckily Cinderella arrives to save the day.

Netflix which, as I mentioned in my last piece for Culture Matters was an uncontroversial presence at this festival, appeared with three lacklustre selections and one near masterpiece. In my last piece I discussed the disappointment of Our Souls at Night and Suburra. Also, less illuminating than it might have been was Cuba and the Cameraman, Jon Alpert’s version of a Seven Up saga, where he keeps returning to Cuba over five decades to visit on-camera interviewees including Fidel Castro.

Through visits to a trio of farmers and others the film recounts Cuba’s prosperity in the ‘70s, its desperation as the fall of the Soviet system leaves it without subsidies, and its slow reconversion into a tourist economy. As a travelogue the film is interesting, but as an examination of the many twists and turns the island has had to endure in the face of the U.S. blockade it is unsatisfactory.

DB wormwood

The revelation of the festival was Errol Morris’ Wormwood, about CIA mind control and assassination in the early 1950s. This six-part series is Morris’ best work since his initial Thin Blue Line. Like that groundbreaking combination of fiction and documentary, the fictional element on this film deepens and emotionally expands the story of an agronomist, initially wanting to enhance crops but instead swept up in the biological warfare which would eventually kill him, making the fictional component far more than a simple recreation.

Morris’ own interviews and revelations with the son of the assassinated scientist help penetrate an intelligence community quagmire that involves the Korean War, LSD, the CIA’s own answer to Korean and Chinese brainwashing, and layers and layers of concealment over decades that ultimately also involves a reluctant Sy Hersh, who makes an appearance in the last episode. The work is unflinching and brave as it follows the life-shattering quest of the scientist’s son to find –as did Hamlet which the series references – the truth about his father’s death.

Cold War revelations were one way of attacking the security state in many films at Venice. Another was Frederic Wiseman’s equally triumphant, and extraordinary rear-assault on Trump and his neoliberal ethos in Ex-Libris: The New York Public Library.

DB the new york public library

In the best New Deal tradition, Wiseman recounts the ways this library system acts each day as a force for democracy in the state. The library is shown as a vehicle to educate in poorer neighborhoods and to confront the digital divide through its everyday striving to ensure online access, its job programmes, and its challenging of audiences. It does this through presentations such as Richard Dawson’s opening defence of the non-religious community which he explains accounts for 20 percent of Americans, more than any specific religion, and Elvis Costello explains why it was appropriate, in the light of her attack on the working class, to be stomping on Margaret Thatcher’s grave.

Wiseman painstakingly accumulates the evidence of why the state, in its non-militarist, non-financial functions, in the form of this educational institutional which sees itself as working in that capacity, is essential to the well-being and moulding of communities in a way that gives the lie to Trump’s celebration of a state which only supports a nihilist, militarist and financial capitalism for the few, not the many.

One topic in week two was male violence and rape as it affected third world, minority, and indigenous women. This couldn’t have been more timely as two American students have last week accused the Florentine police, two carabineri, of molesting them after offering them a ride home from a disco. The Italian police are already under scrutiny for a crackdown on immigrants. This kind of revelation, if verified, is potentially devastating for the Italian economy, which is highly dependent on tourism.

The best of these films is the stunning Angels Wear White directed by Vivien Qu, the Chinese producer of the equally remarkable Black Coal: Thin Ice, about the deterioration of Chinese personal relations in the country’s capitalist phase. Here, in its presentation of a rape by a police commissioner of two young girls at a beach resort town in the highly industrialized southeast, the film, which focuses on the layers of cover-up that prevent justice from occurring, enhances its story of the exploitation of women with an examination of how this pattern is exacerbated by the money ethos that is permeating the landscape.

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One girl is bought off with a promise to pay for a boarding school education, a young woman witness is beaten by the police, and finally the full array of medical technology is corrupted to keep the commissioner’s power intact. The last image of the witness fleeing and trailing an iconic Marilyn Monroe statue illustrates the inability of women to finally escape this male carnage.

Warwick Thorton’s Australian Western Sweet Country has in the instigation of its plot the rape by a white ex-soldier of an Aboriginal woman. This might, in the Clint Eastwood or John Ford’s The Searchers mode, triggered a more standard revenge plot, with the lone white survivor out after the villain. Here though it is the white system of power that is ultimately on trial and the focus is on the cleverness of the aborigines inscribed under that system in being able to outwit their pursuers.

The film features Australian acting royalty Sam Neil and Bryan Brown but remains centred on the multiple injustices of the colonizers. Similar injustices in the U.S. South of 1944 are recounted in The Rape of Recy Taylor, where the stunning fact is not the rape of a churchgoing black woman by six white Alabama boys, but the fact that she came forward and confronted her attackers.

The NAACP sent its sharpest investigator, Rosa Parks – yes, unlike the myth, she was an activist well before her refusing to move to the back of the bus – and Parks’ investigation was threatened by the local sheriff. Recy ultimately failed to get justice and the rape devastated her and her family, but the retelling of this familiar story counters the corresponding myth of black men affronting white women in affirming also that these kind of incidents did not stop with slavery, where they were a rite of passage for slave owners’ sons. They continued into the sharecropping era of the 20th century and were the equivalent on the female side of the equally violent lynching carried out more often against black males.

My five best entries in the festival then were: The Shape of Water; This is Congo; Ex Libris: The New York Public Library; Angels Wear White and Wormwood. Worst films? James Toback’s Private Life of a Modern Woman; Darren Arronovsky’s repulsively incongruous torturing of Jennifer Lawrence in Mother; and Jim and Andy, a publicity puff piece designed to restart Jim Carrey’s flagging career based on “never revealed” footage of Carrey’s impersonating the superb Andy Kaufman on the set of the Kaufman biopic Man on the Moon.

Carrey comes off as a sycophant suck-up whose need to have everyone love him was the opposite of Kaufman’s groundbreaking combination of performance art and comedy, where he really didn’t care what anyone thought. Carrey spends his time terrorizing hairstylists and extras on the set and is convinced this celebrity privilege constitutes a genuine Kaufman resurrection.  Pathetic!

This is Bro on the World Film Beat leaving the Lido and signing off from Venice 2017.

Venice Film Festival 2017
Monday, 11 September 2017 20:17

Venice Film Festival 2017

Published in Films

Dennis Broe reviews the 2017 Venice Film Festival.

There are three main stories at this 74th edition of the oldest film festival in the world.

Venice as launch pad

The first is the increasing use of Venice as a launch pad for the Hollywood Academy Awards, with the streak of three straight Best Picture Winners broken last year as the Venice candidate – the oh-so-Hollywood La La Land – lost to an actual film deserving the best picture title Moonlight because of a change in Academy voters to include more women and minorities.

This year that voting contingent has been expanded further and so the Venice Best Picture contenders have taken into account that they may need to mix relevance with their more standard Hollywood feelgood fare, especially in this year of Trump.

The films they debuted on the red carpet of the Lido have in many ways attempted to expand the conversation while still focusing firmly on the largely white American middle class. Chiding that class for its isolation, it’s true, but also coming up against the limitations of having to speak in a language that class can understand.

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Only one film actually transcends this limitation, and does so in grand style, making it this year’s lead contender for the Best Picture. That is Guillermo Del Toro’s Cold War fantasy The Shape of Water, a film which in the blockbuster magical realist mode recalls Toro’s own Pan’s Labyrinth.

Water though actually harkens back to two other films of his, The Devil’s Backbone, a horror film set in the closing days of the fascist Franco’s Civil War in Spain which here equates the darkness of the American Cold War with those fascist times, and Hellboy, since this is also an intervention and rewriting of the superhero film with what initially looks like the monster from the Amazon, who recalls the Creature From the Black Lagoon, turning into a hero and the evolving monster becoming Michael Shannon’s maniacal and gangrenous Cold War Security head.

This is lead actress Sally Hawkins’ film. She plays a mute cleaner of a locked-down military facility who gets help in her quest to save what the military industrial complex calls a monster from an African-American female fellow worker. She stands up to her husband who is scared and hides behind the law, from a gay artist who tells the mute woman’s story, and from a Russian scientist.

This mermaid story in reverse, a rewriting of Splash from the female perspective, even features a musical number recalling La La Land. But here the musical number marks a much harder won triumph and a reprieve from the awfulness of the dreary Baltimore existence most souls were confined to in that bleak period.

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Two films that don’t quite succeed in transcending the limitations of their audience, but are well-intentioned, are George Clooney’s Suburbicon and Alexander Payne’s Downsizing. As does The Shape of Water, Suburbicon reworks the flattering idea that characters like Mad Men’s Don Draper were, despite all the racism and intolerance, charismatic builders of a new world.

Matt Damon, the star of both films, is a corporate chief financial officer slowly going to pieces, though he continues to retain his seemingly in control discourse of mastery as his world disintegrates. Here, late 50s middle America is revealed to be a place, like America today, of rigidly-confined, morally-bankrupt shysters.

The problem is that the Coen Brothers script eventually plays the material too broadly, and it moves from social satire to more blockbuster black comedy, losing all subtlety. A subplot involving a suburban rousting of a black family – complete with Confederate flag thrown in their window – resounds with the Virginia race riot,and reminds us that the supposed primitiveness of the late 1950s has in no way been transcended.

Downsizing, again with Damon as an American middle-class everyman, this time gently takes on both the destruction of the planet through global warming and the reduced expectations of his class, as Damon shrinks and enters a tiny gated community claiming to then be doing his part to save the world.

The tiny jokes are clever, as the film is a sort of Darby O’Gill and the Little People meets Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth, but the film seems like too little too late, as the Damon character finally realizes there is inequality even in his gated tiny world and eventually pledges to help right that wrong, but within the confines of the community. The transformation is touching but restores an image of the American middle class of essentially being “nice” people rather than a pampered class whose lifestyle and sense of entitlement is responsible for a global destruction that is now coming home to roost.

Far worse is Paul Schrader’s First Reformed. This follows the story of a priest questioning his values when confronted by an environmental activist, and reeks of a self-righteousness that is not only Schrader at his worst but Schrader combined with the pretentiousness of lead actor Ethan Hawkes, whose self-important projects are beginning to mark him as a Tom Cruise of the indie set. Can you say Vanilla Sky?

The film sees itself in the line of Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest but can’t help end up being closer to the blockbuster pretentiousness of a King of Kings here scaled down to fit a low budget.

Even worse is James Toback’s The Private Life of a Modern Woman, possibly the worst film of the festival which, like the Schrader film, uses the diary writing cliché – once a vibrant technique in French New Wave filmmaking – to here recount the privileged status of a Hollywood star. She is played lethargically by Sienna Miller, who has murdered her lowlife boyfriend, thrown him in a trunk and rationalizes the killing by claiming it has made her a more aware person. Far better actors traipse through her apartment – Alec Baldwin, Charles Grodin – but to no avail, as she continues her pop aphorisms which translate as the truth of the privileged and are more revealing about the snobby righteousness of this class then they are meant to be.

Venice as innovator

The second major story is the festival’s willingness to innovate along with its ecumenism. It is all things to all people, being able this year to absorb the Hollywood onslaught since, as one producer put it, low and mid-level U.S. production, like the films discussed above, now depends on the festival circuit and European festivals in particular for successful openings.

The trick is for mid-level Hollywood production not to dominate European films at Euro festivals. That the pendulum may have swung too far in this direction could be seen at the booing of the festival’s logo this year which was entirely oriented toward Hollywood with outlines of Freddy Kruger, Luke Skywalker and Gene Kelly dancing across Italian screens. This year though there are more and – so claims the festival’s director Alberto Barbera – better Italian films as well.

A major area of innovation is that Venice this year is the first major film festival to host a Virtual Reality competition, with 22 films varying from 6 minutes to Taiwanese director Tsai Ming Ling’s 56 minute first VR feature, The Deserted. The VR festival is being held on the island of Lazarretto Vecchio, once a hospital for quarantining plague victims.

It is now turned into a VR theatre where you sit with about 20 others, put on the goggles and headsets and watch. Tsai’s film, is a continuation of his aesthetic, sometimes called Asian Miserabilism, which is a pejorative description of films which champion the lives of the downtrodden.

Barbera has also absorbed easily both Netflix, Amazon and television, claiming that audiences have many ways of viewing, and refusing to discriminate among them, which is very different than the Cannes controversy over Netflix’ presence in the competition.

The two Netflix entries though were subpar. Our Souls at Night reunited Robert Redford and Jane Fonda, who have both been on the screen for six decades, in a film which though directed by the Indian helmer of the very good The Lunchbox failed to deliver on its concept. The very straightforward Fonda character knocks on Redford’s door and proposes that these two retirees, neighbours for years, begin sleeping together to bare their souls in what I guess amounts to ‘meeting cute’ for the geriatric set.

The problem is that they never do get to talking in a meaningful way and when the Fonda character does present a painful event that changed her life, it is quickly glanced over. She looks great on screen, more Barbarella than On Golden Pond, but her character is underwritten and shrill, while Redford’s restrained male is much more likable. A shame they couldn’t have been more equal.

The other main Netflix event was its production of the Italian Television Series Suburra where the first two episodes were screened. The series which, like the extremely successful Gomorrah, follows a book and a film, details a mob attempt at a takeover of a Roman beach at Ostia to turn it into a port for the importation of cocaine from the South.

The political manoeuvring involves the Vatican, the Rome government, and the local mob being leaned on by the Sicilian Mafia. The detailing of this plot is excellent but the series, in an attempt to expand the material and “skew young”, makes way too much of a blackmail attempt of a monsignor by three youths. They are all disaffected, as the unemployment rate among the young in Italy is 35%, but here their outre lifestyle is expressed in boring overbearing club music as heroic, rather than as what has been left to them. The series has a long way to go to achieve the casual and truthful cruelty of how the mob ruins lives and structures its economy in Gomorrah.

Venice as critic of the refugee crisis

The third story of the festival is the onscreen concern with refugees which in a way accounted for three of the best films of the first week. Eye on Juliet by Canadian director Kim Nguyen is a drone romance, a highly improbable linking of capitalist technology protecting Middle East oil pipelines and a woman trying to flee a stifling situation.

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The artist Ai Wei Wei’s Human Flow tracks the refugee question, as Europe closes its borders to those who are fleeing wars – from Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria –
that the Western powers instigated. The film, often in exquisitely beautiful shots tracks the plight of those fleeing wars caused by climate degradation, or imperialist attempts to garner their home countries’ resource wealth.

A stunning overhead shot descends slowly on what at first look like ants and then we watch as civilians are rousted from refugee camps by Turkish forces, in a deal that Europe has used to hide the crisis. The film, where Ai Wei Wei uses his status as an art world superstar to call attention to the worse migrant crisis since World War II, could not be more timely. Apart from Trump’s renewed call for a US-Mexican Wall, the four Western European powers met last week and created a quota system which will limit Muslims from entering Western Europe, and the Italian police in Rome thuggishly dismantled a camp of Africans fleeing war and climate poverty.

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Finally, the very wonderful documentary This is Congo, which along with The Shape of Water is the best film so far of the festival. It explores through its tracing of four characters the troubled history of that mineral rich country, also a site of imperialist resource grabs, and refugee crises.

The film opens on verdant fields and cow pastures, as a young colonel in the Congolese army says he will return to farming when his job is done. We then follow him as he in honoured by the president Joseph Kabila, little realizing the honour is about beefing him up as he is sent into the danger zone of the mineral processing city of Goma where a rebel army has taken control.

His bravery defeats the mercenaries but he then falls victim himself to the Congolese authorities, and his story truly illustrates why wars have infested the country for so long. The colonial past is rehearsed as is the role of the West in Rwanda and Uganda in fomenting conflict and fragmenting the mineral rich eastern Congo.

The filmmakers also had access to the rebel leader who spouts revolutionary patter to disguise a naked grab for wealth; to a tailor who must flee the so-called rebels arriving in a refugee camp with only his sewing machine; and to Mama Romance, a mineral smuggler whose stones are used for weddings.

The country’s history is rich in betrayal since the American-inspired killing of the truly revolutionary leader Lumumba, and the film well illustrates both the quagmire the country is mired in and the indomitable spirit of its people to continue the struggle.

Venice Biennale 2017
Monday, 11 September 2017 19:43

Venice Biennale 2017

Published in Visual Arts

Dennis Broe reviews the 2017 Venice Biennale.

This year’s Biennale is bigger but not necessarily better than the more overtly politicized 2015 version curated by Okwui Enwezor.

The event, which is running through November, is curated by the Paris Pompidou Center’s Christine Macel and represents in many ways a toning down of the more radical orientation of two years ago. Enwezor’s curated exhibition in the Guardini, the Venetian Guardians, opened with the pavilion in mourning, the entrance draped all in black, for the lingering effects of austerity and the still echoing financial crisis. This year’s Pavilion, design by Sam Gilliam, is draped in bright blue and red flags illustrating Macel’s guiding contention that “in a time of global disorder, art embraces life.”

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This is also quietly one of the most feminist or at any rate female art festivals ever staged. The mood is not sombre or critical and lies a bit outside the realm of more typical art world creation and celebration of celebrity. It’s more in touch with earthly goals, as in the documentation of Anne Halprin’s “Planetary Dance” staged in California’s Marin County. It abounds in materials that accentuate women’s traditional work, such as the male artist Lee Mingwei’s Mending Project that has various threads connecting different parts of the world, and Sheila Hicks’ giant balls of yarn, that are given pride of place at the end of the long hall of the larger curated exhibition in the Arsenale, Venice’s former boatmaking complex. And, finally, it is less under the sway of celebrity. Of the 120 artists, 103 are here for the first time.

The Arsenale is divided into different pavilions, and the Dionysian pavilion is an answer to so many years of women’s sexuality being expressed for the pleasure of men. Here sexuality is expressed of, often by, and for women. Hugette Caland’s vagina etchings have the raw elegance of Egon Schiele’s nudes without the commercial vulgarity of Tracey Emin’s. French-Algerian Kader Attia’s installation first presents a narrow hall where the records of various North African and Middle Eastern female musical artists are on display, in the more confining way the industry presents them. The work then opens up into a spacious but dark room with the artist’s videos, in a way that suggests their inner being beyond the confines of a male recording industry. Only Pauline Curnier Jardin’s sado-maso porn, in a digital video cave that conforms too closely to the male image of the dominating female, mars this foregrounding of female sexuality.

The Pavilion of the Earth illustrates the continuing rape of the planet in the lust for its raw materials. Julian Charriere from Switzerland highlights the coming gold rush in the new hunt for what is being called “white petroleum,” the lithium that powers cell phones and will power the electric car. Incidentally, huge deposits have been discovered under North Korea as the Trump administration makes its bid to stake its claim on them.

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Charriere’s drab towers of deposits, called Future Fossil Spaces, glow from the inside with the eerie blueish light of the mineral. Across the way are the Vietnamese artist Thu Van Tran’s depleted and mangled rubber trees, which remind us of one of the major reasons for French colonization of that country in the last century’s race for its most precious commodity.

Next to these, art superstar Gabriel Orozco’s more tepid mangled logs, titled Visible Labor, seemed languorous and overly convoluted. There is in this Biennale little follow-up to the Nigerian Enwezor’s focus on African Art, but one of the strongest moments of the Arsenal was the indigenous Inuit artist Kanaginak Pootoogook’s depictions of that besieged community participating in a whale hunt and accosted in the office of a Canadian Mountie.

Marie Voignier’s Safari Memories employs the language of wealthy safari hunters, one talks of “clutching a U237 pistol in his belt,” to, as in Ulrike’s Seidel’s film Safari, catch the colonial mentality at work in those hunts. Although here, the rich privileged mood of the Euro hunters is much more ominously about power than Seidel’s later deluded middle-class following, in the wake of this earlier wave.

Though there were strong moments, the overall more laid back and in the end less confrontational mood of this Biennale, whose lacklustre title is Viva Arte Viva, easily could move from art as salvation to “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” with balls of yarn as ultimate signifiers only able to accomplish so much.

More could be gleaned from the country pavilions, those relics of a bygone nationalism, which in overall mood, outside the more typical Western powers, which propose in the sum total of their individual practices a more universalist answer than that offered by the curated event to the continuing horrors of capitalism.

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In the Arsenale, Georgia’s exhibit of a peasant house filled with rain that you could peer into, retained a kind of creepiness that suggested Jim’s finding of Huck Finn’s dead father, but also of the continuing decay of the former Soviet countries in the wake of their neoliberal “awakening.” This was echoed in the Latvian What Can Go Wrong, where Mikilis Fisers’ etchings of a planetary takeover by space invaders, with the creatures conducting at the Met while dead bodies hang from the curtains and parading up the Champs Elysees, playfully suggest that in our world ruled by the 1% the takeover has already occurred.

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In the apocryphal vein also was Italy’s Roberto Cuoghi’s Imitation of Christ where all kinds of distorted bodies of Christ on the cross suggest past histories of genocide – and a future genocide to come, as a Christ roasting in a digital oven echoes the new finding that within 20 years almost half of the U.S. population will lose their jobs to automation.

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The strongest exhibition though, and the supreme expression of this future terror, was Russia’s tripartite hall of first a demon towering over clay workers in a shadowy future, that echoed those depicted by Alfaro Siquieros in the World War II fascist period. This is followed in the next room by the writhing body of a woman on whom the modern terror of a fading capitalism is imprinted. And a final brightly lighted room that seems to be the digital answer but instead has bodies implanted in marble, imprisoned by the digital coding scrawled on the sculpture. The exhibit constituted a truly horrific imagining of our future present and the world toward which Trump, the Republican neo-cons and the Democrat new Cold War neo-liberals are steering us.

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Colonialism in both its old and newer forms is tackled in the New Zealand and Australian pavilions. Lisa Rhihana's diorama Pursuit of Venus traces the interaction between the British James Cook’s colonizing wave and the more peaceful daily pursuits of the Maori – dancing, jousting and preparing food, little dreaming of the holocaust that was to await them.

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Tracey Moffat equally traces the haunted arrival of Cook in Australia in The White Ships Sailed In through found footage of an arrival of a boat in the early part of the last century, the colonial equivalent of the Lumiere’s Arrival of a Train at the Station. A second film intercuts scenes of shocked actors in Hollywood films, Jimmy Stewart, Doris Day, with arriving refugees, making the stars’ trauma seem to be about their arrival. Brazil’s Hunting Ground in its first rooms seems to suggest simply urban decay but then a video reveals the hunted are those in the favela’s in this Most Dangerous Game of global inequality.

Uruguay picks up the theme of colonial brutality in its The Law of the Funnell where a simple wooden device used to brand cattle suggests the whole colonial system or “jail machine”. A sign on the side warned visitors that it was “forbidden to jump in” which I guess means that some visitors to the Biennale, oblivious to their own subjugation, cannot wait to be a part of it and have been hurling themselves into the funnel.

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The Greek pavilion was the most subtle and narratively involved illustration of technologies of conquest. The pavilion is a labyrinth through which the audience travels so that on the top floor there is a white-coated scientist explaining over multiple video screens why experimenting on humans is good for them. The pavilion then ends up with filmed debate over whether the results of the experiment should be used.

Clearly drawn from the Lost scenario of the Dharma Project, the Pavilion was itself a creepy expression of the role of experts in designing technologies that are leaving human concerns behind, in a way that the Greek people have been revisioned by the European Central Bank as a country that had to be reengineered to follow the neo-liberal model.

There are also a number of exhibitions outside the Biennale this year as Venice attempts, or rather is driven to, promote more and more of the city, as the competition between cities for a shrinking tourist dollar becomes grows ever more fierce.

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So now the back side of the city, called the Dorsoduro, is being promoted as a Museum Mile, a name originally coined by developers to describe New York’s upper Fifth Avenue. Spearheading this drive is the VAC Foundation, a joint Moscow-Venice group which has taken over Palazzo Zatere and this year transformed the former palace into a three level celebration of Soviet Art at the time of the 1917 Revolution in this year of its centennial and contemporary art that echoed those principles.

I will be talking more about this exhibition and other global exhibitions commemorating the Revolution in a later article. Here was a recreation of the Russian photocollagist Aleksandr Rodchenko’s worker’s cafeteria, a print of El Lissitzky’s Constructionist and geometrical illustration of the Civil War, an attempt by the Western imperial powers to wrest the country from the Soviets titled Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge, and a soundscape recreation of Vladmir Tatlin’s futurist Tower of Babel.

Alongside these works were Barbara Kruger’s 2015 Connect which presents the iphone as a device for both good and evil with “Pleasure” on one line being echoed by “Fraud” underneath, David Goldblatt’s 1980s photos collectively titled Going Home of weary South Africans returning from work in the apartheid machine, and Cao Fei’s animation of Marx, Confucius and Mao kicking around a soccer ball and debating the meaning of a good society in RMB City, his online city of the future where capital’s problems continue to play themselves out. Most interesting exhibit in the city, which you can access online at www.v-a-c.ru.

On until the closing of the Biennale are two exhibits which equally extend the critical thrust of the Biennale’s Country Pavilions. The Prada Foundation’s The Boat is Leaking The Captain Lied has three German artists taking over a Palazzo and installing film, theater and photographic works that question the direction of late capitalism.

The Prada at the moment is on the map as its Milan space currently features a Virtual Reality piece by Alejandro Inarritu on immigrants, that is causing many to for the first time consider the aesthetic merits and potential of the form. The film director Alexander Kluge weighs in on the ground floor of this exhibit with a film showing readers of newspapers questioning that content.

Elsewhere, photographer Thomas Demand’s office spaces radiate alienation and theater designer Anna Viebrock’s set installations equally recall the sterility of justice in a court setting and technological waste as a discarded computer is surrounded by other less mechanical waste. On the whole the project, while well-intentioned, was difficult to decipher, and attempted to cram too much information into a space that was poorly organized and demarcated.

Another area of the city that is being developed as an art space is the tiny island of San Giorgio. The church of San Giorgio Maggiore has been given over to the Italian artist and founder of the movement called Arte Povera Michangelo Pistoletto. Arte Povera challenged the dominance in the 1960s art world of Pop Art, positing in its return to materials and in its conceptual frame a consciousness of how commodities had been deformed by capital instead of merely a celebration of their dominance.

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We can see this in Pistoletto’s early Venus in Rags where a model recreation of the goddess is dwarfed by the tattered clothes of those too poor to worship at her alter. Today Pistoletto creates mammoth art designed to, like Viva Arte Viva, overcome differences and point to an art utopia. Sometimes this is expressed in his photo posts of Cubans, including the back of a Cuban street sweeper, and sometimes, as in his gigantic projections of the peace symbol of a figure 8, it reads as combination of Christo’s Gigantic Wrappings and Coke’s “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing.”

Art can teach us to sing, but without a notion of discord our songs too easily reproduce the mindlessness of a globe plunging ever more quickly over the abyss.

Nantes: On the Trail of Jules Verne, Phantasmagorical Machines and The Slave Trade
Tuesday, 29 August 2017 18:21

Nantes: On the Trail of Jules Verne, Phantasmagorical Machines and The Slave Trade

Published in Visual Arts

Dennis Broe visits and reviews an art trail in Nantes, France.

In the elevated quartier of Chantenay, where access to the sea is protected by the watchful eye of Saint Anne, Mary's mother, a little further along the embankment a starry-eyed boy gazes at an intent sea captain with a sextant, who is himself contemplating the passage to the ocean and to wider adventures. These twin statuary gazes are those of the young Jules Verne contemplating his future most famous character Captain Nemo, who will roam the ocean in a submarine in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

One hundred and fifty years after Verne's writings, which predicted the submarine, space voyage and what became deep sea drilling, this summer the city is again populated by "infernal machines" of all sizes and stripes, in a green line walk around 43 museums and installations, as the city continues to remake itself from industrial port to technological, architectural, and cultural centre. Sprawled on the grass next to the statue of the boyhood Verne were Africans, themselves emigrated to this former French capital of the infamous "Atlantic" slave route, only this time having undergone an opposite trip from Africa to France to make their fortune.

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Nantes, the sixth largest city in France and center of Brittany, which in the Middle Ages resisted incorporation into France, is a port city near the mouth of the Loire River. It's a region famous for its castles, wine and biking routes following the meandering of the river across the region. It was a shipbuilding centre in the 19th century, at the high period of French industrialization. With that industry having closed its doors, the city has had to revitalize itself and integrate itself into a global technological economy. Nantes' future though, as the walk along the trail exemplifies, owes much to its visionary past. It is descended from Verne's sense of adventure and recounting of the thrill of inventors mastering the elements, which today is also questioned as former visionary contraptions now must be integrated into a depleted planet.

The contrast between technological prowess and more simplified natural structures is highlighted in Oscillation, where a seemingly shimmering all natural wood pathway calls attention to its difference from the iron and steel girders being raised across the street in a construction of Les Halles, a new mall on the model of the shopping village that replaced Paris' once lively food market. This installation is one of many on the island in the middle of the city, the Ile de Nantes, which also brings Verne-like animal-mechanical devices to life including a mastodon whose snout sprays passersby, and a giant spider, who seems to have materialized out of the backlot of the film version of The Wild Wild West.

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They are part of the laboratory of designers Pierre Orefice and Francois Delaroziere termed "Les Machines De L'Ile." The island contains the Architectural School and boasts a series of entertaining exterior wonders including three-way table tennis in Ping Pong Park, a building with a hulking metal skin which whispers in what its creator, Rolf Julius, calls "an audible façade," and a sculpture composed of food packing crates which contained local produce called Splash protruding from the side of the Atlanbois building, which inside contains a replica of a forest where you can wander or sit.

On the mainland in traversing the city, the path begins with the "Lieu Unique" building in the spiraling shape of the LU brand of biscuit or cookies which was a part of the city's factory heritage but which has now been converted into an arts space this summer honoring Swiss artist H.R. Geiger, most famous for his creation of the monster in Ridley Scott's Alien and whose mixing of man, woman and machine suggests a latter day version of the ghostly apparitions of the Austrian Artist Alfred Kubin.

On the mainland near the Loire is Boris Chouvellon's half-eaten Ferris Wheel, stuck in plaster peopled by seafront plants titled The Missing Part (Le Part Manquante), an eerie, Coney Island-type reminder that oceans and beachfronts deteriorate. Farther along is the spookier Les Instruments, creepy mechanical animal dolls such at the mouse who giggles as behind him a paintball projectile sprays the wall in a homage to Jackson Pollock's drip dry technique, but also a frightening and chilly retort to the violence behind contemporary games that is the echo of the violence that circulates in society in general.

DBroe nantes museum

Two major cultural institutions are also a part of the trial. The Beaux Art, Musee D'Arts De Nantes, has reopened this summer after six years with a new design by the London team of Stanton Williams, award-winners for their compact execution of the Sainsbury Laboratory at Cambridge. Their Beaux Art design has delightfully opened up the interior display of the museum's over 900 objects by segmenting the building into a "cube," the main area for modern art, a "chapel" for temporary exhibitions, and the rectangular "palais" for the museum's historical collection ranging from the 13th to the 19th centuries and including two Bruegel landscape miniatures and a stunning Rembrandt portrait of a grizzled and lined old man. Meanwhile the opera house, Theatre Graslin, thrown open to the public in its offseason and which next season boasts nine productions, inside flies the black Anarchist flag which mechanically sways above the orchestra seats in Nicholas Darrot's BLKNTRNTL where the back and forth wavering duplicates and adds an element of worker participation to the conductor's commanding of the orchestra in this memory of the city's worker activist past.

The Jules Verne museum itself is a tender and more old-style look at the Nantes native and prolific author's creations whose 65 novels, not to mention plays and poems, many of which have become films, besides 20,000 Leagues include Journey to the Centre of the Earth, Around the World in 80 Days and the novel which became Swiss Family Robinson. Verne's novels also dealt with topical issues. His 1878 boy's adventure Dick Sand: A Captain at Fifteen, about a whaling boat which must be navigated by an apprentice, is also a late highlighting of the persistence of the slave trade which as the book would have it was still going on in 1876. This is the year the action takes place, in a book that is a softening and popularizing of Melville's innocence at sea in Billy Budd, and the cruelties of the slave trade in his Benito Cereno.

Part of Nantes wealth was accumulated in the Atlantic slave trade, of which Verne was well aware, as the city was said to have launched over 27,000 ships and transported over 550,000 Africans from the slave fort in West Africa to the New World French colonies of Haiti, Gradaloupe and Martinique. From which they returned loaded with sugar cane and cacao, harvested by these same slaves. Below the rampart on which stands the Verne museum is the city's "Memorial of the Abolition of Slavery" where above ground visitors walk on the names of slave ships, a walk of shame and reversal of the Cannes and Hollywood celebrity walks.

DB memorial

 

Below is a tracing of the years each country abolished slavery which in France began under the Revolution but was returned under Napoleon, not to be "finally" abolished until 1848 - and even then the decree granted the slave transporters an additional two years to implement it. The monument, which does not take up the question of Reparations for the part played by the slave trade in the fashioning of this exquisite city, nevertheless completes the art trail with a stark integration of the means employed to create the cultural capital necessary to produce a modern city and to burnish its historical legacy.

This last leg of the journey deepens the art trail experience in a way that makes for a more complex understanding of the nature of the global as not just material and aesthetic abundance and free circulation but as uneven abundance and circulation, founded on and still partially concealing exploitation. Something Jules Verne understood in his time as the global era dawned with the institution of the Atlantic Slave Trade.

Wonder Woman: a feminist anti-war fable?
Sunday, 09 July 2017 06:00

Wonder Woman: a feminist anti-war fable?

Published in Films

Feminist anti-war fable, or just another piece of cinematic propaganda enlisting feminism to sustain violent imperialism? Dennis Broe reviews the newly-released Wonder Woman. 

'Pure entertainment' is the handle of one twitter hashtag about the film which is now on its way to grossing 600 million worldwide, and is being hailed by critics as an unmitigated triumph. A feminist antiwar fable about equality both on the battlefield and in the superhero genre? That’s how the film is being billed. Would that it were truly so and that in the world of late capitalism it was possible to concoct something called pure entertainment. Unfortunately in the world we live in, that is hardly the case and the film equally can be read as a pro-war extravaganza that enlists and subverts its feminist cause in the service of a imperialist project, that unfortunately brings many of the evils and aggression of capitalism to the forefront of the superhero genre.

Let’s give credit where credit is due. This is a memorable intervention into a genre – the superhero film – which has up this point been entirely male focused. So that when women intervene, in say the pretty good Marvel Series Agent Carter, on ABC which is basically a women’s channel, and cancelled after two seasons, they originate as spin-offs of a male series, as Carter was spun off from Captain America.

Diana, princess of the Amazons brought up in an all-female world, though one in which she has a black nanny who is called her teacher, relates that in her reading of ancient texts she has learned that “Men are essential for procreation but when it comes to pleasure unnecessary,” giving the lie to Christian dogma which for so long forbid women’s pleasure. On the battlefield Diana is a marvel, in low-angle shots stressing her prowess as she destroys the World War I Germans, looking a lot like World War II Nazis, to an anthem that in the DC comic universe previously had only resounded for its male heroes.

Unfortunately, not everyone is cheering. Lebanon, still officially at war after Israel’s invasion in 2006, its fifth invasion of the country, has banned the film and Jordan and Tunisia are trying to figure out whether to follow suit. Its star, Gail Godot, who in the film fits that ultimate Hollywood moniker “fresh-faced” and who seems innocent in the film, served in the Israeli army around the time of one of its bloodier 2004 interventions into the Gaza strip.

Unlike some Israeli voices of peace, detailed in Amoz Gitai’s new film West of the Jordan River, Godot, a military trainer in the army, came out more gung-ho than when she entered and claimed she traded on her weapons use in the army to secure a role in the Fast and Furious franchise. Most notoriously, at the time of the 2014 Israeli invasion of the Gaza Strip – which in comic book terms given the might and the money behind that army is a little like Superman versus Bambi – as Palestinian women and children were being slaughtered, she posted on Facebook “I am sending my love and prayers to my fellow Israeli citizens,…risking their lives protecting my country…We shall overcome!!!"

Godot’s Diana is revealed in her full splendor as Wonder Woman, the first time we see the costume in its entirety, as she takes the battlefield against the Germans. She is surprised at any lack of equality for women – as when she tells the secretary of the American spy she has befriended, who says her job is to go where he tells her to go and do what he tells her to do, that where she comes from that is called slavery. And indeed in the Israeli army, where the real Godot merges with the cinematic Diana, there is female equality, with mandatory military service for women such that by 2011 33 percent of all the army and an astounding 51 percent of officers were women. while a 2000 law granted women equality in serving.

This is echoed in the film with the opening sequence of the Amazon’s warrior training, with this all-female island seemingly engaged in nothing but battle and claiming this preoccupation it is for self-defense. Not only Godot but all of the Amazons seem to speak with an Israeli accent which fosters the claim that the Israeli army itself, perhaps the most aggressive army in the world in terms of invasions of its neighbor’s territories, itself acts out of self-defence as both societies seem devoted to warfare. It’s a country which after being awarded 38 billion dollars in arms aid by Obama, the largest military aid deal in history, criticized the award as too little.

The feminism in Wonder Woman seems to be a very battle-ready one. As individual male aggression accelerates in more warlike and broken societies this makes a certain amount of sense, but the film utterly jettisons the idea that a feminist intervention might stand for pacifism and a way of compelling men to put down their weapons. Diana half-heartedly stands for peace but even she concludes by the end of the film that “ending war and bringing peace to mankind..is impossible… so I stay and fight.”

This may be the reality of the uneven world late capitalism has created, but if so it’s a fairly depressing one. In a midpoint scene, Diana unwittingly scrambles into an all-male British Parliamentary war debate and is ushered out, the point seeming to be not that war is wrong but that women should be included in making war.

If one of the feelgood stories of late capitalism, where inequality is surging, is supposedly women’s rights, here that platform is refashioned to simply be the right to die on the battlefield. It’s a misdirection for the movement, and somewhat akin to the African-American deception in being co-opted by the military in 1948, in a way that has led to a cleavage in that community, where it is necessary to continually raise consciousness over the role of an imperial army in maintaining global order and killing one’s brothers. Now we can add killing one’s sisters as well!

The male side of the film, involving the spy Steve Trevor, has him enlisting a band of minorities to fight: an Arab, a Native American and a Scotsman all enrolled under the banner of the white patron and risking themselves for him. There is also an interesting way in which the Marvel and DC “universes” intersect. Steve Trevor’s act of heroism at the end of the film is very close to Steve Rogers’ act in the Marvel Universe in defeating the Nazi Baron Zemo in Captain America, as the two corporations collide in parallel universes distinguished for their lack of imagination.

In Captain America’s male-oriented origin though, ultimately the frozen Captain America returns to life while all those around him die. Here, Diana the woman is the one living and looking back on fallen comrades. That change may be miniscule though, and one wag praised the success of Wonder Woman as scoring a badly needed victory for a franchise under siege – an attempt to enlist us to root for Warner Brothers-DC which through its generally inept films and characters has played second fiddle to Disney-Marvel. It’s a bit hard to call a multimillion dollar conglomerate an underdog but perhaps that’s what an underdog has come to be, in the era of all companies melding into one, with the other Amazon about to move into produce distribution after buying Whole Foods

Finally, there is the ultimate reveal of the villain, not the German, Nazi-like and later in reality actual Nazi General Ludendorff, but the genteel Britisher whose civilized ways conceals the demon and god of war Aries. This is an accurate depiction of the British empire which has continued to make colonial mischief after the Nazis were long gone. but in the film the implication is glided over in favor of a simple reveal and is obliterated with the special effects barrage that follows.

In the context of the 24/7 warlike nature of the film, Wonder Woman’s answer to Aries, “humans are everything you say but so much more” sounds simply like a rationale and plea for understanding the atrocities of the Israeli army. And not only that, but a plea for sustaining the capitalist and imperialist wars of dispossession which this film unfortunately is more than just lightly engaged in boosting.

Patti Cake$
Friday, 16 June 2017 13:36

Cannes 70 Final Round-Up

Published in Films

Dennis Broe gives his final report and round-up from Cannes.

This is Bro on the World Film Beat “Breaking Glass” in my final report from Cannes 2017............

Cannes Redux: Top Films Outside the Main Competition

My colleagues have gone home long ago, but I’m still wandering the Croissette here at Cannes, selecting the smaller films that over the next year will be released in fits and starts. What follows is a reckoning of what not to miss, what is eminently missable and some oddities and one-shots in films that are then run in Paris after the festival at the Forum des Images, the Reflet Medici and the Cinemateque.  

If it appeared that the traditional arthouse and commercial cinema may be under attack through streaming services like Netflix and through television, this was still at Cannes a healthy outpouring of films that combined a social realism heightened by genre cinema influences either by Hollywood directly (the occasionally Tarentino-esque Bulgarian film Directions and the Martin Scorsese executive produced Italian migrant film A Ciambra) or by global cinema genres (the 70’s spaghetti Western look and feel of the Indonesian Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts).

A dominant pattern then for Cannes political cinema, circa 2017, a pattern that despite Netflix and television still has life in it, is a foundation of Belgium filmmakers the Dardenne Brothers (multiply screened and honored at Cannes with such films as Rosetta, The Promise, and Two Days, One Night) up-close following of down-and-out characters, overlaid with crime and mystery genre elements enhancing the mood. Indeed the Dardennes produced one of the most challenging films of the festival in Loveless, a devastating critique of consumer society in Russia.

Best of the Rest:

Directions.

Posoki is the Bulgarian word for this film about the breakdown of social relations in Sofia, the capital, in the post-Soviet, post-capitalist era. The directions are the traversing of the capital by cab drivers whose series of mostly nocturnal encounters collectively describe a society in turmoil where fellow-feeling has collapsed. The film begins with a besieged driver, who has just lost his business and is indebted to the banks, dropping off his daughter at her high school and picking up another teen who claims to be going to see her grandmother but who is actually a “working girl” at a luxury hotel, where she makes far more than the cabdriver. He shoos the girl out of the cab and then assaults the banker who has just doubled his debt in what is just the opening gambit of a series of humiliating encounters between bedraggled, worldweary but still basically honest drivers and the customers in the classes above who prey on them. A reversal of how the business is usually perceived, more Daniel Blake in the way that the drivers as everymen and women of a society on the brink are exploited than victimizers themselves, as in Taxi Driver.

DB cannes directions

 Pure Hearts or Cuori Puri.

 While the headlines in the Italian Cinema are grabbed by fawning and innocuous directors like Paolo Sorrentino (the Academy Award-winning The Great Beauty and HBO’s The Young Pope), there is in the belly of this cinema a more socially conscious movement which knows that in a society with high unemployment and increasing social tensions crime, as John Huston proclaimed, is just “a left-handed form of human endeavor.”

We’ve seen Gomorrah, the film and television series, and last year’s Cannes entry Fiore or Flower, Romeo in Juliet set in a Milanese prison. This year we have the Martin Scorsese exec-produced A Ciambra directed by Jonas Carpignano who was at Cannes two years ago with Mediterranea, an immigrant film focused on the difficult interaction, once arrived, of sub-Saharan Africans with Italian locals.

More in line with last year’s Fiori is Pure Hearts, Cuori Puri, which opens with its male and female youths pursuing each other in what we learn is one of them trying to catch the shoplifting other but which seems to simply be their passion which in the course of the film will triumph over the mixed backgrounds of working class born-again Catholic, underclass petty criminality, and Roma caught between the two. Another Cannes irruption of a movement worth celebrating.

Wind River

 The rape and murder of an 18-year-old girl on a Wyoming Indian Reservation is the occasion for an examination of the inner lives of those caught on the res, and a socially interesting and relevant indictment of contemporary outside forces which perpetuate that historical misery. The trail of the murder lead expert hunter Jeremy Renner and inexperienced but committed FBI agent Elizabeth Olsen (paired previously as Hawkeye and The Scarlet Witch in The Avengers), apropos of the Pine Ridge protests, to an energy company whose shadowy army of mercenaries impose themselves on the natives. First directing effort by Taylor Sheridan who wrote the script for last year’s Cannes entry Hell and High Water, about righteous bank robbers in the impoverished Texas Panhandle. Concluding sequence of Wind River with two Native American fathers, one in warpaint, attempting to assuage their sorrow and guilt proves this to be more than just a capable crime film though it is certainly that in spades.

DB cannes patty cakes

 The best film of the festival was Patti Cake$, a Jersey musical that celebrates both the resilient spirit of rap and the place of music in sustaining working class cultures within the state’s morass of chemical plants that has all but left them for dead. Danielle MacDonald leads a multi-culti gang of misfits that includes her mother and grandmother as her dreams of music industry stardom are first compared to her stark bartending reality and then in a small way materialize. The film is far from naïve about the tensions at play in a white rapper but ultimately settles for a view of the liberatory quality of the music no matter where or by who it is practiced. The film is also with its soundtrack that includes Springsteen, Heart and Rhythm and Blues, a reminder of the epochs of music that have invigorated and sustained all kinds of working class cultures in Jersey through the ages.

A musical of a different color was Bruno Dumont’s Jeanette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc which features the pre-teen Joan moshing to punk rhythms with a duo of nuns in her sheep fields. The film is at first outrageous especially in that it recasts this legend which is the mainstay of a deep-seated French rightwing. However, as is often true with badboy Dumont, what starts out as rebellious, soon turns in its own way respectful so that all the punk moshing in the end simply reinvigorates with its own highly religious overlay, rather than truly rewrites, the legend of the warrior girl.

Less than meets the eye, although its shot setup is actually quite stunning, is another Netflix entry Bushwick, a supposedly Red State/Blue State fable about an attack on the now hipster community of Bushwick, Brooklyn by extreme Republican outside forces. The film purports to be about liberal, multicultural values threatened by the primitive rest of the country, but actually is a vision of paranoia by its blonde heroine that is closer to an accurate portrait of the mentality of the white settler/artist class that is now colonising Bushwick as the shock troops of gentrification. Stunning long takes in the battlefield scenes cannot save the film from its limited  lack of perspective.

 Worse yet is the Italian film Dopo La Guerra, After The War, about a former radical in the largely unrecounted civil war in Italy in the 1970s, now in the 1980s exiled in France and about to be repatriated to stand trial for his political crimes. The film is told through the perspective of his teenage daughter who tells him at one point to stop talking about politics and concentrate on her needing blue jeans. There is nothing wrong with a teenage coming of age story but here it is used as a battering ram in a very middle class perspective to pulverise the radical inattentive dad. In the consumerist mind of the film, jeans are more important than politics and they take a back seat to principles. Or you might say in a middle class consumerist culture, blue jeans are all that is left of principles.

An oddity of the festival was the Portuguese Fabrica da nada, The Nothing Factory about a group of workers trying to decide whether to make a stand as their factory is about to be closed. The film is dead-on in its trio of suits who explain to the worker’s why they cannot understand the larger dynamics of factories closing, an opinion which is undercut in the worker’s later pointed discussions about the injustices of capitalist globalization from the point of view of those left behind.

Unfortunately, as is often the case with the New Portuguese Cinema, though the subject matter is devoutly to be wished, the slow, grinding presentation and the lack of movement make this not a triumph but a trying engagement with a committed cinema. Here the form, rather than enhancing or expanding, restrains and dilutes the content.

That concludes Cannes 2017. It’s time for me to leave the Croissette and “Shuffle Off to Buffalo” or at least shuttle back to Paris. This is Bro on the World Film Beat signing off. 

Twin Peaks
Tuesday, 13 June 2017 19:45

Cannes 70 Part 3: Best of the Fest

Published in Films

Dennis Broe runs through the best of the fest at Cannes this year.

What were the two most prominent stories at the 70th iteration of the Cannes Film Festival, the ultimate competition and market for cinema? One was the increased presence of the streaming cable service Netflix, which seldom even opens films in theaters, and the other was Serial Television and the continuing challenge it poses to auteur and mid-level film production.

Netflix was represented in the main competition by two films, the better of which was Okja by the South Korean genre director Boon Joon Ho (the seminal serial killer film Memories of Murder). Joon Ho’s characteristic streak of social activism this time expresses itself as a children’s anti-corporate fable about an agribusiness growing a superpig, a pignocerous, that manages to cross ET with Killer of Sheep, Charles Burnett’s examination of the psychological damage the everyday grind of a slaughterhouse inflicts.

Serial Television, at least in its Anglo variety, made its first appearance at the festival in two follow-up works by auteur directors: David Lynch’s Twin Peaks and Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake: China Girl. Given that the series were screened at Cannes, both raise the question of whether what we were watching television second seasons or cinematic sequels. If it appears that the traditional art house and commercial cinema may be under attack, this is indeed the case yet there was still at Cannes a healthy outpouring of films that combined social realism heightened by genre cinema influences either by Hollywood directly (the occasionally Tarentino-esque Bulgarian film Directions and the Martin Scorsese executive produced Italian migrant film A Ciambra) or by global cinema genres (the 70s spaghetti Western look and feel of the Indonesian Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts).

The dominant pattern then for Cannes noir, circa 2017, a pattern that despite Netflix and television still has life in it, is built on a foundation of Belgium filmmakers the Dardenne Brothers – screened and honored at Cannes with such films as Rosetta, The Promise, and Two Days, One Night – and their technique of close-up following of down-and-out characters with crime and mystery genre elements enhancing the mood. Indeed the Dardennes produced one of the most unclassifiable and critical films of the festival Western, whose title is less a genre indication than an indication of the theme – the global and economic power of Western Europe to obliterate the East.

So – a countdown of the best films on offer……..    

Cannes Crime 2017: Top 5 Noir Film and Television Series

5. Directions

Posoki is the Bulgarian word for this film about the breakdown of social relations in Sofia, the capital, in the post-Soviet, post-capitalist era. The directions are the traversing of the capital by cab drivers whose series of mostly nocturnal encounters collectively describe a society in turmoil where fellow-feeling has collapsed. The film begins with a besieged driver, who has just lost his business and is indebted to the banks, dropping off his daughter at her high school and picking up another teen who claims to be going to see her grandmother but who is actually a “working girl” at a luxury hotel, where she makes far more than the cabdriver.

DB cannes directions

He shoos the girl out of the cab and then assaults the banker who has just doubled his debt in what is just the opening gambit of a series of humiliating encounters between bedraggled, world-weary but still basically honest drivers, and the customers in the classes above who prey on them. A reversal of how the business is usually perceived, and more like I, Daniel Blake in the way that the drivers, as everymen and women of a society on the brink, are exploited than Taxi Driver.

4. Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts

Feminine fight-back was a subtheme of the festival in this summer of Wonder Woman. This Indonesian film by Mouly Surya fuses the rich heritage of Indonesian folk tale – detailed so vividly in last year’s Beauty Is A Wound, Ika Kurniawan’s novel about a prostitute surviving Dutch, Japanese and Indonesian militias – and the visual and iconographic heritage of the 1970s Sergio Leone Italian Spaghetti Western.

DB cannes marlina

The landscape for this tale of a woman set upon by thieves who steal her property, is the flat arid Old West plains of the island of Sumba, far from the usual tropical rainforest that is the image of the country. Marlina triumphs over the men in a way similar to that of the triumph of the Girl’s School in Sophia Coppola’s competition film The Beguiled. But that is only the beginning of her tale which features equally the awakening of a pregnant companion along the way. This struggle takes place in the face of the inert figure of Marlina’s mummified husband, no help in confronting wanton male energy in a cruel landscape, where the human scale is reduced to a single horizon line, in shots that signal the majesty of a major director emerging onto the world stage.

3. A Ciambra/Cuori Puri

While the headlines are grabbed by fawning and innocuous directors like Paolo Sorrentino (the Academy Award-winning The Great Beauty and HBO’s The Young Pope), there is in the belly of the Italian Cinema a more socially conscious movement which knows that in a society with high unemployment and increasing social tensions crime, as John Huston proclaimed, is just “a left-handed form of human endeavor.”

We’ve seen Gomorrah, the film and television series, and last year’s Cannes entry Fiore or Flower; Romeo in Juliet set in a Milanese prison. This year we have the Martin Scorsese exec-produced A Ciambra directed by Jonas Carpignano, who was at Cannes two years ago with Mediterranea, a distinctive immigrant film which focused not on the African trip across that sea but on the difficult interaction, once arrived, with Italian locals.

DB cannes a ciambra

This film, shot and conceived in a starkly realistic style, concerns a Roma, a gypsy boy’s bitter coming of age. It details his relation with a Ghanian, Khoudas Seihan from the previous film, who befriends the boy Pio but whose friendship Pio must balance with the demands of his own clan, a rung just above the Africans, and the pressures of the dominant Italians who police the ethnic hierarchical structure. A Ciambra – the title derived from the name of a tiny town in impoverished Southern Italy – is a kind of multicultural updating of Scorsese’s own Mean Streets featuring a preadolescent De Niro.

More in line with Fiori is Pure Hearts, Cuori Puri, which opens with its male and female youths pursuing each other. We find out that one of them is trying to catch the shoplifting other shoplifting, but beneath that is their passion for each other. In the course of the film this triumphs over the mixed backgrounds of working class born-again Catholic, underclass petty criminality, and Roma caught between the two. Another Cannes irruption of a countercultural movement worth celebrating

2. Wind River

The rape and murder of an 18-year-old girl on a Wyoming Indian Reservation is the occasion for an examination of the inner lives of those caught on the reservation, and a socially interesting and relevant indictment of contemporary outside forces which perpetuate that historical misery.

The trail of the murder lead expert hunter Jeremy Renner and inexperienced but committed FBI agent Elizabeth Olsen – paired previously as Hawkeye and The Scarlet Witch in The Avengers – apropos the Pine Ridge protests, to an energy company whose shadowy army of mercenaries impose themselves on the natives. It’s the first directing effort by Taylor Sheridan, who wrote the script for last year’s Cannes entry Hell and High Water about righteous bank robbers in the impoverished Texas Panhandle. Concluding sequence of Wind River with two Native American fathers, one in warpaint, attempting to assuage their sorrow and guilt proves this again to be more than just a capable crime film – though it is certainly that in spades.

1. Western

An excellent examination of the global and the local from New German director Valeska Grisebach. The film details the spirit of colonisation with which a German crew and especially the foreman, building a hydroelectric dam, treat the Bulgarian inhabitants of the nearby village.

The main protagonist is an ex-mercenary, as he says a Legionnaire, who, having served in Iraq and Afghanistan, disdains violence and conquering and attempts to forge relations with the villagers. The construction crew foreman, on the other hand, projects contemporary German economic might as in direct relation to its Nazi past, claiming that “we were here 70 years ago, and now we’re back.”

DB2 cannes western

The film, in dealing with the inhabitants of Europe’s poorest country, refuses the easy labelling of their peasant organizational structure as “mafia” and instead highlights their collective customs. The legionnaire ultimately, and somewhat despite himself, begins to exhibit a more domineering manner and the film leaves open the question as to whether these cultural patterns can be transcended. The undercurrent of violence in the film is promoted not by the natives, as in say Straw Dogs, but rather by the modern colonialists who fly the German flag as a sign of their economic dominance.

Out of Competition But Not Out of Mind

Top of the Lake/Twin Peaks

Both are ultimately a bit disappointing. The better of the two is Top of the Lake, which began well with  the female detective Robin Griffin now back in her workplace of Sydney, investigating both the death of a Chinese sex worker and middle class exploitation of migrants as baby incubators, surrogates.

DB cannes top of the lake

Both investigations are somehow tied to a frustrated philosophy professor/pimp who initially holds the place of the drug lord patriarch of the first season. However, the series dissolves into a haze of ambiguity and confusion as the patriarch becomes a fractured truth teller and the upper middle class Nicole Kidman character instead of being evil becomes is instead merely obnoxious, weakening what was a promising beginning.

DB cannes twin peaks

Twin Peaks unfortunately has a similar trajectory. The question here was, would the series return to a refashioning of the “Who Killed Laura Palmer” framework which made it the best and most influential series ever on the air. Or would it languish in the Demon Bob aftermath of the mess that was the final episodes after the revelation of the incest behind and at the root of the American experience. and that carried over into the experimental but nonsensical Fire Walk With Me.

There is more than the germ of a great series here, not only in the return of many of the Twin Peaks characters but also in a South Dakota story involving a seemingly innocent high school principle, his lawyer, and his wife. But, there is also too much Demon Bob taking over Agent Cooper’s nonsensical skullduggery. Lynch’s explorations of the unconscious are always best (in Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks and Mulholland Drive) when initially grounded in the social world. Still much to like here though, as a New York section quotes Andy Warhol’s Empire as a watcher of the now digital skyline of the city is then punished for his watching in a way that suggests we are all now couch potatoes awaiting our comeuppance.

The Villainess

There is some wondrous bloodletting in this South Korean epic, screened as a midnight film, whose subjective camera opening, recalling the ‘40s noir Lady in the Lake, depicts the savage fighting skills of its gang-trained female assassin. She is then tamed and domesticated as she moves to a legitimate position inside a government security agency and falls for one of its operatives.

DB3 cannes the villainess

Finally though, betrayed by both the agency and the gang, she exacts her revenge in a death-defying armored car sequence that, along with the opening, is a tour-de-force settling of accounts for a whole cinematic and actual history of male violence against women. As she is cuffed by the police, the camera closes in on her and we watch a smile slowly cross her face; the smile seemingly her excitement at the power she is capable of wielding rather than the more simplified satisfaction in male action films of revenge.

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