Dennis Broe

Dennis Broe

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

Top ten films, ten noble efforts, and five turkeys for Christmas, 2017.
Thursday, 14 December 2017 22:41

Top ten films, ten noble efforts, and five turkeys for Christmas, 2017.

Published in Films

Dennis Broe introduces his top ten films, ten noble efforts, and a few duds from 2017.

First a caveat. My filmgoing is in Europe so there are some fluctuations in openings between the American and European markets. So Moonlight, for example, last year’s Oscar winner, is on my list for this year. More important though is that this list often functions as an advocate, urging that films which have not reached the U.S. market, like Raoul Peck’s Young Karl Marx, get an opening. The list is also an advocate for powerful films that are dumped with little fanfare on the American market and get lost amid the steam of American indies and foreign films which are released each week and are barely reviewed compared to Hollywood fare. Worth noting also is that three of the top 20 films opened on Netflix rather than in cinemas, making the streaming service a major site of global distribution, now rivalling the major studios.

Top Ten Films

The Shape of Water – Guillermo del Toro’s dark fable and leading Oscar contender set in the bowels of the Cold War, in a dank secret laboratory. It's also a stunning cross-species love story with brilliant performances that begin with Sally Hawkins mute cleaner, who assembles a band of misfits to challenge the military-industrial machine. It harks back in Del Toro’s work beyond Pan’s Labyrinth to his earlier even more politicized Francoist children’s tale The Devil’s Backbone with a musical number with hard-won quality which exposes the pure fluff of last year’s La La Land.    

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A Ciambra – Martin Scorsese executive-produced this coming of age Roma story set in the impoverished Calabria region of Southern Italy, and which is that country’s Oscar entry for Best Foreign Film. This is a bitter tale of the multiple betrayals necessary for the boy to attain manhood in poverty. Critical not only of Western treatment of immigrant communities, but also of the hierarchical system of ethnicities pitted against each other that now marks life in the West. A companion to Scorsese’s own earlier films on a similar topic - Who’s That Knocking at My Door and Mean Streets.  

This is Congo – The year’s best documentary not only recapitulates in stunning detail the colonial and continuing history of the West’s devastation of the country in order to continue to have access to its mineral wealth, but also traces the individual devastation in its following of a Congolese hero who opposes the mercenary breakdown of the country but finally succumbs himself to government collusion in this giveaway. A stunning effort by filmmaker Daniel McCabe who has taken the time to know intimately the country, the region, and his lead character.

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Angels Wear White – Vivian Qu, producer of the Chinese masterpiece Black Coal, Thin Ice is director of this seaside story of the layers of corruption which allow a government official to remain unprosecuted for underage assault. Qu details lovingly both the ingrained opportunistic buying off of witnesses and the slow decision of the lead worker to come forward, followed by a masterful shot of her having to leave her job trailing the oversized statute of Marilyn Monroe, a Hollywood icon whose symbolic imprisonment within a male system mirrors the girl’s own. Superb and unrelenting exposure of the compromises that are de rigeur in a society where too often human relations are ruled by money.    

Western – Seen at the New York Film Festival and still to open in the U.S., this German film by Valeska Grisebach, produced by the director of the similar-themed Toni Erdman but better and tougher than that film, is set in rural Bulgaria and details the prejudices of a West German construction crew against their Eastern neighbours. A former mercenary challenges their assumptions but shows himself to be consumed as well by the supposedly superior technological gaze of the West, a gaze which is exposed as not all-knowing but rather all-exploiting.

 Okja – Netflix financed Boon Joon-ho’s charming, touching fractured fairy tale about the viciousness of the meat industry as a young Korean girl falls hard for the giant genetically engineered pig a corporation has deposited with her family. Stirring action scenes from Boon Joon-ho, for my mind now the world’s best director, after Memories of Murder, The Host and Snowpiercer. And a double performance from Tilda Swinton as alternately the smiling and then the malicious face of corporate slaughter, commanding the butchering of masses of Okjas, a death scene that goes on every day in the world’s abattoirs.

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Loveless – Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev’s follow-up to Leviathan is in its own quiet way even more bleak than the previous film, only here the subject is not post-Soviet breakdown but instead the consumer society, triumphing in the evacuation of the state and its more quiet devastation of the psyche’s of the divorcing couple who are so busy with their gadgets and positioning themselves for promotions that they have utterly neglected their son. The cold, cruel Russian winter here functions as a metaphor for the chilling of humanity in the wake of the penetration of global capitalism. Devastatingly sombre but accurate critique.

Patti Cake$ – The year’s best American indie is a working class, multi-ethnic La La Land, what that film promised in its opening but then abandoned, here fulfilled in a Jersey story of an overweight rapper in love with the music. The film acknowledges multi-levels of prejudice within the industry, but in its own way reinvents the purity and emancipatory potential of a music that has been too long simply bought and sold. The triumph comes through a cross-racial working-class pairing that in its honesty is as unusual in American film as it is in American society.    

Get Out – This horror film about the depth of racial prejudice in the United States manages to hit all the points of the genre, while injecting humor into the situation and remaining unflinching in its depiction of the deep-seated fears and hate at the heart of supposed enlightened American upper middle class. Jordan Peele’s directorial debut about a mixed race couple is a true Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner in the age of Trump, where the veneer of liberal hypocrisy has been replaced by rage. Excellent genre filmmaking and then so much more, proving as did last year’s Last Train to Busan that the horror film may be the modern genre vehicle par excellence for expressing the terror and misery of late capitalism.

Young Karl Marx – Raoul Peck has here constructed a Marx for our times. He disdains the usual biopic formula of emphasizing the most overtly dramatic moments which might have culminated in the young Marx’s participation in the European revolutions of 1848 and instead quietly details how Marx and Engels began to break with more traditional staid socialisms, which would become the utterly sold out socialism of today, to conceive instead of international working class revolt culminating in their Communist Manifesto. What Peck has created here is a politically engaged intellectual bio-pic projected across Europe, encompassing in its language French, German and English, a stunning advancement for the genre. 

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Ten Noble efforts

Cairo Confidential – This Egyptian noir, released in the U.S. as the more obliquely titled The Nile Hilton Incident, details its reluctant cop hero uncovering layers of wrongdoing in the Mubarak government on the eve of the Arab Spring, corruption that is now even more widespread under the new dictatorship, supported again by the U.S. of course.

Wind River – Taylor Sheridan’s Hell and High Water was a caper film about dispossession in the Texas Panhandle, and he is back again this year with this even more focused tale of murder on an Indian reservation that in its way predicted energy company mistreatment of the protestors at Standing Rock.

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Mudbound/Moonlight – Both were excellent historical recountings of African-American experience. The first, picked up by Netflix after being boycotted by the major studios at Sundance. It's set in Mississippi in the 1940s, and is astounding in its quiet depiction of sharecropping exploitation. The second describes three generations in drug-addled Miami ,as the neighbourhood collapses under the weight of this penetration, and as its lead character both confronts his gayness and survives in the only economy left to him. A more socially penetrating Brokeback Mountain and that most unusual rarity, a deserving Oscar winner.  

Sweet Country - Warwick Thornton’s aboriginal Australian 1920s Western, detailing the utter disdain of the settler population for the country’s indigenous peoples. It manages at the same time to portray the way that population attempts to if not fight back at least preserve its dignity, while proving itself far more caring than its exploiters, as the aboriginal fugitive saves the life of Brian Brown’s parched sheriff.

The Villainess – South Korean derring-do, as a female assassin wrecks a rival gang in the opening, is domesticated by Korean intelligence only to be betrayed by it, and then wreaks her revenge on both the state and the gangs and smiles wickedly at the end as she is taken. B-filmmaking at its finest.

Taxi Sofia – Bulgarian film, otherwise titled Directions or Posoki. Multiple stories of taxi drivers, including the opening of one pushed too far by the banks, recount the devastation wrecked by the unleashing of a pernicious and greedy capitalism in that country. Tarantino-esque in its rapid outbreaks of violence, but with more of a social conscience.

Our Time Will Come - Ann Hui’s depiction of the gradual coming of political age of the Hong Kong resistance to the Japanese during World War II, and in particular of a school teacher who surpasses her male guides. It has echoes of Jean Pierre Melville’s Army of Shadows about French wartime resistance, but outdoes that film in its more unbridled validation of the potential of a political awakening.

Ex Libris – Frederic Wiseman returns in the best anti-Trump film of the year. It details, in these times of massive defunding of the state, the value of the New York Public Library in reaching not only minority populations but also standing as an educational bulwark against the rapid commercialization of all forms of learning for the city’s entire population.

Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts – This Indonesian ghost-story, shoot-em-up, martial arts tale by Mouly Surya about a woman’s being set upon by bandits and her subsequent learning to protect herself and taking her revenge, taps rich sources of that country’s folklore. This film is an announcement of a major director on the global scene.    

What the Health – Netflix documentary on the damage wrought by the animal food industry, which downplays the harmful effects of sugar but makes a major contribution in its examination of the continuing damage done to the planet’s health and to individuals by the accelerating slaughter of beef and other animals. Wonderful example of advocacy filmmaking.

Five Turkeys for Christmas

Ismael’s Ghost – The years’ most pretentious piece of fluff from French director Arnaud Desplichin, a misogynist fable posing as a complex look at the creative process.

Private Life of a Modern Woman –James Toback’s validation of the supposed journey of an upper middle-class Hollywood actress toward enlightenment seems to instead just wallow in self-pity and privilege.

Jim and Andy – Worst documentary of the year, exposing unwittingly the shallowness and opportunism of Jim Carey, who attempts to claw back his career by supposedly exposing hidden footage of him playing Andy Kaufman on the set of the Kaufman bio pic Man on the Moon. A disgraceful defacing of Kaufman’s legacy. 

Au Revoir Le Haut or See You Up There –- World War 1 fable that is the opposite of The Shape of Water. It's a regressive tale that after a promising start ends up first dissolving the destruction of the war in a 1920s flapper haze and thenultimately validating it, as the industrialist who pushed the war is revealed to have a heart of gold.

Mother – “Torture the woman” Hitchcock commanded, and Daren Aronovsky follows that dictum by heaping abuse on Jennifer Lawrence in a haunted house tale that is supposedly about the creative process of her writer-husband, Javier Badem. It's really just an excuse for sadistic nonsensical escapades which one New York critic claimed was actually a comedy. You can lose your license for judgments like that.

Top ten TV global series, 2017
Thursday, 14 December 2017 22:09

Top ten TV global series, 2017

Dennis Broe introduces his Top Ten plus Five Global Television Series for 2017 and his Top Five Trends within the Serial Television Industry. 

Top Ten Global TV Series

Taboo – The year’s best series created by the actor Tom Hardy and Steven Knight, who were also behind Peaky Blinders. This is an able follow-up to that series which goes one better. The villain in this rephrasing of The Count of Monte Cristo, set in 1830s London, with Hardy as the dark prince seeking revenge, is the East India Company. This corporation with tentacles everywhere which like our own modern corporations such as Amazon - which is now seeking control of an entire city for its new headquarters - rivals or exceeds the British government. The story of the Hardy character's delicious thwarting of the company is only marred by the need to create a second season, instead of the lead character’s own crimes on board a slave ship condemning him to a Shakespearean death that would have been a logical culmination of the series.  

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Goliath – Who says nothing good comes out of the belly of the beast? This Amazon series created by a resurrected David E. Kelly, whose follow-up series was Big Little Lies, has Billy Bob Thornton as Verdict-style alcoholic lawyer, aka Paul Newman in that film, rallying disparate troops in his quest to best his former corporate law firm in a case involving a defence contractor’s negligence or blowback as its weapons are unleashed on the home front. Thornton underplays the role and lets the case take precedence over the character, and in so doing helps fashion a very strong series.

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Wormwood – Errol Morris hasn’t looked this sharp in years. This true story, shot in half-doc, half fiction mode about a scientist who bucked the military establishment in the dark days of the Cold War relates in the fictional mode his demise and assassination and in the documentary mode how the long years of the intelligence agency cover-up that followed inflicted further grief on his son and family. Stunning serial series and Morris best work since his exposure of Texas justice in The Thin Blue Line.  

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Acquitted/Follow The Money – Two strong examples of the way Scandinavian noir can escape the now tried and true personal-crime-in-a-quirky-small-town cliché and instead tell a larger tale about corporations and corruption in the energy industry. Acquitted involves a wealthy corporate manager of an Asian investment firm who goes back to his home town in Norway to acquire the town’s energy company but is haunted by a crime he was pursued for 20 years earlier. He has to both clear himself and help thwart the takeover. Follow the Money features a straightforward emphasis on an Danish energy company, aka Enron, speculating in resources it does not possess and playing against the clock to conceal its shell game from investors, a story that did not end with Enron but is now the mainstream corporate tale with Amazon, for example, embracing debt rather than profit as its future.

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Wasteland – HBO series from the Czech Republic that details the personal and collective misery of a town living on the Czech/Polish border in the face of a coal mining company that continues to spew devastation across the landscape. Its main story of the town’s female mayor pursuing a missing child though engrossing is also almost a pretext for a tour of a demolished psychic and physical landscape, the result of industrial waste.

Ozark – Netflix series with Jason Bateman that has a New York accountant moving to the backwoods area of the mountain range to flee a drug lord. While at first the series seemed to promise a kind of Justified treatment of a backwoods region, much like that of Appalachia, the real strength of the series lies in the Bateman characters illustrating the mechanics of money laundering. It’s a dramatic series with a darkly comic undercurrent and the accountant’s wife, played by the marvelous Laurie Linney, manages each week to underplay, even more than Bateman, a scene in the way that makes the dark task of the new failing middle class managing its lack of funds through crime and profiteering hilarious, though it would be funnier if it weren’t true.

Guerilla – Thrilling British mini-series, broadcast in the U.S. on Showtime, created by 12 Years A Slave’s John Ridley about a 70s Black uprising in London. Better and clearer than 12 Years a Slave with no white man, aka Brad Pitt, riding to the rescue and with a brutal depiction of the British equivalent of the FBI’s Cointelpro sabotaging these black radicals in an evil character borrowed from Peaky Blinders' Sam Neill who like the Irish regenerate in that series entraps the Black Panther-like protestors and directs them towards violence.

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Episodes – This Showtime series ended this year with Matt LeBlanc, playing a heightened version of himself, a slightly savvier Joey from Friends then returning to the kind of show this series viciously mocked. Not since The Larry Sanders Show has there been a series which so skewered the inhuman culture that surrounds the rampant greed of network television, where money is king. Season Five was a bit of an afterthought but Season Four contained a brilliant late flourishing of this stunning satire.

You Are Wanted – German series available on Amazon about the supposed paranoia of a real estate executive whose identity is stolen. He discovers that the paranoia is real as we are all in danger not only of having our identity pilfered but, because of our susceptibility to the symbolic economy which keeps convincing we are nothing but the number of clicks we perform each day, having much less identity to assume in the first place. A point which the cypher-like lead character makes clear.

Salaam Mosco – Russian series just being released in the West which details the conflicts, misunderstandings and prejudices of a polyglot Moscow through the misadventures of its two cop protagonists, a quasi-racist Russian and his Muslim partner. A sometimes comic, sometimes absurd look at the fissures on which tensions in post-Soviet Russia express themselves, and an antidote to the current othering of the country.

And Five Honourable Mentions:

The Romeo Section –Season 2 of the Canadian Broadcasting Series got back on track and started looking more like creator Chris Haddock’s superb Intelligence, as the agents run by a university professor track a terrorist attack possibly engineered by the spy services themselves.

The Code – Seasons 1 and 2 of this Australian series both detail in some degree the way the Australian state acts in collusion, first with the defence industry to cover up the murder of an Aborigine, and then to repress an independence movement in order to maintain its mining of the region. Tends to pull its punches by the end and soften its critique, but its journalist and autistic hacker, two-brother team keeps it interesting. 

Gomorrah – Like the book and better than the film, this series on the Naples Camorra, also produced by the book’s author Robert Saviano, details each week the personal corruption but also the public economy of the mob. Interesting, fascinating but extremely bleak. 

Catastrophe – About midway through Season 2, this Amazon Series took a turn for the better, embracing in a more truthful fashion the dysfunction of its two older protagonists who start a family more out of lust than love. Season 3 continued that dysfunction and made it the best anti-family, family comedy on television.

K2 – The high profile Korean series this year was Stranger but this action series about a mercenary who challenges the corrupt interplay between the largest Korean corporations and the government, while falling in love with the Korean president’s daughter is more dynamic. Bigger budget but more direct than the sometimes too obtuse Stranger, involving formidable truthtelling about the country’s political elite.

Top Five Trends in Serial Television

  1. The attack on net neutrality by Trump’s FCC, which if it succeeds will likely increase pricing for online streaming and make the streaming services look more and be priced more like cable TV. 
  2. Netflix expenditure in creating new content; $6 billion this year and already announced $7 billion for next year which will include 13 Global Netflix series. The question is though, how will this content translate? Will it be exciting innovative series, or just Netflix creating knock-off content that is its own version of popular films or TV series, such as Frontier, Netflix’s serial rerunning of The Revenant. The unspectacular Italian series Suburra which turned a film and a book about corruption into a skewed-young dance music celebration of budding masculinity does not bode well, as the service begins to look more and more like a slightly higher-end mainstream network.
  3. Continual critical dominance of streaming services over network TV with Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale winning the Emmy for best dramatic series.
  4. Dominant female roles and stories of male dystopia and liberation. Not only The Handmaid’s Tale, but the Margaret Atwood follow-up Alias Grace, and even the more mainstream Western Godless, a reworking of The Magnificent Seven as the tale of all-women’s town battling male bandits. The series still delivered male gunplay at its ultimate moment but even the male characters had a softness and vulnerability that was female-inflected.
  5. Returns of unsuccessful series. The X-Files barely registered as an event once it unrolled though that will not keep it from being revived again. However more deeply disconcerting was Season 2 of Top of the Lake, which began promisingly but dissolved its recounting of female trafficking in an ambiguous haze that proved ultimately disappointing. The most extreme case though was the utterly unwatchable Twin Peaks. A series of disjointed but powerful images could not conceal its lack of an overarching theme, which was a major strength of the original, boldly employing network television to expose incest at the heart of the American home.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

                                     

                         

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

Framing the Russian Revolution

Published in Cultural Commentary

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

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

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

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

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

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

RR The Defence of Petrograd Alexander Deineka 1928

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

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

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

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

DB SovietWoman1920

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DB Tatlins Tower

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

DB Rodchenkos lunchroom

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

DB Kuleshovs By The Law

Lev Kuleshov's By the Law

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

DB Feodor Osteps The Yellow Ticket

Feodor Osteps, The Yellow Ticket

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

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

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

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

Framing the Russian Revolution

Published in 1917 Centenary

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

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

DB Cult Leader Vladimir Lenin

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

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

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

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

RR The Defence of Petrograd Alexander Deineka 1928

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

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

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

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

DB SovietWoman1920

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DB Tatlins Tower

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

DB Rodchenkos lunchroom

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

DB Kuleshovs By The Law

Lev Kuleshov's By the Law

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

DB Feodor Osteps The Yellow Ticket

Feodor Osteps, The Yellow Ticket

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

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

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

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

Venice Film Festival 2017: Part Two

Published in Films

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

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

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

DB cinderelas cat

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

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

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

DB wormwood

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

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

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

DB the new york public library

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

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

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

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

DB angels wear white

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Venice Film Festival 2017

Published in Films

Dennis Broe reviews the 2017 Venice Film Festival.

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

Venice as launch pad

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

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

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

db shape of water

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

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

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

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

db suburb

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Venice as innovator

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Venice as critic of the refugee crisis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Venice Biennale 2017
Monday, 11 September 2017 19:43

Venice Biennale 2017

Published in Visual Arts

Dennis Broe reviews the 2017 Venice Biennale.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published in Visual Arts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wonder Woman: a feminist anti-war fable?

Published in Films

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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