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. 

Patti Cake$
Friday, 16 June 2017 13:36

Cannes 70 Final Round-Up

Published in Films

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

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

Cannes Redux: Top Films Outside the Main Competition

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

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

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

Best of the Rest:

Directions.

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

DB cannes directions

 Pure Hearts or Cuori Puri.

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

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

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

Wind River

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

DB cannes patty cakes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Twin Peaks
Tuesday, 13 June 2017 19:45

Cannes 70 Part 3: Best of the Fest

Published in Films

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cannes Crime 2017: Top 5 Noir Film and Television Series

5. Directions

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

DB cannes directions

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

4. Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts

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

DB cannes marlina

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

3. A Ciambra/Cuori Puri

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

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

DB cannes a ciambra

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

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

2. Wind River

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

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

1. Western

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

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

DB2 cannes western

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

Out of Competition But Not Out of Mind

Top of the Lake/Twin Peaks

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

DB cannes top of the lake

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

DB cannes twin peaks

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

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

The Villainess

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

DB3 cannes the villainess

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

Cannes 70 Part 2
Friday, 02 June 2017 20:34

Cannes 70 Part 2

Published in Films

 Dennis Broe in Cannes reports on migrants dying at the festival, heavy and stifling security, female warriors and the Golden Age of African Cinema.

This is Bro on the World Film Beat Once Again “Breaking Glass” at the Cannes Film Festival.

The prizes are in at the festival and first prize, the Palme d’Or, goes to The Square, a Swedish film about the persistence of big money in the art world. Meanwhile, the continuing breaking story at Cannes concerned migrants, two of whom turned up dead in Cannes during the festival while onscreen the Hungarian film Jupiter’s Moon opens with a unarmed Syrian migrant gunned down by the local police, who then acquires the power of, no pun intended, flight in a kind of crossing of the Marvel comics series Legion with the starkest European social reality.

Elsewhere French director Michael Toesca brought four migrants to Cannes to call attention to their plight as the police forbid them from taking their place on the red carpet with the director. This famous tapis rouge on which Nicole Kidman, in four films and honoured by the festival, was a fashion sensation was in a way mocked in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks where agent Cooper seems to be trapped in a red velour curtain, like the carpet, and cannot find his way back to reality as so much of the event seems to both want to embrace the social ills of contemporary Europe and to at the same time deny them, subsuming then in a wash of consumerist glamour.

The order of the day in week two was television, as Cannes screened what was claimed as its first, not one but two, television series: the second season of Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake in its entire six episodes and the sequel to Twin Peaks with episodes one and two screened days after opening on Showtime in the U.S. Footnote, this is not the first series screened at Cannes, that honour goes to Bruno Dumont’s P’tite Quinquin, a four episode series which screened in 2014 but was not a high profile American series and even earlier to 2010s Carlos by Olivier Assayas.

The Top of the Lake screening was unique. We were sitting in a Cannes theatre watching TV for six hours with director Campion and her actors and crew and snacking after every two episodes with candy and granola bars supplied by the screeners. I consider these two series along with Cannes bad boy Lars Von Trier’s The Kingdom the three crucial series for the establishment of a more committed and critical form of serial television, the most dynamic contemporary narrative form, which Cannes by holding the screenings was acknowledging.

Top of the Lake season two began well, with the first two episodes, this season with the female detective Robin Griffin now back in her workplace of Sydney Australia investigating the death of a Chinese sex worker and as well the middle class exploitation of migrants as baby incubators, surrogates, with both somehow tied to a frustrated philosophy professor/pimp who initially holds the place of the drug lord patriarch of the first season. A very promising start but the series then dissolves into a haze of ambiguity and confusion as the patriarch himself becomes a fractured truth teller and the upper middle class Nicole Kidman character instead of being evil as is hinted in her earlier appearances in the series becomes instead merely obnoxious, weakening what was a very promising beginning.

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

There is more than the germ of a great series here, not only in the return to the Twin Peaks characters but also in a South Dakota story involving a seemingly innocent high school principle, his lawyer and his wife. The second episode though remains consumed in the demon Bob taking over agent Cooper nonsensical skullduggery. Lynch’s explorations of the unconscious are always best, in Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks and Mulholland Drive, when they are initially grounded in the social world and episode two disdains that grounding.

The series does explore two crucial questions. One is, given the series’ consciousness of itself as aging 25 years, does the unconscious or how does the unconscious age? The second is, what is the impact of the digital age on the unconscious, or rather, do we have any unconscious left or are we all simply preordained images mixed in a consumer morass that is now our minds? A New York section quotes Andy Warhol’s Empire as a watcher of the now digital skyline of the city is then punished for his watching in a way that suggests we are all now couch potatoes perhaps awaiting our comeuppance.

Though Top of the Lake attempts to map the battlefield of contemporary male-female relations three other films at the festival do it better and with less ambiguity. First is Sophia Coppola’s remake of the Clint Eastwood film The Beguiled with wounded Union soldier Colin Ferrell rescued by a Girl’s School near the end of the Civil War and which we heard a clip from in the opening of the show. Four different ages of women within the school all become enamored with the soldier with this remake told not through his eyes, as is the Don Siegel original, but through theirs.

This is a coming-of-age film for director Coppola, awarded the best director prize at the festival, where the past as in Marie Antoinette is still not really the past, but a screen on which to project post-feminist struggles, but here those struggles and the women’s ability to fight back and to form a collective is what is emphasized in a deepening of the post-feminist position.

Second in this fight-back line is the remarkable Indonesian film Marlina, The Murderer in Four Acts by Mouly Surya, a combination of the rich heritage of Indonesian folk tale and the visual and iconographic heritage of the 1970s Sergio Leone Italian Spaghetti Western. The landscape for this tale of a woman set upon by thieves who steal her property is the flat arid Old West plains of the island of Sumba, far from the usual tropical rainforest that is the image of the country. Marlina, triumphs over the men in a way similar to that of the triumph of the Girl’s School in The Beguiled but that is only the beginning of her tale which features equally the awakening of a pregnant companion along the way, all in the face of the inert figure of Marlina’s mummified husband, no help in confronting wanton male energy in a cruel landscape where the human scale is reduced to a single horizon line in shots that betray the majesty of a director emerging onto the world stage.

DB3 cannes the villainess

Finally, there is the wondrous bloodletting of the South Korean epic, screened as a midnight film, The Villainess, which first depicts the savage fighting skills of its gang-trained female assassin, then tames and domesticates her as she moves to a legitimate position inside a government security agency and falls for one of its operatives. Finally though, betrayed by both the agency and the gang, she exacts her revenge in a death-defying armored car sequence before being taken by the police as the last shot closes in on her smile as she is cuffed, the smile seemingly her excitement at the power she wields rather than the more simplified satisfaction of revenge.

I would like to continue my coverage of Cannes 70 with a tribute to the range of films the festival screens. In one day I first saw An Inconvenient Sequel, Al Gore’s follow-up 10 years later to his Academy Award winning doc on climate change. In the decade between, Gore has become, not embittered, but sharper and more direct in his message, pointing out that there are now places in Africa where because of the increased pestilence caused by the heat which promotes the Zika virus women are being told to wait two years to have babies while in the U.S. for the same reason pregnant women are warned not to visit Miami where Gore explains the flooding coming from the melting of Greenland may sink that city faster than Venice. He identifies the fossil fuel industry as the villain and though still guilty of consorting with known Democrats like Chuck Schumer does point out that his heritage, where his father opposed LBJ’s War in Vietnam, is from a time when Democrats had both a heart and a spine.

Next, on the same day, I saw in the Cannes Classic Section African director Med Hondo’s Soleil O, the first restoration by The African Project, partially funded by George Lucas and introduced onscreen by Martin Scorsese which will eventually restore 50 African films from the Golden Period of the 1970s and 1980s. Hondo one of the key African directors in that cinema’s revolutionary period was a student in France and the film observes French racism firsthand in its main narrative while a remarkably prescient opening pantomime has African warriors fighting each other for the approval of a European general. They all collapse in a heap in front of the wily brigadier and he smiles as divide and conquer, employed now more stridently than ever on the continent, works wonders.

Finally, my day concluded with the already discussed Villainess, which begins with an opening montage in subjective camera, that is, we see not her but only what she sees, of her blades mowing over the gang of men who oppose and mock her. The first time we see that this talented assassin is a woman is when she looks in a mirror, echoing The Lady in the Lake, a Hollywood 1940s noir which uses this technique. The audience claps at the carnage she exacts similar to a male assassin who becomes known as the killer of 100 in Tashio Mike’s Blade of the Assassin also screened at the festival. This time though, the destruction is engineered by a woman as a tour-de-force settling of accounts for a whole cinematic and actual history of male violence against women. A truly remarkable day at a festival which really did contain multitudes.

In the griping section though I will say that security which last year in the wake of the Bateclan Paris attacks was spectacular and showy, this year was omnipresent and constantly invasive. A team of experts managed to detect and deactivate the threat posed at one point by my double chocolate muffin, instructing me that I could not go into the Palais with a weapon like that, and so I had to eat it outside. And of course, as in the wider uses of the security state, fighting terrorism could conceal and rationalize any number of other restrictions which cannot be questioned. I was told I could not take my computer into a screening which seemed to have much more to do with piratage and recording than with a security threat. Even The Hollywood Reporter could not but be struck by the way the heavy presence of the police in what has become an armed state contrasted sharply with the supposed “freedoms” being lauded on the red carpet of filmmakers to pursue their personal whims and fantasies.

I will conclude with three French films that were in various ways less than meets the eye. The first was Rodin which like five years ago’s Renoir falls into the stultifying genre of the French Heritage film, which as opposed to its British cousin validating empire, validates the Republic through its artistic preoccupations. This film has a bit more going for it than Renoir with Vincent London, so good in 2015’s The Law of the Market, as the brooding 40-year old sculptor about to embark on his grandest creation, The Gates of Hell. Unfortunately, it often dissolves into Rodin’s sexcapades and historical myth as when he tells “Paul”, Cezanne that is, to stay true to himself and Cezanne falls to his knees and kisses Rodin’s ring which even if true has a very false ring to it, substituting artist star-finking for a socially complex recounting of the events.

Francois Ozon’s L’Amant Double, on the surface a Hitchcockian tale of a woman who falls for two opposite psychoanalyst brothers, is unfortunately really just 100 Shades of Grey, more erratic than erotic thriller which doesn’t ultimately make much sense even as the tortured images of its obsessed heroine. Fleshy, fashion photography disguised as psychoanalytic fable.

More insidious but also more interesting was Markala, a documentary shot in the Congo about a charbonnier, that is a villager who cuts down the mighty baobab tree and turns it into charcoal briquettes which he loads on his bicycle to make and make us feel the long and arduous trip to town to sell at an African market, part of the oldest market system in the world. The cutting down of the tree and the journey in a neo-realist style are well told, but there is a tendency by the French director to fetishize the African customs with the film ending in a religious frenzy which the French camera observes somewhat disdainfully with the film unable to penetrate the culture or to view it as anything but exotic. At the screening the director Emmanuel Gras called his five white French compatriots onstage where he celebrated his filmmaking and finally got around to thanking his Congolese lead, not at Cannes, “without whom this film would not have been possible.”

Duh! That’s like Elvis Presley “thanking” Chuck Berry and Little Richard without whom his ripping off of a more authentic culture would also not have been possible.

This is Bro the World Film Beat Breaking Glass and signing off from Cannes 2017. I’ll be back with a recap of best of the films in the festival beyond the main competition.

Cannes 70
Wednesday, 31 May 2017 19:12

Cannes 70

Published in Films

Dennis Broe has offered to undertake the arduous task of reporting on the Cannes Film Festival this year for Culture Matters. Here is his first report.....

Bonjour from Cannes 70. The venerable film festival, the largest in the world, turned 70 this year and perhaps is showing some signs of age, since not only is the festival changing but the whole pattern of film distribution, of which the festival is a part, is changing as well. That fact was highlighted by this year’s Cannes Crisis, and the festival’s biggest story. No it’s not that Nicole Kidman is in four films this year. It’s that Netflix, the evil streaming service, the red devil from Los Gatos, its California headquarters, has two films in the main competition: films which in most counrties including here in France are going directly to Netflix just after the festival closes and will never open in theatres. Thierry Fremaux, the festival director, choosing simply on what films would make an interesting selection, chose Boon Joon Ho’s Okja and Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories as eligible to win the Palme D’Or, the Cannes first prize, the most prestigious award in the world for arthouse and auteur cinema.

The choice then created a sensation. French theatre owners launched a protest against the two films being included on a platform that circumvented theatrical distribution and in response Fremaux then said that never again would films that will not have theatrical distribution be part of the Cannes main competition. This year’s jury president, the Spanish director Pedro Almodovar, then announced at his Cannes press conference that he did not think it appropriate that films that do not open in theatres win the Cannes prize, essentially disqualifying the two Netflix entries.

Will this position hold? It’s doubtful, Amazon also has a film in the competition, Todd Haynes Wonderstruck but that is getting a pass because it will have a limited, just to qualify for awards, opening in theatres. It should be said that Okja, the better of the two Netflix films, will open in theatres in the U.S., Britain and its home county South Korea, but these are mostly day and date openings, that is, the film will open the same time in the theatres as worldwide on Netflix. Again, these openings are not about getting the film seen in theatres but rather about having it qualify at awards time in the three countries: the idea being that a limited theatrical run, though a bit costly, could pay off later in the movie season by generating increased cultural capital for the company through these awards.

Is Netflix truly evil? Well, they are part of FANG, the infamous quartet of Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google whose profits in the last quarter have themselves equalled the profits of the remaining 496 members of the Fortune 500. Amazon is doing to retailers what Netflix is attempting to do to local film industries: level them. However, the approach taken at Cannes seems shortsighted. Punishing Netflix for distributing worldwide across their network and not opening in theatres is not the answer, since it will not stop the company. The answer, as the French ingeniously realised with Canal Plus decades ago, is to tax Netflix or require it to pay a fee for showing its content. Canal Plus, the French pay per view service, has a deal with the French government which allows it to be able to show films in a reduced window of 10 months after they open instead of the usual 3 years. In return for that concession the company pays 15 percent of its profits to subsidize French and global cinema. Its film producing arm Studio Canal is responsible not only in France but around the world for producing some of the most progressive films on the market. A deal like that needs to be worked out with Netflix where some part of their profits can be reinvested locally, here in French film, in return for them operating in the country. Instead we have the Starbucks phenomenon where American companies make huge profits in the European markets and quarter themselves in places where taxes are the lowest, in Starbucks case in Holland, simply taking and not returning.

That said, the Netflix entry Okja is the best film I’ve seen at the festival, a kid’s ecologically minded, anti-capitalist fable by to my mind the world’s leading director, the South Korean Boon Joon Ho who has already given us one of the most socially situated serial killer films, Memories of Murder, the anti-imperialist horror film about South Korea threatened by a virus hatched in American labs The Host and the impassioned plea locating social stratification at the heart of global warming in the action thriller Snowpiercer. Okja co-produced by Tilda Swinton, in a true blending of East and West, opens with Swinton’s tour-de-force on stage presentation as corporate inheritor Lucy Mirando of her supposed rewriting of the sins of her factory belching father on the site of the factory as she announces her company’s new image as clean agribusiness proponent manufacturing a superpig, that under her breath she concludes, better taste pretty f—ing good. The pigs are distributed across the world and we meet the little girl Mija who raised the now full grown Korean pignocerous a cuddly being that is a miracle combination of CGI and full-scale suit designed by the creator of the creature in The Host. There follows two exciting action sequences one involving Mija on a cliff and the other with her tracking Okja to Seoul and hanging off the top of the truck the Mirando corporation is using to reclaim her pet. In the finale though Boon Joon Ho foregoes the King Kong running wild in New York sequence to instead focus on the slaughter and mutilation of the genetically altered animals in a way that dialectically merges ET with Killer of Sheep, Charles Burnett’s indie film about the psychological damage the everyday grind of a slaughterhouse inflicts.

Okja is a hypersmart combination of global and local moving from the mountains of South Korea to the digital mecca of New York which nevertheless disdains the Dreamworks and Disney media showing off consisting of hyper-referential and unsatisfying cultural jibes in place of actual heart and social politics which Okja has aplenty. It is also in its respect for the little girl’s relation with the animal and her peasant upbringing which allows her to remain honest in the world of New York media which is everywhere about corrupting her local affiliations and which also affects her grandfather, a comment on the relation between Netflix and local cinema. The Mirando corporation, which first seems benign in the form of Lucy, but which then turns much harsher in Lucy’s ousting by her totally bottom line oriented sister, also played this time by a tight-lipped Swinton, is itself a kind of Netflix, selling a benign version of entertainment and concealing a lust for profit and slaughter, in this case of local artists, who it is everyday supplanting. So, Boon Joon Ho is subtly biting the hand that feeds and distributes him.

The Netflix logo was booed initially at the press screening and the booing continued not at Netflix but because the screen was only about two-thirds visible to the balcony audience which hooted until the film restarted. Asked if this might be deliberate sabotage of the Netflix screening, Boon Joon Ho remarked instead that the technical glitch allowed the audience to re-see the first 10 minutes which is jam packed with a recounting of the former evils of the Mirando Corporation, which are the past evils which have led to the now sanitised corporate image of tech companies. He was very happy the audience got to see it again. Asked what he thought of Almodovar’s statement eliminating the film from winning the Cannes top prize, he simply proclaimed himself in awe that Almodovar would be watching his film.  Co-producer Swinton replied that they did not come to Cannes to win prizes but to deliver a very canny and ultimately savage criticism of corporate destruction of the environment, in this case of animals that might have a larger impact if it opened worldwide on the Netflix platform. In sum, an altogether winning performance both on and off-screen by Boon, Swinton and the filmmaking crew which in the end valued the film’s social message above what alongside it looked almost like petty gripes by a film industry clinging to its established patterns of profit.

Joon Ho’s and Swinton’s clear-eyed anti-capitalist commitment stood in sharp contrast to another film directed by the usually equally clear-eyed Vanessa Redgrave called Sea Sorrow about the refugee crisis in Europe. The film starts out strongly, interviewing an Afghani who explains he started crying when American soldiers entered his home, and in response they killed both his mother and father. But then the film drops all questioning of what created the crisis, where refugees are primarily from Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, all countries which the Western powers have decimated and instead becomes a mute plea to let a few more refugees into Britain. The film seems to go out of its way to offend no one but in so doing becomes a fairly mundane liberal hand-wringing exercise about an issue that Western media give a good deal of preachy lip service to while never analysing the problem at its Western colonial core and thus never suggesting what actually might be done about it.

Far better by the way is the Martin Scorsese exec-produced A Ciambra directed by Jonas Carpignano who was at Cannes two years ago with Mediterranea, a distinctive immigrant film which focused not on the African trip across that sea but on the difficult interaction, once arrived, with Italian locals. This film, shot and conceived in a starkly realistic style, concerns a Roma, a gypsy boy’s bitter coming of age and his relation with a Ghanian, Khoudas Seihan from the previous film, who befriends the boy Pio but whose friendship he must balance with the demands of his own clan, a rung just above the Africans, and the pressures of the dominant Italians who police the ethnic hierarchical structure. It’s a kind of multicultural updating of Scorsese’s own Mean Streets with a preadolescent De Niro.

The second best film in the festival I have seen is Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Loveless, a fairly scathing critique of Russian and indeed capitalist consumer society as it plays out in a post-socialist, post-gangster economy Russia where the corporate ethos has become normalized. Like his academy award winning last film Leviathan, this film opens with desolate country shots of a bleak Moscow winter. The film traces the self-absorption of a father who worries that his breaking up with his wife will affect his sales and marketing job and the wife whose California-obsession with fitness leaves little room in their life for their son who subsequently disappears. They return to the wife’s mother, a signifier of old Russia, referred to by the husband as “Stalin-in-a-skirt,” but that road is closed. This is a new take on the disappearing child, the favorite trope of serial TV series these days, where the focus is only mildly on finding the child and more determinedly on how the consumerist hedonist and competitive lifestyle of the parents has engineered the boy out of their lives. A shot of him concealed behind a door in tears as the adults claim he is better off in boarding school is an extremely striking depiction of their own callousness as is the ultimate lack of resolution of the dramatic question and the reappearance of the initial bleak winter landscape which is the actual emotional content of the lives of the parents now with other partners who have substituted material comfort for genuine satisfaction.

DB2 cannes western

Another excellent examination of the global and the local is Western from German director Valeska Grisebach, which details the spirit of colonisation with which a German crew and especially the foreman, building a hydroelectric dam, treats the Bulgarian inhabitants of the nearby village. The main protagonist is an ex-mercenary, as he says a Legionnaire, who, having served in Iraq and Afghanistan, disdains violence and conquering and attempts to forge relations with the villagers. The foreman on the other hand projects contemporary German economic might as in direct relation to its Nazi past, claiming that “we were here 70 years ago, and now we’re back.” The film in dealing with the inhabitants of Europe’s poorest country refuses the easy labelling of their peasant organizational structure as “mafia” and instead highlights their collective customs. The legionnaire ultimately himself and despite himself begins to exhibit a more domineering manner and the film leaves open the question as to whether these cultural patterns can be transcended.

An astonishing film that details the leaving behind of the Chinese workforce as that country struggles towards manoeuvering its economy toward a more high tech orientation is Walking Past the Future about a family of peasants living and having helped build the modern coastal industrial city of Shenzun with its new gleaming corporate skyline. The parents of the young woman Yang Yaoting are getting old and are both told their services are no longer required in their factory jobs. They move back to the countryside in a reverse migration that is not unlike that of African-Americans in the last decade moving back to the South. But there they find their village communal land has been confiscated by an agribusiness boss who claims it is all legal because he has the correct papers and who quickly fires the family for again working too slow. Yang returns to Shenzun where she is the subject of a new kind of 21st century human trafficking. To earn money to provide her parents with an apartment for their retirement, she takes part in medical tests which pay better than her equally dangerous job in a microchip factory which requires that she wear a blue suit and facemask to deal with the radioactive materials. In this new form of prostitution, she, after her best friend has died trying to perfect herself with plastic surgery, falls in love with the procurer of the test victims, essentially, in the scenario of this new form of biomedical exploitation benefitting big pharma, her pimp. He also hides behind the legal charade of signing away consent since Yang desperate to save her family has little choice but to concede. The film is a bitter indictment of the lengths this new economy will go to exploit and then to discard its workers.

Worst film of the festival so far was the out-of-competition opening Arnaud Deplichin’s Ismael’s Phantoms, a misogynist, colonialist hyper-indulgent piece about a French director, Matthew Almaric, and the two women who inhabit his life but who for him function merely as muse’s for his so-called art. Charlotte Gainsborough is underused as the director Ismael’s current lover while the always wonderful Marion Cotillard returns from the dead to briefly breathe life into a film that retrogressively celebrates the director’s Peter Pan syndrome as a mark of genius. The director’s film within a film, nominally an espionage thriller, has the look of a much better film than that about the childish artist but it too then succumbs to being, as are the two women, essentially figments of his artistic imagination. The espionage film begins by reminding us of the kind of skillful quoting of Hollywood the French New Wave directors used to do, being unable themselves to manage a blockbuster budget. However, it ends up as a projection of the director’s ultimately mundane problems and finished by being far less instead of the intended far more than what at least in television storytelling has achieved a higher, meaning more complicated, intricate and social, level of storytelling than this film can even imagine. By the way sprinkling references to James Joyce, Melville and Hitchcock, rather than deepening the examination of creative genius, in this context, simply shows us what lesser company we’re in at the moment.

The other Netflix film The Meyerowitz Stories is an attempt by director Noah Baumbach to claim the mantle, in detailing the lives, loves and generally lack of passion of New York’s cultural elite, of a new Woody Allen. Alas, he succeeds. The film is a well observed but ultimately pointless depiction of one of Baumbach’s failed artists, this time a declining patriarch, Dustin Hoffman, an unsuccessful sculptor who has visited his resentments on his two sons, Adam Sandler and Ben Stiller. What has happened as Baumbach approaches Woody status is that the satire, which in say The Squid and the Whale could be devastating, is now settled into a kind of nostalgic recollection in tranquility that blunts the humor to the point that even delayed entry of the almost always funny Ben Stiller cannot save it from its tepid heart which like its lead character often fails to beat.

Peaky Blinders
Friday, 23 December 2016 22:04

Dennis Broe's Top 10 TV Series in 2016: Hyperconglomeration, Seriality and Sameness

Published in Films

Professor Dennis Broe offers his Top Ten TV series of 2016.

Last year at this time it was a pleasure to report that the Comcast-Time-Warner merger had been halted. In this year of the Trump corporate giveaway, it is sad to watch the Charter-Time Warner merger approved so that essentially two companies Charter-Time Warner and Comcast control cable access to the American home with the result that the Charter Time-Warner cable rates rose immediately and transport speed slowed. It is also sad to report that the miracle of OTT (over the top) television watching where viewers cut their cable cord and stream from a variety of sources is beginning to look simply like the process of readying TV watchers to pay for what was in the old days free TV.

The streaming services and particularly Netflix, the most successful among them, meanwhile have begun to look and program like the television networks of old. Netflix inundates its subscribers with new series, however, the repetitive and knockoff quality of its average series are, rather than suggesting the utopia of a new Golden Age of Television, instead harking back to the “vast wasteland” of network TV and to cable’s 900 channels with nothing to watch.

Nevertheless, it was a stellar year in Global Television for the advancement of the serial form of storytelling as showrunners consistently used the form to explore social and class tensions in the past and the present. The serials chart in a sublimated way, through complex narrative patterns, the inequalities and injustices that they were only too well aware of in dealing with the corporate ethos of their own industry.

Top 10 Series

Strange Empire – As so often in television, the best series do not last, which is no reason not to honor them and this Canadian Broadcasting Corporation Western tracing the attempt of three women to shake off the masculinist shackles of the West on the Montana-Canadian border was cancelled after a stunning first season that kept getting more politically intricate as it detailed the economy of a mining town where the owner consigned women to prostitution and men to wage slavery. A must-see. 

Mr. Robot – Maintained consistently the air of menace hanging over the corporatization of the virtual world we are now co-inhabiting with our other lesser reality, but never quite matched its opening salvo with the supposed paranoid bursts of two generations of conspiracy theorists. Christian Slater, in his reworking of his ‘80s teen persona as harbinger of the awfulness of corporate mind control in Heathers and Pump Up the Volume, merges literally with the superb Rami Malek’s Anonymous-styled hacktivism to produce a contemporary critique that was as much global corporate truthtelling as conspiratorial rant.   

Rebellion – Best series of the year hails from Ireland and charts the events leading up to and following the 1916 Irish Rebellion in Dublin, as the Irish consensus to fight the imperial First World War for their British Masters broke down. The most remarkable and liberating part of the series is its intense focus on three women engulfed in not only British domination of Ireland but also in Irish antagonism to their defining themselves as equal partners in the struggle.

Peaky Blinders – This British indie series is far more than the usual American gangster rags to riches tale. Set in Birmingham in the 1920s, it details the coming to prominence of an Irish gang whose ruthlessness was forged in the World War I slaughter that leaves its members traumatized. Swimming in the same sordid pool are labor agitators ready to lead a working-class rebellion, the budding Sein Fein Irish independentists, and a jealous Irish Protestant Cop, Sam Neil in the role of his career as the hand servant of a Winston Churchill who wants to destroy the whole lot. Gripping period drama. The noir version of Downtown Abbey and not for the squeamish.     

The Americans – Best years, those confronting the all-out Reagan Russian paranoia, are perhaps behind it as this series about US-Russian Cold War tensions in the 1980s told through the eyes of a married Soviet spy team, has attempted to increase the tension in the domestic area by involving their pampered, rebellious but ultimately boring daughter Page in the intrigue. Still though, the smartest American series about the moral costs on both sides of Reagan’s upping the ante in an American attempt to win the Cold War.

Ripper Street – This Amazon/BBC series set in the poorest section of Industrial Revolution London in the decade after Jack the Ripper surprised by never focusing on the serial killer aspect of the Whitechapel district and instead concentrating on the class tensions unleashed by both American and British ownership interests, the actual serial killers, who saw the slum residents as expendable. Fifth and final season again brought back the specter of the Ripper only to resolve that never-emphasized plot line in a way that stayed true to the concentration instead on the social fabric of the neighborhood.

Silicon Valley – The funniest comedy on television is also the most biting satire as not only the supposed moral high ground of the tech industry is skewered as it becomes more nakedly a collection of simple gold digging enterprises but along with it the neo-liberal ethos whose upside of entrepreneurial energy is constantly being contaminated by its now more dominant downside of massive wealth accumulation. Mike Judge in fashioning a minutely detailed study of one industry’s evolving corruption has equally fashioned an allegory of the way the television industry works as well as the way artists as a whole, represented by the Pied Piper start-up unit, constantly both rise above and are drowned by the waves of the corporate tsunami that engulfs them.

Night Manager – This BBC/AMC series while yes being an entertaining actor’s throwdown between The Hollow Crown’s Tom Hiddleston as everyman outraged by corporate barbarity and House’s Hugh Laurie as clandestine arms dealer concealed behind philanthropy and boasting stunning Mediterranean sets is also as with most John LeCarre adapted work a recounting of how difficult it is to get justice for corporate wrongdoing in both a government and business world where money dictates morality. So much better than its evil twin, the corporate patronizing Showtime actors duel Billions where Paul Giamatti and Damien Lewis simply wallow in their own sordidness which the series admires.

Rectify – Sundance’s first original series very much brings an American independent film sensibility to television in the way this series, about the prejudice of a small Georgia town toward a supposed wrongly accused murderer set free after 19 years, lets its characters breathe in imbuing television seriality with an ease in emphasizing small moments and a deliberate thinness to the intrigue that focuses on minute character development in understated ways. As a critic pointed out, one episode ends with two of the characters literally watching paint dry and the moment is resplendent. Well-developed portrait of small-town prejudices that in the year of Trump we know have, far from being transcended, become ascendant.

Jordskott – This Swedish series, about a cop from Stockholm who returns to her natal town and to the forest surrounding it where nine years before her daughter had disappeared, is a kind of The Kingdom meets Top of the Lake mystical investigation into the destruction of nature by capitalist enterprise and the mysterious ways Nature fights back. The title itself without a corresponding word in English indicates a throwing or pummeling of the earth and in the guise of a police procedural this is what the series explores. Best, as it is termed, Scandicrime series of the year. Now being purchased widely and will be coming your way in 2017.

Honorable Mention

The Romeo Section  -- Canadian spy series by the magnificent Chris Haddock, though too much American influenced after his stint on Boardwalk Empire, still recalls his spy masterpiece Intelligence, a systematic dismantling of the idea that the security state was installed to protect us. This series pulls its punches and too much romanticizes its intelligence operatives but is still a gripping reminder of the former series.

Trapped – Icelandic noir about gang imported murder in the midst of a blizzard in a remote town that is about to become a booming global port. On the strength of this Hollywood hired Baltasar Kormakur to direct Everest but they missed the boat in that the detailing of the town’s growing corruption is the strength of the series, not the director’s ability to handle snow.

11.22.63 – J. J. Abrams’ television return had James Franco as a time traveler set on thwarting the Kennedy assassination as a pretext for exploring facets of the Kennedy Legacy and of the conspiracy surrounding the assassination. More comfortable than gripping but still welcome renewal of traditional liberal television for the streaming TV era.

Midnight Sun –French/Swedish co-production starring A Prophet’s Leila Bekhti as an inner city, or French banlieu, cop sent to Sweden’s far north to investigate the death of a French citizen in the land of the indigenous Sami or Laplanders which also houses European defense installations and mining companies, both of which could be involved. Nice combination of Scandicrime with French banlieu values in an intriguing co-production.

The Break – Belgium noir that in its detailing of the concealed racist small town sentiments behind the murder of an African soccer player could not be a more timely exploration of how anti-immigrant feelings erupt into violence in a Europe where immigrants far from a burden on the economy are a desperately needed work force to combat the growing expenses of sustaining the continent’s aging population. Spearhead of a noir resurgence in the economically devastated Wallone or French portion of Belgium.  

 

The Olive Tree
Friday, 23 December 2016 21:53

Dennis Broe's Top 10 Films in 2016: The Year of the Filmexit

Published in Films

Professor Dennis Broe offers his top ten films of 2016.

Two trends in the 2016 cinema. One is the continuing dominance of the television serial long form which is replacing much mid-level and indie film production, giving creators the opportunity to explore stories at length, so that the film Top Ten is becoming less important. That is why I follow my own Top Ten with the Ten Best Serial Series of 2016. The second trend is that in this year of Trump, the Brexit, and a resurgence everywhere of movements that are alternately or at the same time anti-global capital and reactionary, my Top Ten has followed suit, stressing in true Bernie Sanders fashion the progressive side of the anti-corporate critique. So in no particular order, here are the best films I saw this year, a Top Ten plus Two.

The Olive Tree - Paul Laverty may be rewarded at Oscar time for his screenplay for I Daniel Blake, but this screenplay, about a young woman who searches to restore an olive tree uprooted from her home in Andalucia in Southern Spain, to function as window dressing for a German corporation in Dusseldorf, is even more poignant and far reaching in its critique of the uneven global order in Europe between the North and South.

I, Daniel Blake – Laverty again with director Ken Loach in a film that tracks post-Thatcher-Blairite meanness and cruelty as it affects those most in need of help - a worker who has collapsed from a heart attack being harassed into returning to work early, and a mother trying to feed her family. One at the mercy of a now merciless neoliberal state, the other forced to succumb to a masculinist form of private-enterprise thinking, that registers bodies as just another form of saleable commodity.

Trumbo – Opened in the US last year, but surfaced here in France early this year. Extraordinarily complex dissection and glorification of a figure for whom ethics was not just another marketable phenomenon. Bryan Cranston shines in the role as blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter Trumbo who reminds the corrupt Republican Senator Parnell when they cross paths in prison that only one of them is there because they are a criminal and in a beguiling way explains to his daughter that a communist is the school kid who, when they find that others around them do not have enough, shares, rather than sells or trades, their lunch. Subversive, because mostly positive, portrait of an actual hero and perhaps Hollywood’s greatest screenwriter.

Last Train to Busan – This resplendent South Korean zombie film uses the horror form to discuss such topics as: global ecological destruction, in its opening beguiling scene of a zombie deer rising after being squashed by a truck carrying radioactive waste; the interpersonal devastation that the ultimate profit motive wrecks in a CEO’s sacrificing everyone to save himself; and the painful memory of the island’s being sacrificed as still victim of the Cold War in the approach of the survivors to the title city where a key battle was fought. Part of a resurgence in the genre as it embraces a new grounding in the social horror that everywhere marks the global landscape.
The Net – Korean director Kim Ki-duk stunned the Venice film festival with this entry about a poor North Korean fisherman who inadvertently slips over the border to the South, where he finds a land where selling is everything while upon his return to the North finds a place where blatant corruption rules the day. A eulogy that suggests both states need to start over in a reworking of relationships. The evenhanded comparison in detailing the maltreatment of the population of both Koreas is hard for Western audiences, still spoon-fed Cold War propaganda, to grasp.

Jackie – Performance of the year from Natalie Portman who from the opening portrait of an elegant woman under pressure captures the grace, haughtiness and social acuity of Jackie Kennedy’s crucial moment in her commanding presence around the funeral of Jack, refusing, for example, to change her bloodstained dress because she wanted those who created the atmosphere that made the assassination possible to feel what they had done. Chilean director Pablo Lorain, also weighing in this year with a screen bio of Neruda as a victim of Chile’s entry into the Cold War, strikes again.

Brimstone –Despised by mainstream critics and seen as simply posing, this Dutch Western with an indefatigable Dakota Fanning pursued to the ends of the earth by Guy Pierce’s perverse, sado-masochistic reverend has both a fascinating well-conceived fractured time structure that plays like four distinct episodes making it resound with the narrative intricacies of series TV and a critique of the American Puritan ethos currently projected as global violence that recalls both Lars Von Trier’s Dogville and the wonder of Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate. Underappreciated but will eventually be recognized as a masterful late Western.

The Witch –Puritan ethic again, this time in its original guise, as once again the horror film is the vehicle for imprinting a critique of the American psyche as devastating the physical landscape of New England and the psychological landscape of female subjectivity in a way that recalls Terence Malick’s The New World in its ravaging of nature and Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist in its celebration of the power of female desire to triumph over the repression that would silence it.

Sami Blood – In this year of indigenous resistance to the destruction wrecked on Native People’s by that most wretched of capitalist enterprises, the oil and gas industry, this Swedish film, which got a very quiet release in the US, details the prejudices and misunderstandings directed at the Laplanders or Sami, as told through the eyes of a woman who “escapes” her culture only to find that she is now utterly imbued in a European devaluing of her heritage that sees her people as primitive both in customs and in their non-Aryan look. A wise and timely film that deserves to find a wider audience.

Fiore – Romeo and Juliet in the slammer. This hard-bitten story of a young Milanese’ decision to adore her fellow male inmate is less romantic tale than tribute to the lead characters’ ability to find love amidst the pain of working class life in an Italy devastated by unemployment to the point where it is a marvel that this second generation thief, now mining the digital realm of stolen cell phones, can still imagine with her prison lover a place where she, the flower of the title, can still bloom amid the harshness of the life around her.

Ma Rosa –Almost similar to Fiore in its depiction of a literally Mom and Pop convenience store in one of the worst slums of Manilla where to make ends meet the female proprietress must sell drugs on the side. Brillante Mendoza’s beautiful long take film contains multiple shots of both, as it’s called, “the impasse”, the dead-end alley where the family is sheltered and the ominousness of the long walks of the police out to haunt and corrupt the streets rather than to make them safe. Quiet and for that reason more disturbing examination of the devastation of drugs in the country which includes the unfettered corruption of those engaged in this supposed war on drugs, in actuality a war on the impoverished.

Where to Invade Next – European Social Democracy is everywhere under attack from all sides but Michael Moore finds in scouring the continent rays of hope that, pre-Trump, could have been applied to the US system to humanize it. Topics include lack of student debt in Slovenia, with the exception of two American students who are there fleeing the high cost of American education; enlightened prison training, including courses in Philosophy, in Finland; and five course meals in France as the equivalent of American inner-city student lunches It’s Moore’s best work in a decade, outlining practical methods for improving American life, many of them, oddly, conceived in the US.

Honorable Mention:

Julieta –Almodovar’s bittersweet remembrance of a mother’s breakup with her daughter replete with Bunuelian stunning shape-shifting of actresses is a visually gorgeous hymn to the wisdom of his female characters.

Bitter Money – 6th Generation Chinese director Wayne Bing’s documentary recounting of the lives of those from the provinces who flood not the interior but the fringes of the Chinese industrial cities where their lives and livelihood are continually at the mercy of an ownership system and a deregulated economy that casts them aside if they do not continually produce at an ever more rigorous level.

Risk – In this year of the degrading of Wikileaks, Laurie Poitras’ inside look at the systematic attempt to silence Julian Assange’s government truthtelling as well as his protégés’ exposing of corporate malfeasance is a timely follow-up to last year’s noirish telling of the Edward Snowden saga Citizen Four.

Horror, horror everywhere - and not just the election result
Saturday, 10 December 2016 16:01

Horror, horror everywhere - and not just the election result

Published in Films

Dennis Broe discerns a renewal of energy in the tired old formulae of the horror film, as film-makers draw on the horrors of everyday life under an ever more destructive, greedier capitalism.

Any assessment of the best films of 2016, as critics around this time of the year are wont to do, has to take account of the new power of traditional genres to illuminate contemporary truths.

I’m talking particularly about the Korean horror film the Last Train To Busan, a zombie thriller whose subtext is the horror of neoliberal life and its stifling of all collective feeling; The Witch, as good a film as has ever been made about the way a particular brand of fervent Puritanism continues to inflect and infect the American psyche; and the upcoming Brimstone, a Dutch film set in the American West which uses elements of horror in its perennial battle between a woman’s desire and a stifling and violent macho culture, justified under a kind of religious and military fanaticism that predominates in the history of the Western.

This is not even to mention Don’t Breathe where the horror of the contemporary American urban nightmare of under or non-funded inner cities is metastasized into a battle in Detroit between urban raiders taking advantage of the situation and a Iraqi war vet whose sadism is the detritus of the US Middle East colonial wars, and the related reviving of the disaster genre, distant cousin to horror, in the blockbuster crossing of it with the contemporary social problem film in Deepwater Horizon, so that just when British Petroleum thought it was safe to go back into the world’s waters we have the nightmare they inflicted on Louisiana retold as a corporate disaster on the scale of Earthquake, Poseidon Adventure and Towering Inferno.

It really is not surprising that in today’s world horror is a genre that draws directors. What is different is that, globally, a good number of these films are moving beyond the splatter aspect of the genre and into more sophisticated dystopian imaginings of contemporary events. Where horror in the first decade of the millennium was defined by the Hollywood splat pack epitomized by Saw where sadistic effect is piled upon sadistic effect in a reflexivity or consciousness about the genre that substituted gore for the comic sophistication of Wes Craven’s Scream, and by reactionary pieces such as Hostel where the other of the American empire, the strangeness of life outside the neo-liberal order, was villainized. The one film worth remembering from the whole lot was Cabin Fever which cast a negative light on the now no longer innocent band of privileged teens previously in the genre only victims but in this film also victimizers.

Humanity does appear to be at an impasse in a number of areas. There seems to be no real will to stop global warming as energy companies become more and more vicious in their pursuit of profit, seen currently in the unleashing of dogs on peaceful protestors in land of the Lakota. There are more and more areas of the globe simply written off as no longer profit centers and with people in those areas being offered only right-wing demagoguery or Trumpisms as an alternative. And finally, neoliberal governing mechanisms, nominally called democratic, everywhere being exposed as simply under the command of a global oligarchy with the processes incapable of producing anything like true representatives of the people. 58% of the electorate in the US viewed unfavourable the two puerile mouthpieces who recently contested the presidency.

In this increasingly catastrophic world, along comes the most important representative of the new political horror Korea with the resplendent Last Train to Busan, a zombie film for the neoliberal age. It is unlike The Walking Dead, whose subtext is simply how to manage the empire in the wake of its personal catastrophe of 9/11 – how much violence does one use to subdue the world’s population of zombies who are sleepwalking through existence? Here, the film’s virus that causes the zombie breakout throughout the world, and specifically on a single train, is tied to nuclear radiation leaks, recalling nearby Fukushima, the winds from which must have affected the neighbouring island of Korea.

The penetration of nature by these deadly manmade energy sources is forecast in a truly frightening and wondrous opening where a deer, become roadkill by a pig farmer, rises reborn as a creature of the dead, as so much of nature is now stillborn. On the train we witness the force of the zombies penetrating every strata of society, but two business types stand out.

The lead character is a financial manager, on the train with the daughter he often neglects, who is reborn as a human being in the course of helping others in combatting the outbreak. In contrast the most vicious of the zombie-battlers is a corporate CEO who sacrifices everyone in his single minded desire to stay alive, utterly devoid of all fellow feeling, as accurate a depiction of the neoliberal ethos as has been rendered on screen.

The train hurtles toward Busan, the site of one of the major battles of the Korean War, and it is here in the finale that the human survivors of the zombie attack are met with a line of soldiers recalling the primal trauma on the island of a war inflicted on it by the great powers. Though the city has been remade as a global production capital, Busan for Koreans still bears the scars of those never healed wounds.

The film is in the line of two earlier Korean horror-disaster films, The Host, concerning a seaside city menaced by a aqueous monster begot in the labs of the still occupying American army and Snowpiercer, a dystopian fable about the wages of climate change which this film acknowledges by the former film’s lead appearing on the zombie train, broken down and in tatters, muttering over and over “We’re all dead.”

Busan is contemporaneous with another Korean horror film, The Stranger, where horrible murders in a village are tied to a Japanese recluse who haunts the countryside long after the end of the brutal Japanese colonial period.

Why the mastery of these genres in contemporary Korea? For one, the Korean cinema is duplicating its role as trendsetter in Asian television by challenging Western distribution in Asia with extravagant genre films with a regional bent. But the force and vociferousness of these generic creations owes much to the horrors in Korean history – the Japanese occupation, the Korean War, the South Korean dictatorship, and the current inability to reunite the island – and the willingness of Korean directors to transmute this tragedy into a form in the horror and disaster film in which it can be contemplated. This has energized genres that had atrophied, partly from becoming too shielded from the social world.

And Hollywood is following suit. Don’t Breathe utilizes the ravaging of Detroit as subtext for its intimate horror, inside the last house inhabited on a block destroyed by the city’s debt, which has been foisted on it by its banks. The film recalls Wes Craven’s resplendent People Under the Stairs of a quarter of a century ago when the devastation wrecked on the inner city of Philadelphia is seen from the inside by its black inhabitants as fueled in a horror mansion by a sado-masochistic Caucasian Mommy and Daddy who torture the neighborhoods downcast.

Craven in his social attitudes follows a line in the horror film that dates back to WW2 impresario Val Lewton whose nine horror films, including Cat People, a branding of the Serbian female other and The Leopard Man, which materializes the horror of Latino treatment in the US, together present a savage critique of American normalcy. Craven’s The Serpent and the Rainbow in its treatment of Haitian voodoo as desperate cry of a former colonial downcast people recalls directly Lewton’s I Walked With a Zombie where the horror of a Caribbean island is tied to its history as a sugarcane plantation.

Don’t Breathe, in the Lewton/Craven line is a well-drawn, basically single set-piece where the trauma inflicted on the city is reflected in equal measure by the young housebreakers who are attempting to flee and the blind war vet who has lost his daughter, but who reenacts his pain in the most violent of ways, a reversal of Audrey Hepburn’s victimized blind woman in Wait Until Dark.

The new and important wrinkle in all of these films is the contemporary social setting that grounds the film and lets in and references directly the horrors of the modern global capitalist world. Thus in Don’t Breathe we get a montage of the deserted houses on the same block as the one the intruders are attacking. This element of social reality is even more strongly at play in Deepwater in the interpolation of an almost fetishistic recreation of life on board the Deepwater Horizon just before and after the disaster, including featuring and naming the members of the crew who will become victims of BP’s drive for profits, as a cagily evil John Malkovich, instead of his usual over-the-top villainous persona, refuses safety tests and pushes the drilling that results in the spill. Just as Don’t Breathe cuts to a variety of shots of devastated Detroit, so too Deepwater contains a series of shots which describe the awesome destruction, a true attack on nature, of deepwater drilling where the earth is pounded in ways it cannot sustain.

These films constitute a global change in renewing tired generic formulas by investing in them the horrors of daily life under an ever more destructive and ever greedier capitalism.

 

Trumped! It was the economy, stupid
Wednesday, 09 November 2016 15:41

Trumped! It was the economy, stupid

Published in Poetry

We don't usually post up straight political analysis on the this arts and culture site, even though we firmly believe in a close link between politics and culture, but we're making an exception today because of the exceptional events in the US. Also, Culture Matters has now moved into publishing poetry, and our first booklet is by the US poet Fred Voss, whose poetry we have already featured on the site and who writes prophetically about the political situation of the working class in the US. So one of his poems, and an article about our booklet, follows the piece about the Trump victory, which is by Dennis Broe, one of the leading radical film critics in the US.

Everyone, meaning mostly the neoliberal elite, is searching for answers at the moment for why the billionaire Trump beat the corporate candidate Clinton. Was it his xenophobic rhetoric which drew angry white Americans, his macho humiliation of women in the face of which his supporters had to hold their noses to vote for him, or was it the (Trumped-up) charges of “Crooked Hilary” aided and abetted by the FBI “October Surprise” of a new treasure trove of (probably mostly irrelevant) emails that are now being “investigated.”

A revealing article in Le Monde seems instead to contain the answer for why solidly union and industrial states like Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania would abandon the Democratic party and vote for Trump, who after all was not the choice of the Republican elite. For decades now, politicians have looked to the October economic, labor and jobs report, released last week, to boost their status just prior to the elections. And indeed, the report showed the creation of 161,000 new jobs and a slight decrease in unemployment of one-tenth of a percent for a total of 4.9 percent, figures that compare favorably to pre-2008 financial crisis statistics. So you would think the Democrats would argue that the economy is in good hands.

In fact the Clinton campaigners did not bring up the “optimistic” report because they felt to do so would be incendiary, that is throwing flames on the fire as Trump emphasized that the new jobs were extremely low paying and could not compensate for jobs lost under the Reagan-Bush-Clinton neoliberal regime whose Clinton variant featured the repeal of Glass-Stiegel which loosed the banks and financial capital and resulted in the 2008 crisis as well as the implementation of NAFTA, a jobs disaster for both the US and Mexico.

A further examination of the statistics reveals the pain behind this supposed rosy picture, a pain that voters expressed at the polls. This “dynamic” job creation is in the lowest paying sectors of the economy, the service sector, mainly bars and restaurants, where there is constant turnover, such that from 2007, 1.7 million new jobs have been created but at the same time 1.5 million lost their jobs in the industry.

A second “rosy” statistic in the report is that salaries rose 2.8 percent. Great, right. Well, hold on, this rise is in the context, as Thomas Piketty has demonstrated so thoroughly, of a dramatic shift of income as a whole upward to the wealthiest 10 percent and now to the wealthiest 1 percent. So, the increase in salaries went mainly to corporate executives who saw their pay increase 4.7 percent, while the bottom 83 percent of the workforce saw their pay increase only 2.1 percent, an increase that was mostly eaten up immediately by an inflation rate of 1.5 percent. So, the rise in pay was essentially meaningless and could have easily been felt as again simply a rewarding of the wealthiest.

But it is in the unemployment statistics themselves, or rather the concealing of the true nature of unemployment, where even more real pain and suffering, and perhaps the key to the Trump victory, emerges. Only 62.8 percent of Americans even have a job, the lowest in 40 years, and, in the 25 to 55 age category that constitutes the majority of the workforce, the percentage keeps falling so that it is now below both 2007, in the supposed boom years of the housing bubble, and below 2000, in the supposed boom years of the dot.com bubble. That is, employment following the constant booms and subsequent busts is no longer fully rebounding, but instead returning to lower levels. After these continual crises, things may get better but they do not fully recover and the recovery is less effective after each crisis, certainly giving rise to a feeling that even when things are apparently getting better they are in fact gradually getting worse.

The true tragedy though lies in a statistical sleight of hand perfected under the Clinton administration, of “retiring” workers from the labor statistics who have given up looking for work, that is, no longer listing them as unemployed. Today this accounts for 11.5 percent of Americans from 25 to 55, with 7 million having simply abandoned the search for work in areas where jobs no longer exist, such as the hollowed out former industrial zones of Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. If you add these workers, who may not have jobs, but can still go to the polls, to the unemployed, we now have roughly 16 percent unemployment. These are workers who are now resorting to anti-depressants, and other over- and under-the-counter drugs to live with the pain of no prospect of jobs. To that, we might also add, the underemployed, that is, the 5.9 million workers who are working part time but who would very much like to work full time, approximately 4.6 percent of the working population. Add this to the over 16 percent and there is approximately 21 percent of the workforce either not working or working in low paying, part-time jobs with little reward.

Is it any wonder then the hardest hit in these areas went to the polls to express their grief, anger and despair at being left behind. Trump offered a largely delusional hope that someone was hearing their pain and responding. He will most likely betray that hope; that is the history of the far right. But a Democratic party that was so eager to run, in this year of the Brexit and of a generalized anger being expressed everywhere at corporate elites, a candidate who was the epitome of the corporate order, who took more money from corporate funds than any single candidate before her, must now stand chastised.

Clinton stole the California primary and the nomination from Bernie Sanders, a candidate who was speaking to this generalized and largely warranted anger and channeling it in more positive directions and so instead of a battle for the heart and soul of the American black and white working class, we had a name-calling campaign in which the message of the supposedly more rationale candidate was, “under me things will only gradually get worse.” This is what passes for hope at the dawning of the end of the neoliberal age and voters, who felt the pain inflicted on them by a greedy corporate elite which could no longer be concealed in phony statistics, choose outright delusion over gradual hypocrisy.

 

The Earth and the Stars in the Palm of Our Hand

by Fred Voss

“Another day in paradise,”
a machinist says to me as he drops his time card into the time clock and the sun
rises
over the San Gabriel mountains
and we laugh
it’s a pretty good job we have
considering how tough it is out there in so many other factories
in this era of the busted union and the beaten-down worker
but paradise?
and we walk away toward our machines ready for another 10 hours inside tin walls
as outside perfect blue waves roll onto black sand Hawaiian beaches
and billionaires raise martini glasses
sailing their yachts to Cancun
but I can’t help thinking
why not paradise
why not a job
where I feel like I did when I was 4
out in my father’s garage
joyously shaving a block of wood in his vise with his plane
as a pile of sweet-smelling wood shavings rose at my feet
and my father smiled down at me and we held
the earth and the stars in the palm of our hand
why not a job
joyous as one of these poems I write
a job where each turn of a wrench
each ring of a hammer makes my soul sing out glad for each drop of sweat
rolling down my back because the world has woken up and stopped worshiping money
and power and fame
and because presidents and kings and professors and popes and Buddhas and mystics
and watch repairmen and astrophysicists and waitresses and undertakers know
there is nothing more important than the strong grip and will of men
carving steel
like I do
nothing more important than Jorge muscling a drill through steel plate so he can send money
to his mother and sister living under a sacred mountain in Honduras
nothing more noble
than bread on the table and a steel cutter’s grandson
reaching for the moon and men
dropping time cards into time clocks and stepping up to their machines
like the sun
couldn’t rise
without them.

 

“I want to change the world, I want to strike the spark or kick the pebble that will start the fire or the avalanche that will change the world a little.”

Thus US poet Fred Voss, who yearns for that transformation because of the dire situation of the working class in the US, where real wages have stagnated or declined for decades and huge inequalities between rich and poor are spiralling. The top 1 per cent of the US population own 35 per cent of the wealth and bonuses for bankers on Wall Street are more than double the total annual pay of all Americans on the federal minimum wage. Against a background of deindustrialisation and the loss of jobs overseas, there is mass incarceration of males, police violence on black youth and attacks on trade unions and on the social safety net.

The outrageous consequence of this divisive class war by rich elites is that mortality rates amongst white working-class Americans are getting worse. Workers are dying early from obesity, drugs, drink, violence and suicide. It’s happening because the powerful ruling class in the US, running the richest and most powerful country in world history, needs a workforce less than ever before. Many workers are either on the economic scrapheap or on their way there. There are simply not enough jobs for them and the few jobs around are increasingly badly paid.

The US is not a democracy, it is a plutocracy, and most Americans are struggling to cope with the legalised robbery of their labour and their health, wealth and happiness. And many of them are expressing their desperation through support for the racist and sexist politics of Donald Trump.

To help the cultural struggle against similar trends here the website Culture Matters, supported by Unite the Union — the main representative of metalworkers in Britain and Ireland — is jointly publishing Voss’s new booklet of poems The Earth and the Stars in the Palm of Our Hand with Manifesto Press.

Voss has worked in machine shops for over 30 years. He writes about being hired like a commodity by overbearing bosses and about alienation in workplaces dominated by fear, macho posturing and competition. But there is a vision in the poems of how different things could be. Gradually, the potential for human solidarity emerges, for combining the practical muscle and skill of working men with the political and emotional strength and determination of women like Rosa Parks.

Like William Blake, Voss combines the precision and realism born of years of skilled craftworking with a sweeping, lyrical imagination. And, like Blake, his poetic vision springs from years of reflection on work and the working class and on the oppressive — but alterable — realities of the world around him.

“Britain, Ireland and many other capitalist countries in Europe are becoming more like the US,” Unite general secretary Len McCluskey says in the foreword to the collection in which he explains why the union is backing its publication:

Everyone can see the growing inequality, the precarious and low-paid nature of employment, the housing crisis across the country, the divisions and inequalities between social classes, the health problems and the sheer everyday struggle to pay the bills for many working people. In this situation, Voss is akin to a prophet. He warns us of the consequences of the way we live, tells truth to power and inspires us with a positive vision of a possible — and desirable — socialist future.

 

The Earth and the Stars in the Palm of Our Hand will be published at the end of the month, price £5.99 plus p&p, with discounts for trade unions and bulk and trade purchasers. Enquiries and pre-publication orders: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..