Dennis Broe

Dennis Broe

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

Elections, Coups and Tax Evaders: Venice Film Festival Wrap-up
Tuesday, 10 September 2019 16:59

Elections, Coups and Tax Evaders: Venice Film Festival Wrap-up

Published in Films

Dennis Broe files his final report from Venice Film Festival

Outside, police at the Venice Film Festival massed for a climate march that saw demonstrators swarm around the red carpet demanding action on climate devastation globally – and in Venice in particular, where oversized cruise ships are destroying the lagoon. Inside, the jury was meeting to award the Golden Lion for best film.

An Officer and a Spy

What they essentially achieved was a coup. Roman Polanski’s An Officer and a Spy was by far the best critically received film of the festival, and led a poll of Italian and international critics by a wide margin. But the Lucrecia Martel jury, after Martel had already denounced the film but then claimed she was impartial, voted instead to hand the prize to what amounts to an openly fascist film, Warner Bros. Joker, with its utter contempt for working-class discontent seeing it as only the expression of an unruly mob and its indirect calling for a strong man, a Batman, as the only way to stop the villain’s anarchy.

The win at Venice thus clears the path for that film to advance to the Academy Awards now with the prestige of the Venice Film Festival behind it. Before the festival it was only being talked about as a best actor vehicle for Joaquin Phoenix.

The danger of people expressing themselves

This coup at the film festival contrasts sharply with a remarkable expression of democracy, a free election, that took place in Italian politics recently. The 5 Star Movement was about to enter a coalition with Italy’s PD party, whose left-neoliberal policies, particularly in the Matteo Renzi grouping, ally it most closely with the Blairite Labor faction in the UK and the Joe Biden Democrats in the US. This party is everything 5 Star claimed to be against, so in order to form the coalition they put it to a vote of their members on their website Rousseau, and the membership gave the go-ahead for the new government.

This move to more direct democracy comes the same week as the Italian business press featured a glowing review of a book, published in the elite headquarters of Cambridge titled The Will of the People: A Popular Myth. The paper’s headline described the book as denouncing “The danger of the popular referendum.” And indeed everywhere there is a “danger” of people expressing themselves as the revolt against corporate legislators advances. The vote this week was part of the Italian people’s thirst for participation.

Returning to the festival, it is important to point out that the attack on Polanski was waged primarily by the two organs of the American film industry – The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. The Hollywood Reporter in its festival lead attempted to smear the festival as “completely tone-deaf about issues related to #MeToo”, while Variety claimed in its review that Polanski’s film on the Dreyfus affair was primarily his attempt to present his side of the rape and child abuse allegations, and ignored almost completely the political import of the Dreyfus case. The Hollywood studios, along with the rest of the US may be facing a severe recession as well as the challenge of the streaming services, and one way of meeting these challenges is to diss the competition.

Polanski is one of the finest European auteurs. The film cost $28 million, high for European production, and has sold well at the festival to the rest of the world. So to knock down the film, attempt to quarantine it and to impugn the festival, a primary site not only of Hollywood Oscar hopefuls but also of the other two levels of European and global auteurs and independent production outside the US, does serve a purpose for US studio interests. This use of a very narrow application of gender politics – in some ways the only acceptable politics in the US mainstream – is similar to the US labelling Huawei a security risk when the company’s major crime is to have developed 5G faster and cheaper than the US competition. The Italian critics seemed to recognize this attack and gave it by far the highest rating of any film at the festival.

The best, the worst and the in-between

Now to the best and worst films of the week and of the festival. The Italian film Martin Eden, based on the Jack London novel, attempts to use a number of Brechtian devices, including a displaced time frame, that do not work and only seem like cheating the audience. The better use of these devices is Steven Soderbergh’s The Laundromat which employs a whole range of clever effects to tell the complicated story of the slippery line between tax avoidance and tax evasion reveaed in the exposure of The Panama Papers. The initial sequence, featuring Gary Oldham and Antonio Banderas as the lawyers who head the firm which created dummy companies around the world, is a mock 2001 opening, showing how cave people moved from money as barter to money as credit and thus paved the way for financial capitalism.

Meryl Streep in The Laundromat

Meryl Streep, in ageing middle America mode though without the menace of Big Little Lies, is resplendent as a victim of these shenanigans, who reveals herself also to be a different character instrumental in destroying the agency and finally addresses the audiences as herself, raising her hairbrush in the Statute of Liberty pose and urging action. Why was the lawyers – one of whose parents came to Panama fleeing Germany in mysterious circumstances right after World War II –and their firm exposed? The two lawyers answer that the ruin of the Panamanian offshore firm drives more customers back to the American onshore tax havens of Joe Biden’s Delaware, Wyoming and Nevada. Surely the best Hollywood piece to deal with finance, and maybe the best Hollywood film since The Big Short.

A truly remarkable film in the main competition, one of two female-directed entries, was Babyteeth by the Australian Shannon Murphy, downgraded by several critics because it is a tearjerker – that is, it uses the emotional tropes of the woman’s film to make its point. This story of a teen dying of cancer who falls for the vitality of a young drug dealer is a heartfelt examination of how Western capitalist society is overcome by drugs, as each character in the family, except the dying teen, uses drugs to medicate their unfulfilled life. The father is a psychiatrist, that is another kind of drug pusher, who prescribes to keep his wife pacified and his wife, who wanted to be a pianist, becomes a pill-popper instead.

This is the situation that together the girl and the drug addict boyfriend help to remedy. He gives her the will to live and she opens the family’s eyes and her addict boyfriend’s eyes about how they fail to show up for her death and their own lives. Murphy admires Andrea Arnold and the boy-dealer Toby Wallace is a natural presence and everything Shia LaBeouf – in a similar role in Arnold’s American Honey which he ruins by his star turn – is not. There is not a wrong move here and the coda, where we find out the true wisdom of the dying teen as she in a sense leaves a living will, is a stunningly emotional scene.

Sole

A film to watch out for is Sole, an Italian movie about two dead end millennials. One is a young man whose ‘profession’ is jacking motorcycles and the other is a Polish girl who is pregnant and must sell her baby in order to stake her claim to Western Europe. It’s a sad fate for both and accurately describes the world many are left with. In the end the film, which finds hope in the fact that they have found each other, is as tough as nails in its approach and does not skimp on the sacrifices each must make to survive. A final scene where the girl’s anger at the unfairness of this world erupts, and boy listens, demonstrates that working-class solidarity still exists but today is bought at a much higher price.

Tony Driver

The docudrama Tony Driver recounts how its central figure, who transported immigrants over the US-Mexican border, now wants to return to the US after being deported to Italy. The Italian section, with Tony mostly keeping to himself, is less interesting but the film swings into gear when Tony returns to Mexico to try to go over the border, meeting others like him who dream of crossing or have crossed and are now exiled. The style of the film, especially the second part, is that of a reality TV series, but what the film accomplishes is to turn that banal and listless form on its head and view the world from the vantage point of the people those on Cops and America’s Most Wanted arrest. The film, and its endearing hero, points the way to new possibilities for that ossified form and the way it might be used to combat Trump’s racist labelling of immigrants.

Shakespeare says family is everything!

The pro-war, which thinks it is anti-war, Netflix film The King based on Shakespeare’s Henry the Fifth cycle, instead of spotlighting the pleasures inherent in Hal’s meanderings with the lascivious Falstaff before he becomes king, concentrates on Henry the ruler waging successful war on France, with Falstaff dying valiantly on the battlefield.

The King

A surprise coda at the end does not make up for the film’s persistent warmongering. There is a scene, I kid you not, where the French king actually says “family is everything,” turning the great bard into a Hollywood hack. What a falling off is this!

The Chinese film Saturday Fiction has Gong Li initially in passive/seductive 5th-generation, a la Red Sorghum and Raise the Red Lantern, mode but finally coming out of her passivity to be a 6th generation action hero a la A Touch of Sin as she mows down the fascist invaders in Shanghai on the eve of Pearl Harbour. The transformation takes a while but in the way it suggests Casablanca, in its black and white partly classical style, finally transforms her into Ingrid Bergman with a machine gun.

Finally, mafia expose journalist Roberto Saviano was everywhere, exec-producing Sky, Canal Plus and Amazon’s TV series Zero, Zero, Zero based on his book about how the global cocaine trade is what undergirds the world’s economy, and mixing with the Italian director with whom he is in a direct line, Francesco Rosi, the subject of a documentary explaining Rosi’s lifelong interest in exposing the link between government, big business, and the mafia in The Mattei Affair, Hands Over the City and Lucky Luciano. Seek out these films if you’ve not seen them.

Dennis's highly idiosyncratic awards

Best 5 Films: The Laundromat, Sole, Babyteeth, Adults in the Room, An Officer and A Spy

Babyteeth 1

Best Actress: Eliza Scanlen, Babyteeth

Best Actor: Pasquale Donatone, the subject of Tony Driver

Best Director: Shannon Murphy, Babyteeth

Best Script: Scott Z. Burns The Laundromat

Best Documentary: Citizen Rosi

Best Restoration: Out of the Blue directed by Dennis Hopper

...and the Culture Matters Award for the best film reviewer goes to......Dennis Broe.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Venice Film Festival
Tuesday, 03 September 2019 16:16

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Venice Film Festival

Published in Films

Dennis Broe reports from the Venice Film Festival 2019

Cover-ups, exaggerated accusations, and payoffs, all in the first week of this year’s festival, and this all took place off-screen. The major story of the festival so far, and it was made a major story because of the American press especially Variety and The Hollywood Reporter, was the attempt to smear the festival as misogynist and blind to issues of women’s abuse and women’s rights. Especially for inviting Me Too bete noirs Roman Polanski, accused of having sex with a minor, and Nate Parker, once accused of rape; and for only featuring two female directors in the competition.

The actions of neither director are defensible, but the question is how long must each pay for their crimes and must they never be allowed to make films again? Polanski’s is the tougher case because he has gone on to have a distinguished career in Europe. His film at the festival, An Officer and A Spy, about the Dreyfus case, is an important indictment of the French intelligentsia and army bureaucracy as both anti-semitic and as lying manipulators of public opinion – very pertinent today to the torture of Chelsea Manning and Julian Assange. Nate Parker, a lesser filmmaker whose The Birth of A Nation was itself overblown and manipulative, saw his film die at the box office, and then could not get funding in the US for a second film and had to seek funding abroad.

The lack of female directors

Alberto Barbera, festival director, has taken a strict aesthetic line – claiming that he chooses on the artistic merits of the film – on both the inclusion of the two directors and the lack of female directors in the festival as a whole. It’s the same line he applies to films released in the cinemas or films by streaming services, with Netflix and Amazon both strong presences here after each was blacklisted from Cannes because of the French cinema owners. The Polanski film deserves to be in the festival main competition, though jury head Lucrecia Martel claimed contradictorily that she both would not have selected the film because Polanski was the director, and that she would be an impartial jury head when it came to deliberating on the film.

Barbera points to the fact that only 24 percent of the films submitted for all the categories were by female directors and that the same percentage in the festival as a whole are by women directors, which by this criteria means the problem lies outside the festival and is a part of overall financing in what is still a male industry. However, it is possible that the festival could lead the way in spotlighting female directors and in that way encourage more chances to be taken, instead of defending its choices by invoking what amounts to a quota system.

The other point though is that by focusing so strongly on these two cases other cases are ignored. The fanfare around director Haifaa Al-Mansour’s The Perfect Candidate, about a Saudi Arabian woman who runs for office, which many critics felt upon seeing the film was undeserved, has served the political purpose of whitewashing the Saudi regime at a time when the country is attempting to move heavily into film production. The kingdom announced at the festival the March 2020 opening of its own Red Sea Film Fest, headed by a former Sundance programmer, lending further legitimacy to the project, and no doubt swayed by the deep pockets of the Saudi Oil Fund.

Mansour’s film serves as a public address announcement for the Saudi dictator Mohamed Bin Salman’s claim to be modernizing the country through making token gestures such as allowing women to drive, featured in a sequence in the film. However, the country this year has beheaded 134 people in public executions, continued a war in Yemen it organized and which is waged largely against women and children, and heightened tensions in the region by its blockading of its neighbor Qatar.

Al-Monsour, who makes pithy statements to the press along the lines of “art should always prevail and be given top priority,” is being hailed at the festival while others are condemned. It is interesting to note that while Polanski’s more direct attack on French institutions is deemed unshowable, directors like Martin Scorsese whose Wolf of Wall Street, a film fascinated by investment bankers’ bad behavior and partially financed by these same Wall Street investors, was given a free pass and nominated for an Academy Award.

The good, the bad and the ugly

Ad Astra

Which brings us to the good, the bad and the ugly of the first week of films. A major disappointment was the sci-fi film Ad Astra by director James Gray, whose first success, the gritty noir Little Odessa, premiered at Venice. Gray is back this time with a big budget Best Picture hopeful, with a pulse-pounding opening sequence as Brad Pitt’s astronaut plummets through space, and a presentation of space as simply the projection of earth’s unsolved problems in a sequence that features piracy on the moon. The whole thing though unravels in the second half when the astronaut travelling upriver in this Apocalypse Now gloss searches his lost-in-space father, Tommy Lee Jones, and finds in the heart of darkness an ultimate blandness. The film, through its trite redemption and surpassing of the father theme, belied by the astronaut’s murder of a crew that was exactly like his father, manages to trivialize the Oedipus complex and make it seem like just so much Hollywood sloganeering.

Noah Baumbach’s last film The Meyerowitz Stories was unsufferable, a wallowing in a patriarch’s destructive foibles. His latest, Marriage Story, about a couple going through a divorce is, well, sufferable. It’s all the angst you want, or can stand as two very complex and privileged people torture each other alone and through their lawyers, the best of which is played by Laura Dern, whose monologue about the misogyny inherent in Jesus’ origin story is a high point. The other stunning moment is Adam Driver, the husband’s, rendition of “Being Alive,” the finale of Company which he sings/acts in a rendering that elicited applause from the festival audience. This is Baumbach’s Bergman moment, his Scenes From a Marriage, but he was always better when he was funnier and a bit more honest – here the husband lets go but never admits that it was his selfish behavior that caused the breakup – in films like The Squid and The Whale.  

Joker

The ugly was a film that will be nominated for a Best Picture award, The Joker, the origin story of the DC villain and Batman’s arch nemesis, with a masterful performance by Joaquim Phoenix that received a standing ovation at its Venice premier. The film, unlike the Heath Ledger Joker in The Dark Knight, at first concentrates on the social elements of ‘70s New York (Gotham) with the city going bankrupt, awash in garbage and rats, and its mental patients being turned out on the streets. Joker looks like Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and is utterly fascinated with his King of Comedy, enlisting that film’s star Robert De Niro and attempting to go that film one better in its assault on a TV talk show. Joker though it also summons Network in its exasperation is not only despairing but fascist through and through, in its representation of a crowd as merely an angry mob whose presence and anarchic threat calls for a law and order strong man – a Trump, a Bolsonaro, a Salvini – as Joker calls for the return and a new franchise beginning of Batman to save Gotham. Yuck.

An Officer and a Spy

The good includes the Polanski film, An Officer and a Spy, criticized for being too matter of fact in its portrayal of deeply ingrained French anti-semitism, and especially among the elite and the military in the coordinated persecution of the Jew Dreyfus. Dreyfus was an innocent man who the military would rather convict of treason than reveal the actual spy, in that way reaffirming that the purpose of the army is as much about maintaining internal order as external conquest and defense.

The dictatorship of the banks

Seberg

Another laudable film was Amazon’s Seberg, which focuses on actress Jean Seberg’s, (Kristin Stewart) persecution by the FBI for her support of the Black Panthers. You’re not paranoid if they really are pursuing you, goes the old adage, but this film maintains that in Seberg’s case they both were pursuing her and she was paranoid, or grew to be so. The film certainly has some problems, including a narrow-minded focus on the actress’ mental torture by the Cointel program which in the end probably contributes to her suicide – but also pales behind the systematic slaughter of many of the Black Panthers. Best part of the film is its explicating the way that the FBI was, and probably still is, engaged in not just a surveillance program but one that actually sought to inflict mental damage on its targets.

Adults in the Room

Finally, there was Costa-Gavras’ Adults in the Room, his return to the Greece of his homeland which was the subject of the film that launched his career, Z. That film dealt with the Greek dictatorship and this one, based on the events around the Syriza party’s election and challenging of the austerity program that had devastated the country, deals with a different kind of dictatorship, that of the German banks. Their representative in the film is a wheel-chaired head of the German Central Bank Wolfgang Schauble, whose maniacal chant ‘You must repay the debt’ and refusal to allow Greece to leave the debt trap set for it by the French and German banks ,makes him a Doctor Strangelove for the era of financialization.

The film follows the book by Syriza Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis, and highlights the way that the European high-level political and financial institutions are not about promoting but rather about neutralizing any democratic movement from below. In the film the Greek people continue to push for a return of their sovereignty and dignity and the European institutions answer by refusing to look beyond the accounting ledger, shown in a fantasy sequence that begins as a democratic debate but ends in an animation where these numbers fill the screen.

Next week: Sole, a wonderful Italian working-class film and The Laundromat, Steven Soderbergh’s fictional account of the corruption exposed in the Panama Papers.  

The only way out is together: The Venice Biennale and Late Capitalism
Tuesday, 03 September 2019 15:31

The only way out is together: The Venice Biennale and Late Capitalism

Published in Visual Arts

Dennis Broe reviews the biennial festival of contemporary art

May You Live in Interesting Times is the title and organizing principle of this year’s Venice Biennale, year curated by Ralph Rogoff, head of the Hayward Gallery in London. Mr. Rogoff is now an officer in something called The Order of the British Empire, though many of the best pieces in the show are blows against the idea of a (white, masculinist, colonial) empire. An exception was the British Pavilion which made its colonial subjects (audience) stand in line for a half an hour in the Venetian heat and humidity to have their own private viewing and in the process seeming to affirm the idea of empire.

The phrase itself, employed across the political spectrum from as far left as Brecht and as far right as Hillary Clinton has seemed to reference an ancient Chinese curse, though there is a bit of orientalism in that explanation since there is no trace of the phrase in Chinese. It all comes down to the meaning of the word interesting. The more astute artists in the exhibition translate “interesting” as horrible, blood-curdling, perilous, while others seem to reaffirm Rogoff’s catalogue description of the phrase as “complex”. These interpretations come dangerously close to reaffirming a virtual utopia, or simply wallowing in the chaos that the combination of climate disaster, impending global recession, nuclear war and continual appropriation of more resources by the wealthiest have wrought. The catastrophic meaning of interesting seemed to prevail in the real-world politics of Italy, as yet another government collapsed during the exhibition – though the phoenix if it rises from the ashes will have a more progressive drift – and in the face of this wanton destruction the stock market went up.

Kerri Upsons Dollhouse

Kaari Upson's Dollhouse

Rogoff did a splendid job of organizing his curated part of the exhibition, often juxtaposing or combining elements that heightened their effectiveness. So, art world breakout star of the exhibition Kaari Upson’s eerie full-scale dollhouse, which she had rampaged through destroying the furniture, and which shows her video with herself in grotesque doll costume with blotchy, smeared red lipstick, is paired with Mari Katayama’s images of herself as a Japanese doll, belied by the fact that she has lost both her legs so that she appears in photos with the stubs or her prosthetic legs appear amid the eroticized stockings and other accoutrements of the trope of the Japanese human doll. Both do a splendid job of making us gasp at the image of the woman as toy for male desire.

Elsewhere, Rula Halawani’s sodden black and white images of walls and enclosures built by Israel since 2000, which in their sad bleakness suggest images of the earlier Berlin Wall, link to Teresa Margolles’ stone wall, with barbed wire and bullet holes depicting the enclosed structure in Juarez, which has the highest murder rate in the world. Women, of course, are disproportionately victims of the violence.

Works and walls

Shilpa Guptas ominous gate

Shilpa Gupta's Ominous Gate

Both works and walls are much in abundance here, criticizing the global right-wing resurrection of borders. They are perhaps summed up by two more abstract but equally powerful installations. Firstly, Shilpa Gupta’s large mechanical door with spikes on top, that bangs shut and revolves from one side of a wall to another, slowly breaking down the wall in the process, with the sound and the image stressing the violence of the border. Secondly, Sun Yan and Peng Yu’s giant robotic arm, taught 32 different movements all of which end in the arm sweeping what looks like blood on the floor, perhaps the result of not only mechanical systems of walls and surveillance but also suggesting the blood that is the residue of the drive toward automation, as more and more workers lose their jobs.

Martine Gutierrez

Martine Gutierrez

Women’s installations were the most powerful in the exhibition, with US Trans Latina artist Martine Gutierrez enacting a kind of post-colonial Cindy Sherman. She places herself amid dummies that she has constructed framing, black and white scenes of the exploitation and exoticization of non-white women. The most striking of these are of her as maid in what might be a Cuban Batista resort, and anther showing her rising out of the water at the feet of a suited man with black polished shoes. It’s a pose that eroticizes her, but she has a masterfully cunning look on her face and thus transforms the moment into a trans-gender transgressive seizing control of the situation.

Alexandra Bircken

Escalation

My prize for best overall work goes to the Alexandra Bircken’s stunning Escalation, a series of ladders reaching to the sky and intercrossing on the way up with hollowe- out black figures draped over the ladders, or hanging from them like so many corpses, victims of the ever increasing drive to get ahead – the human waste in the accelerated competition for ever growing quarterly profits and increase in Gross Domestic Product.

Climate crisis

The climate crisis was everywhere, and many of these presentations centered around either the questioning or the reaffirming of the Anthropocene, the melding of man and machine as the virtual world merges with our world. Christine and Margaret Wertheim’s intricate coral reefs constructed of yarn showed in their complexity how nature thwarts in the multitudinous shapes of the reefs the more rigid rationality and logic of Euclidean geometry, which they diagrammed on a board next to their colorful concoctions.

Even more to the point, Irish artist Jimmie Durham, who body of work was honored in this year’s event, displayed the maimed but proud heads of animals tortured on the bodies of industrial pipes or electrical wiring. It emphasized the growing number of species that are becoming extinct as the race to exploit the world’s resources heats up, and as Trump and the Pentagon are trying to claim Greenland’s mineral wealth as their own – while the Amazon burns.

This year the curated exhibitions outshone the national pavilions in the Venice Gardens, the Guardini, but two especially strong works stood out. The first was Chile’s Hegemonic Museum, a truly remarkable work by Voluspa Jarpa that attempts to trace in four rooms histories of colonial expansion and exploitation.

Western rogues galley Chilean exhibit

Western Rogues' Gallery

The first concentrates on the upside-down hanging of the DeWitts in Holland who challenged the place of the Dutch East India Company, and pushed for a more democratic state. This is followed by maquettes, tiny models of a vicious attack on women who demanded their rights in the Vienna uprising of 1848, part of a wave of revolutionary activity in that year. The next room is a taped opera whose verse is Western men singing “Blessed be the whiteness of my skin” and “I cannot own slaves and love them too” while a chorus of non-Western peoples, women and children answers these sentiments. A final room contains redacted official documents tracing the CIA’s involvement through operation Glaudio in not only interfering, but overturning the results of the 1948 Italian election, finishing with an illustrated three-dimensional rogues’ gallery of Western violence. An exemplary tour-de-four of an exhibit.

The violence underlying capitalist life

This was topped though by the outstanding country pavilion, my prize for best and honoured by the Biennale jury as well, Belgium’s Mondo Cane. It’s a dog’s world indeed but that is not apparent as at first sight as the exhibition looks to be a celebration of different aspects of the orderliness of bourgeois life in its idyllic mannequins of a knife sharpener, zither player, minister and town crier, each making their own sounds. The text accompanying the display tells another story as the knife sharpener – all these are based on actual characters – is at night a Sweeny Todd monster, whose knife could cut off the legs of a horse.

The town crier, whose thin moustache suggests Hitler, is actually crying an off-color, bigoted joke and the musician is based on a character wanted for mass murders. Circling them are three jails which house the overtly violent or repugnant or rebellious members of the town such as the rat lady, a harbinger of death. The exhibit is an exceptional exposing of the violence that underlies all aspects of the repressed normalcy of capitalist life.

I have to question the meaning of reflection which the British Pavilion posed. Kathy Wilkes’ series of somnolent works suggesting a solemn and sepulchre-like female interiority were allowed to be viewed only by 15 visitors at a time, though the pavilion accommodates far more. That meant long lines in front of the exhibition in order to guarantee this privileged moment of a privatization of the experience. The work was in a way a standard YBA (Young British Artists) aging into more conservative maturity, but the idea that reflection must be done in private, that the group reflection the Biennale everywhere else encourages is somehow false or wrong, is one worth challenging.

The best exhibits this year were critical works that were meant to be shared and thought about in their public context, not fetishized as some wholly private revelation. We are long past the days when salvation in the actual dystopia the exhibit elsewhere so well describes, can be achieved by individual contemplation. What May You Live in Interesting Times says implicitly in its overall impact is that the only way out of the impending doom humankind has created for itself is together. And perhaps together, we may yet transform “interesting” meaning terrifying into “interesting” meaning abundant.

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

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

Published in Architecture

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

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

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

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

The mural district in Downtown LA

The mural district in Downtown LA

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

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

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

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

The Mission Mural

The Mission mural

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

America Tropical

America Tropical mural

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

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

Getty Villa

Getty Villa

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

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

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

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

Dodger Stadium

Dodgers Stadium

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

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

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

Dudamel and YOLA

YOLA with Gustavo Dudamel

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Chambers

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

One Day At A Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our Planet

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

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

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

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

Floodlands

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

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

DB Back to Life

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

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

           

Rembrandt the outsider
Wednesday, 26 June 2019 16:59

Rembrandt the outsider

Published in Visual Arts

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

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

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

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

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

Max Havelaar

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

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

Rembrandt Peasant Scene

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

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

susanna

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

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

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

Greenaways JAccuse

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

wallpaper rembrandt the night watch ok

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

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

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

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

Published in Films

Dennis Broe presents a round-up of Cannes 2019          

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

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

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

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

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

Atlantics

Atlantics

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Halt

The Halt

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

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

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

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

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

The Invisible Lifejpg

The Invisible Life of Euridice Gusmao

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

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

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

Fire Will Come

Fire Will Come

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

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

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

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

Wounds

Wounds

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

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

Blow It To Bits

Blow It to Bits

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

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

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

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

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

Best 5 Films outside the main competition:

Fire Will Come

Blow It to Bits

First Love

Nina Wu

Invisible Life of Euridice Gusmao

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

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

Cannes 2019: Asian cinema triumphs, despite Trump

Published in Films

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

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

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

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

Parasite

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

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

wild goose lake 

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

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

 once upon a time in hollywood

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

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

 Ice on Fire

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

A Hidden Life Cannes 2 825 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published in Films

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

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

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

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

Drivers in the Amazon Warehouse

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

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

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

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

Its a Free World

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

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

Latina Janitors on Strike in Bread and Roses

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

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

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

Loach Laverty and cast at the Cannes Press Conference

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

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

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

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

loach

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

 

 

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

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

Published in Films

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

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

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

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

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

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

Netflix hangs over the festival

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

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

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

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

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

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

Iggy Pop in The Dead Dont Die

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

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

Bacurau

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

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

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

Bull

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

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

Capital in the 21st Century

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

Sorry To Have Missed You

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

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

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