Dennis Broe

Dennis Broe

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

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

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

Published in Films

Dennis Broe presents a round-up of Cannes 2019          

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

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

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

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

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

Atlantics

Atlantics

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Halt

The Halt

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

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

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

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

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

The Invisible Lifejpg

The Invisible Life of Euridice Gusmao

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

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

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

Fire Will Come

Fire Will Come

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

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

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

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

Wounds

Wounds

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

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

Blow It To Bits

Blow It to Bits

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

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

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

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

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

Best 5 Films outside the main competition:

Fire Will Come

Blow It to Bits

First Love

Nina Wu

Invisible Life of Euridice Gusmao

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

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

Cannes 2019: Asian cinema triumphs, despite Trump

Published in Films

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

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

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

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

Parasite

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

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

wild goose lake 

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

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

 once upon a time in hollywood

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

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

 Ice on Fire

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

A Hidden Life Cannes 2 825 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published in Films

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

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

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

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

Drivers in the Amazon Warehouse

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

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

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

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

Its a Free World

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

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

Latina Janitors on Strike in Bread and Roses

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

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

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

Loach Laverty and cast at the Cannes Press Conference

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

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

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

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

loach

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

 

 

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

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

Published in Films

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

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

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

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

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

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

Netflix hangs over the festival

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

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

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

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

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

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

Iggy Pop in The Dead Dont Die

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

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

Bacurau

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

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

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

Bull

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

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

Capital in the 21st Century

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

Sorry To Have Missed You

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

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

from Trapped
Saturday, 20 April 2019 20:24

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

Published in Fiction

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

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

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

noir 6 we shall inherit the wind

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

Noir sirens

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

Scandi noir

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

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

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

noir 2 man who played with fire

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

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

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

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

noir 5 trapped season 2

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

French noir

Noir 1 disko

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

noir 4 requiem for a republic

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

noir 3 Piranhas

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

American noir

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Taboo

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

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

bluevelvet

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

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

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

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

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

download

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

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

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

tax avoidance

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

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

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

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

           

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

Serial TV: Platforms, Concentration and The Same Old Thing

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

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

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

DB sereismania

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DB the red line

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

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

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

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

DB Exit

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

DB folklore

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

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

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

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

DB chimerica

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

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

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

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

Serial TV, Digital Accumulation, and Distracted Working-Class Audiences
Friday, 22 March 2019 14:42

Serial TV, Digital Accumulation, and Distracted Working-Class Audiences

Dennis Broe outlines the thesis of his new book, Birth of the Binge, about the way the television series has developed more intrusive, abrasive and profit-generating ways of manipulating viewing habits, preparing some sections of the working class for digitally advanced jobs, and others for the drudge sectors of the service industries.

AT&T is moving big-time into the streaming service game, and as it does it is bringing with it a ruthlessness not previously seen, even in the annals of corporate television. Witness this now infamous exchange between the conservative Texas-based company representative John Stankey, now chief executive of Warners after the merger of the two companies, and then HBO chief executive Richard Plepler. It began by Stankey urging “stepped-up investment” in the jewel of Warner’s television and Plepler applauding him. But the interchange turned sour when Stankey then interjected, “Also, we’ve got to make money at the end of the day, right?” followed by his commanding the station, which supposedly helped begat the new Golden Age of Television, to dilute its product to reach a wider audience.

Disney, now completing its merger with Fox, plus Hulu, Apple, and Facebook are all in or about to enter the streaming service fray, to challenge Netflix and Amazon. New forms and distribution patterns of television, largely driven by the thirst for serial TV series, are pointing the way to novel and unexplored realms of narrative sophistication that may include more topics of social relevance in the series but also because the potential profits call for levels of addiction, and for increased monitoring, that in some ways dictate the construction of these narrative patterns.

My book Birth of the Binge: Serial TV and The End of Leisure details these contradictory impulses in the development of the serial TV series over the last three decades.

Streaming television has been seen as a radical means of putting power in the hands of the consumer, giving them a new autonomy so they can watch when and what they want, and are no longer captives of the minimal choices available from the television networks. Series, in this interpretation, are now tailored to individual viewers who mix and match and become their own programmers. The form of these new series is generally more narratively sophisticated as well, as season arcs which require viewers to track the series much more actively replace the one-and-done self-contained episode which is perpetually recommencing from the beginning.

That is the hype from the industry, and surprisingly from many television studies scholars as well. A look at the actual process though dispels many of these myths. This new wrinkle in the television industry is part of a general pattern of what French digital philosopher Bernard Stiegler terms hyperindustrialism, that is, the old ruthless patterns of accumulation are continued and advanced in the digital age of which streaming television is a part. Rather than decentralized modes of production, the streaming age is now featuring ever more tightly concentrated conglomerates as the recent wave of mergers indicates. Thus, content providers are merging as in Disney and Fox or production studios are merging with internet providers to monopolize traffic into the home – as in Time Warner and AT&T – or networks are merging with cable providers who then purchase satellite services, as in Comcast’s purchase of NBC and subsequent acquiring of a majority share in Europe’s leading dish service Sky-TV.

The leaders in this field, Netflix and Amazon, in line with what Shoshana Zabuf terms surveillance capitalism employ algorithms for tracking audiences’ every movement on the service and then turning that data into programs based not on quality or need but on these advanced metrics. There is a homogeneity in these targeted demographics that makes the traditional network programmers look like members of the most experimental avant-garde.

girlboss       new girl         

                                              Girlboss                                                                              New Girl

Thus on Netflix for example, there is the recently departed Girlboss (2017) – “She’s saucy, sassy” – and so was Zooey Deschanel six years earlier when the Netflix show’s prototype New Girl (2011–) first appeared. The Expanse (2015–) is warmed-over Battlestar Galactica with much less at stake than the fate of the galaxy and shorn of the 9/11 references. Stranger Things, with its children’s investigation of alien creatures, recalls E.T. (1982), The Goonies (1985), and with its focus on 1980s technology, Super 8 (2011). Sense8 (2015–17), with its multiple characters in a utopian futurist setting, is Cloud Atlas (2012) remade for streaming. Finally, Frontier (2016–), with fur traders in a bloody and savage wilderness, is The Revenant (2015), complete with its lead character in Leonardo DiCaprio pose, in series publicity.

the revenant       frontier

                          The Revenant                                                                   Frontier

The supposedly happy consumers of these new modes of distribution who can at last watch what they want when they want it are instead more likely, in the wake of the Great Recession in which this mode came to prominence, harassed, harried workers who are running from one job to another, then to school, and finally to a frantic moment or two not of leisure but of leisurality, a condition which makes a mockery of the old forms of workers’ gains before they were systematically wrenched away in the neo-liberal era and whose marker in the Great Recession was “the staycation.”

Workers in both industry and critical parlance though are only discussed as consumers, happy to be enjoying these new freedoms. What was formerly called prime-time TV, the family hours of 8 to 11 pm that marked the break in the Fordist era from factory production to leisure has now been replaced by a non-stop economy that Jonathan Crary terms “24/7”. Streaming TV providers, rather than promoting a new form of entertainment utopia, have made television available “on the go” as workers grab frantic minutes between engagements by watching on their mobile phones. These new forms of viewing are also offered by capital as a compensation for unmet needs. As the costs of health and education have increased 20 to 40 percent in in the period of the Great Recession and its aftermath, synonymous with the Golden Era of Serial TV, the costs of cell phones, toys, mobile accessories, computers and televisions have fallen 40 to 100 percent.

binging

Binge-watching

Finally the form has engaged its viewers using narrative devices – cliffhangers, sudden demise of characters, multiple characters and stories – that foster a new form of addiction that goes by the name of binge-watching, where viewers boast not of what they have seen but of the fact that they have watched entire seasons or series over the non-stop course of a weekend. Endurance now substitutes for pleasure.

These new modes of viewing where the sophistication of the storytelling is increased along with the drive to watch the next episode are also being employed, along with video games and the construction of commercial online communities, either to ready workers for the cognitive challenges of new, more digitally advanced jobs or, depending often on the class level of the viewer, to neuter them for zombification in the drudge areas of the service industry.

Nevertheless, there are a number of hard-fought gains that serial TV has won. First is a vanquishing of one the most dreary forms of television designed only with the bottom line in mind, reality TV, which a decade ago was still the dominant and which is now replaced with shows with narrative cohesion where the social environment, or storyworld, features prominently in the show’s construction and appeal. There is also a new veneration of the writer, the showrunner, always dominant in television but often unacknowledged.

Boyd and Raylan in Justified

Boyd and Raylon in Justified

In addition, the best of these series may critique the offline world that the series’ mode of distribution and narrative construction is attempting to efface. Thus, one of the great moments of Serial TV, the second season of the series about Appalachia Justified, builds its season arc around the dispossession of Harlan Country communities by a mining and energy company. The lead character, the federal marshal Raylon Givens, engages in truth-telling about the strip mining that will destroy the community as his doppelganger, the violent but brilliant Boyd Crowder, becomes a gun thug for the mining company.

The female company rep, who is from the area, wants to sleep with Raylon who refuses telling her “you know who you are.” The leader of the community, Mags Bennett – the always engaging Margo Martindale – at first defends the farmers, then sells them out to the company. The community members then start referring to her as Benedict, as in the Revolutionary war traitor, rather than Bennett, and her plan to leave the hollow, the valley, results in the extinguishing of her clan and her tragic Shakespearean death as she poisons herself with her own moonshine.

Birth of the Binge highlights these contradictions in describing not only this new mode of production and distribution but also through readings of key series in this period, including Silicon Valley, The Big Bang Theory, Modern Family, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Orange is the New Black. The book also functions as a reference work which charts this three-decade development and incudes a list of “100 Seminal Serial Series” and an index of the 160 series mentioned. Its project is to link the television series to its moment in the development of new more intrusive, abrasive and profit-generating ways of harvesting viewer habits and intentions.

Birth of the Binge is available here.

One Nation, One King
Monday, 10 September 2018 09:28

Class, gender and race issues: the Venice Film Festival 2018

Published in Films

Dennis Broe reviews this year's Venice Film Festival.

The top prize at the Venice Film Festival went to Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma, a black and white, long-take, masterpiece about class relations in Mexico distributed by Netflix. All of these factors will make it a challenge for the Hollywood Film Academy to award it Best Film, but here’s hoping that the Venice award and its prominence at the festival – where it was the overwhelming choice of both critics and public – helps its chances of success.

44320 Roma Alfonso Cuaron Film Still

My award for best actress goes to Yalitza Apparicio, the Indian non-actor who played the maid in Roma, alternating between warmth and affection for her charges and stoicism at their alternate contempt, neglect and appreciation of her. My best actor, along with the jury, goes to Willem Dafoe for his role as Van Gogh in At Eternity’s Gate, a film that refuses the recent ‘heritage treatment’ of the Impressionists (in French films about Renoir and Gauguin), opting instead for a concentration on a sentient depiction of the artist. However, it elides much of Van Gogh’s social import as champion of a disappearing peasantry.

the nightingale rev

A continuing story throughout the festival, after the march of 82 women on Cannes for the screening of a film by a female director, was the exclusion of female directors from the competition. Only one female director was represented in the official selection – Jennifer Kent, whose The Nightingale won third prize at the festival.

Festival director Alberto Barbara was criticized for this lack of representation, responding that the problem did not lie with the festival since female directors as a whole submitted a little over 20 percent of the films and represented about the same percentage of films in the festival. But it was pointed out that as perhaps the most important world festival, its choices could help alter this balance. Barbara refused a quota system but did sign up to a Venice Pledge, for increasing participation of women in all aspects of the festival.

Kent’s film, like her previous film The Babadook questioning the sanctity of motherhood, does challenge both male and colonial prerogatives, in its journey across an Australian landscape in the 1820s. In it, a righteous and embittered British officer sanctions the murder and rape of a Irish ex-convict’s husband and baby. The woman speaks and sings in Gaelic and is the nightingale of the film, seeking revenge on the handsome British lieutenant who has tortured her. She is joined in her quest by a young Aborigine, who, similarly, is called the blackbird. The most stunning effect of the film is of a landscape riddled with Aborigines, in chains or hung from trees, and infected with the constant brutality of the British colonizers towards the country’s native inhabitants, towards the Irish, and towards women.

The problem with the film occurs at the end, when the Irish woman and the Aborigine man stand in their own space watching the sun rise. The film refuses a sexual relationship between these two oppressed people, and unfortunately provides the perfect Identity Politics moment where each remains in their own space, with an unbridgeable distance between them, not acknowledging the common bond that their struggle has created.

With the exception of the ending – which also happened in a sudden benign transformation of a rampaging mother threatening her child in The Babadook – this is a tough, bitter film. It continues the current, noteworthy confrontation of Australia with its particularly cruel history in television series like Mystery Road.

The top five films for me were The Nightingale, Roma, American Dharma, the Italian film A Story Without a Name whose English title is The Lost Caravaggio, and the French film A People and Its King, horribly retitled in English, One Nation, One King.

There was a surprise appearance of Steve Bannon at the screening of Errol Morris’ phantasmagoric depiction of the evil that is Bannon, in American Dharma. Bannon, who is on a tour of far-right parties in Europe, was not invited as part of the delegation of the film. He seems to have slipped in and slipped out. Morris’s film comes after last year’s Venice stunner Wormwood, about CIA assassination, and builds on that monumental work.

The film ‘gives the Devil his due’, as the saying goes, incorporating film clips as Bannon explains films that inspired him, and has a confrontational interview with Morris. In the end a conflagration that demolishes the airplane hangar where the interview took place illustrates Morris’ contention that Bannon’s wish is simply to destroy. This is again an embellishment of the documentary using fictional techniques pioneered in The Thin Blue Line, and taken to an extraordinary level in Wormwood.

Morris compares Bannon to the Devil in Milton’s Paradise Lost, a comparison Bannon does not deny. In Morris’s The Fog of War, Robert McNamara, who helped plan the Vietnam War, seemed to use the film to burnish his legacy. Here, while acknowledging Bannon’s genius in returning white workers en masse to the Republican Party through messages of keeping out foreign workers and bringing jobs back home, Morris also ensures that the racism, hatred and white supremacism implicit in Bannon’s messages are also acknowledged.

The most telling moment is Morris and Bannon’s differing interpretation of the end of Orson Welles’ Chimes at Midnight. In the film, Welles’ Falstaff is betrayed by Prince Hal who assumes the mantle of power and turns his back, literally and figuratively, on his friend. That is how Morris sees it. Bannon’s interpretation is that Falstaff realizes Prince Hal must harden himself in order to rule. This could be Bannon’s own excusing Trump for cutting him loose from his administration but it also does reflect the fascist attitude that power is everything and ruling is all.

Two other films about Trumpism disappointingly fail to deliver. Fredric Wiseman’s Monrovia, Indiana is a supposed attempt to understand Trump’s supporters but is so focused on an institutional view of this slice of life in small-town America that it fails to generate much insight on anything.

On the other hand S. Craig Zehler’s Dragged Across Concrete with Mel Gibson and Vince Vaughn as bitter, resentful cops – Gibson’s 60 year old for never being promoted, mostly because he has a history of violent treatment of suspects – just ends up excusing their resentment by having them sacrifice themselves, instead of pointing out in what ways their resentment is warranted. The film goes soft and fuzzy on police violence and corruption, where fifties noir films such as Where the Sidewalk Ends or Private Hell 36 illustrated the full brutality of the police.

The antidote to this coddling was Roberto Minervini’s What You Gonna Do When The World’s on Fire, a tracing of paths of resistance in Mississippi at various levels of the black community in the wake of a police shooting. We get a tender story of one older boy taking care of another with his mother’s warnings that it is no longer safe to go out at night, a group that calls themselves the New Black Panthers that marches on neighbourhoods and confronts the police, and a saucy female bar owner, whose indomitable spirit even when her indebted bar is closed expresses the will of the community to survive under pressure. However, it is all strangely unaffecting and might have been better had it provided more background on the community as a whole and the racial power structure in the town.

peterloo

On the subject of working class revolt – and history itself was a powerful subject at the Festival – there was Mike Leigh’s talky, polite Peterloo about the organization and subsequent slaughter of the members of the largest mass gathering in history at the time, in 1819.

un peuple et son roi still 1

Far better was the French film One Nation, One King. This was about the French Revolution told from the point of view of the sans-culottes, that is, of the ordinary people who made and were often betrayed by the Revolution, while continuing to push it forward. The French film begins with Louis XIV washing poor children’s feet, comparing himself to Christ, and ends with the triumph of the king’s beheading, seeing this as a victory of the people over the emerging bourgeoisie, many of whom defended a king who had deserted the nation.

Peterloo begins with the clamor of Waterloo and a wounded soldier’s return to the factories of Manchester. The film details the endless debates of working class organizations in the wake of the French Revolution, struggling to find their voice. Unfortunately, what it also documents is the passivity that defines the English working class, who with all the numbers in their favour talked themselves out of arming for a potential confrontation in their rally for universal (male) suffrage.

They don’t even bring a knife to the gunfight, while the upper class lawmakers have no qualms about unleashing the soldiers on them, as the empire turns its full might on its own people, including the soldier wounded at Waterloo. The contrast in the two films, one about a people acting to make and enforce a revolution, and the other about a people tricked into arguing not about their grievances but about whether they should be peaceful or not while their rulers simply embrace violence, is extremely instructive in the history of the resistance of the two classes. But it also makes one film active and somewhat exhilarating, and the other passive and ultimately flaccid.

una storia senza nome still 1

Finally there was the Italian film Story Without a Name which in English is retitled The Lost Caravaggio. The film is, on the surface, a reflexive feature about filmmaking, concerning a screenwriter who uses a female ghostwriter. The script that the female writer is working on is also a major part of the film, and it concerns the actual theft by the Mafia of Caravaggio’s The Nativity from Palermo 50 years before, and the negotiation between the Mafia and the state for its return.

Here, a film about filmmaking, a kind of cliché after , is also about the way that in Italy truths can only be told in fiction and even fictional representation involves a certain amount of danger. Story is thus both a wily romance between the screenwriter and the resourceful female ghostwriter, and a film with a reflexive purpose other than that of the tiresome and somewhat dishonest focus on the process of an art that is becoming more and more commercialised.

Still from Sulla Mia Pelle
Friday, 07 September 2018 17:11

Fiddling While Rome Burns and Venice Sinks: the Venice Film Festival

Published in Films

Dennis Broe reports from the Venice Film Festival.

It was again extraordinarily hot in Rome this summer, so hot tourism really halts mid-afternoon to early evening. Meanwhile, the city of Venice continues to sink with the Moise project which is supposed to save it poised to go online, so to speak, next year but with much of the money to fund an enviromentally iffy project already depleted through acts of corruption that forced the last mayor from office.

The Venice Film Festival continues to be more spectacular than ever. In the wake of a retreat by Cannes into almost solely auteur film fare, Venice has made itself now the primary opener for Hollywood Academy Award Films, having premiered three of the last four Academy Award winners. It has defined its version of a film festival as a truly ecumenical platform for all types of visual media.

The festival boasts a more expanded Virtual Reality section this year, a continual incorporation of television, and an outlet for the film product of the streaming services Netflix, which has a number of films rejected by Cannes opening here this year including this year’s possible Academy Award winner and an absolute masterpiece Alfonso Cuaròn’s Roma and Orson Welles’ Other Side of the Wind. From Amazon it has Mike Leigh’s Peterloo, a depiction of working class slaughter.

the golem

At the same time, the festival has maintained its position as promoter of global auteur films, presenting restored films like this year’s stunning reclamation of The Golem from 1920 and promoting Italian film and directors, including this year Robert Minervi’s Black Lives Matter docudrama What you gonna do when the world’s on fire. The Venice Film Festival can now lay claim to being the most prestigious and perhaps the best film festival in the world.

It is difficult though not to be struck by the gap between the richness of the spectacle, where images are ever more luscious and enticing, and the seeming disintegration of the country around it. Two weeks ago the bridge in Genoa that essentially connects northern and southern Italy collapsed. Last week the roof of the church of San Giuseppe dei Falegnami located in the heart of Rome, in the Roman Forum, built on the site of a jail where Peter and Paul were supposedly imprisoned, collapsed, destroying part of the interior of a baroque church that had been restored as recently as 2012.

Infrastructure and cultural heritage are disintegrating at the same time the Republic is in danger itself of collapsing with Matteo Salvini, the head of the far-right League, and headline maker in the ruling coalition, continuing to evoke the iconography of a Mussolini in posing on vacation with a mug of beer, sequestering migrants, and trumpeting a meeting with Hungary’s far right pillar Victor Orban. The meeting and Salvini’s distortion of the immigrant question was met with a protest of tens of thousands in Milan, the country’s multicultural capital, and repeated when he appeared at the Venice Film Festival.

If one story this year is the rise of the festival itself, the other is the dominance of the streaming services and particularly of Netflix, which is using the festival as a launchpad for its film branch, having firmly established itself in terms of the quantity – if not the quality – of television series.

Traditional Hollywood opened with its Oscar and popular fare, namely Dreamworks’ First Man and Warner-MGM’s fourth remake of A Star is Born, with Lady Gaga more than ably conjuring up the ghost of Judy Garland.

First Man is an insipid, uninspired look at whiteness in space, or in the words of a criticism at the time, it’s “Whitey on the Moon.” Just like its director Damien Chazelle’s last Venice entry La La Land, becoming a restoration of the ultra-white musical after its stupendous opening evocation of a truly diverse Hollywood

In the director’s own words, the film focuses on the most boring of the astronauts, Neil Armstrong. Armstrong is played by an actor, Ryan Gosling, whose lack of emotional range is constantly alibied for by the American press, and on a boring topic that needs to be enlivened – which does not happen here.

Armstrong is asked, “Why go to space,” and the best he can do is mumble something about expanding our vision, with the film itself giving little of the feeling of both isolation and grandeur of space that was conjured in Alfonso Cuaròn’s Gravity.

This is Hollywood’s Best Picture entry but as such it’s flat and limp, possibly the last iteration of producer Spielberg’s ratification of the nuclear family, which here reaches its emotional nadir. The film was loved by the American critics who did their work in prepping it for the Oscar, but recorded a lukewarm reaction from the European critics. Perhaps this indicates also that the US landing of a man on the moon in these America-first days reads more as a feat of the empire that did not provide a giant leap for mankind.

gaga as garland in a star is born

The studio entertainment piece is the remake of A Star is Born, which does at least feature the divine talent of Stephanie Joanne Angelina Germanota, Lady Gaga, who is here brought back to her Italian-American roots and whose emotional song stylings enliven a film that is dead at its core.

The problem is her co-star and director Bradley Cooper, who grinds the film to a halt with an unconvincing addiction story and pithy sayings about “the business.” He is constantly telling Gaga to be true to herself though the film is a process of interpolating her under the sign of American Sniper Cooper’s more lax and lazy definition of an old-style heavy metal that denies for the most part Gaga’s actual roots coming, as Madonna had done before her, out of the New York transgender club scene.

The meta-story of the film though is Gaga’s success in remaking her career as mainstream film star, her evocation of Garland in the role, and her eclipsing of Cooper’s limited idea of popular music – though that is not enough to make this more than simply a story of success. The title of the song that unites the two and is supposed to sum up their relationship is “Shallow.” Nuff said.

Netflix has been the real star so far of the festival, with its film entries, something the streaming service is not known for, outshining the Hollywood studios. The streaming service facilitated the finishing of Orson Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind, a project Welles shot from 1971 to 1975, boasting a film within a film that is a mock European arthouse, plotless, scenic excavation, and a main film that presents in Robert Altman like ambient sound, well before Altman perfected it, the ramblings about art, life and the film business on the last night of an ageing director, in a Citizen Kane type scenario with the death shown to us at the beginning.

The film though too often circles back on itself and is not as trenchant as some of Welles’s sporadic work as actor in appearances that he also directed and wrote, such as his masterful cameo in The Third Man.

Police execution in On My Skin

The streaming service, which for its theatre logo, replaced the brand name and musical flourish—which were booed at Cannes two years ago-- with a simple “N,” also is distributing Sulla Mia Pelle, (On My Skin), the Italian film which also opened the festival. It is about the last week of life of Stephano Cucci, a drug dealer in Rome who was brutally beaten by the Italian police and who died from his wounds in a famous case that is still in the Italian courts.

The film centres on the almost mute sufferings of its protagonist as he is warned not to identify the source of the beating. It might have been better if it had also focused on how the family, led by his sister, were able to bring the Carabinieri to court.

On the opening night on the red carpet for First Man, Netflix was present also since it was the streaming service which brought to prominence that film’s co-star Clair Foy, in its series The Crown. Foy’s criticisms of the space race lodged from the point of view of the wife who waits are the best thing about that film, and she is a likely Oscar winner.

Roma the student slaughter

Finally, Netflix also distributes the film that is the triumph of the festival so far, Alfonso Cuaròn’s Roma, a lovingly detailed reminiscence of the director’s own growing up in the Roma section of Mexico City in the early 1970s. The film is a kind of 400 Blows portrait of the film director as a young man, as the boy goes to see a schlocky science fiction vehicle which will inspire his Gravity, and as the family takes a trip to the beaches of Vera Cruz that will become Y Tu Mama Tambien.

Roma is a gorgeous film showing the brutal destruction in agonizing long shot of students in Mexico City in the Corpus Christi massacre, and a fire that burns village land at New Year, watched by two American guests of the landholders who drink champagne while the peasants battle the flames in a scene that recalls Rules of the Game.

What makes it a masterpiece though is its viewing the family not from the young Cuaròn’s perspective but from the point of view of the Indian maid from Oaxaca. Her capacity for love, even of a family that alternately exploits and recognizes her, is shown in a stunning sequence where though she cannot swim she risks her life by wading in the water to save a boy and girl from the family who have wandered too far out in the waves at Vera Cruz.

At the core of Cuaròn’s memoir is the indignity of class relations in a Mexico which has, as he said in an interview at Venice, only changed for the worse since then. I should add that the Variety critic, who seemed to have no feelings for the maid or grasp of what the film was about, found Cuaròn’s “objectivity” tiring. The same critic flipped over the privileged whiteness of First Man, proving class and race prejudice put on the screen by filmmakers is readily validated by the critics.

Next week Dennis is back with the Coen Brothers uneven Western, Mike Leigh’s working class massacre, as elsewhere Errol Morris meets Steve Bannon and Frederic Wiseman meets small town America.

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