Dennis Broe

Dennis Broe

Dennis Broe is the author of The House That Buff Built, the upcoming fourth volume in the Harry Palmer mystery trilogy whose subject is homelessness and the real estate industry, racial prejudice against the Chinese in Los Angeles, and the power of major media to set the development agenda.

Raymond Chandler: The Man Behind The Mask
Sunday, 25 April 2021 08:13

Raymond Chandler: The Man Behind The Mask

Published in Fiction

Dennis Broe reviews Raymond Chandler: The Man Behind The Mask, by Ken Fuller, and discusses how Chandler and others unmasked the capitalist delusion that was - and is? - Southern California

Raymond Chandler, along with Dashiell Hammett before him and Ross Macdonald after, effected a startling change in the crime novel. As Chandler put it, he took the novel away from those who commit murder with "hand-wrought dueling pistols, curare and tropical fish” and returned it to “the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse.”

This passage from Chandler’s essay explaining his technique in “The Simple Art of Murder” is dripping with sarcasm, contempt and class analysis in its explanation of how the genre had been practiced by the upper-class detectives of the Sherlock Holmes/Agatha Christie school.

Chandler is at pains to argue that murder and crime in general is not done for specious reasons and in a way that creates a puzzle for the detectives or as a clever ruse, or, as is still practiced in much of the serial killer literature of today, as expression of aberrant psychology.

A new book by Ken Fuller, Raymond Chandler: The Man Behind the Mask, in its strongest moments concentrates on Chandler’s implied politics in his noir novels. Chandler focuses on a generalized corruption in capitalist society that with his other two compadres opened a space for crime novels to have a strong infusion of the social aspects of crime. As he portrayed it, crime was committed by either those wanting more in a society which gives them less than they want, or by those on top who commit crimes as the way of establishing the fortune that then makes them respectable, or to maintain their position on top.

In Chandler’s world, crimes are committed for profit or out of class antipathy. For my money, the best of Chandler’s novels, the most explicitly class-conscious in this respect, is The High Window. Sometimes called The Brasher Doubloon, this novel focuses most directly on great fortunes and great crimes and reminds us today of the Sackler Family, who have paid almost no price for their role in promoting their drug oxycontin which led to the opioid crisis.

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Fuller highlights a change in Chandler in the wake of the House Un-American Activity Committee and McCarthyite purges in which he disavows progressive social content and dawdles for a period on “the non-communist left,” a movement and a moment that, as Fuller describes, was well funded by the CIA.

For Fuller this turn in Chandler’s sympathies aligns both with his Eton-like elite education and ambition to create “literature”, leading to his perpetual disappointment because his work was not accorded that status, and also his secret homosexuality, shown by the way his lead character, the hard-core private detective Philip Marlowe, constantly projects his anxiety around women.

Fuller has a reading of Chandler’s work that sees his literary career as building to The Long Goodbye, seen as Chandler’s only real literary novel, and then suffering a precipitous decline.

Here the book is on more tenuous grounds. Judging Chandler on the somewhat antiquated and elitist assumptions of whether or not his works are “literature” takes us away from his actual literary contribution. Chandler unmoored Hammett’s often critical view of the detective as hired gun of the owner class and instead followed that other impulse in Hammett which allowed the detective to be a kind of interrogator of the class system itself, constantly and smirkingly questioning its assumptions, because of his or her freedom to go anywhere in search of the solution to the crime or to aid a client.

This multilayered examination of a society fractured on class lines – and what manifestation of society is not more fractured than status conscious Los Angeles? – is Chandler’s contribution to opening an entire literary genre to a wider view of the world.

Fuller illustrates Chandler’s literary failures by pointing out minute plot inconsistencies, something which Chandler was well aware of and never overly concerned about. His famous quip about moving the story forward was along the lines of, ‘Whenever I am unsure what to do I have someone come into the room with a gun and start shooting.’ It seems a bit of a timewaster to keep pointing out the ragged edges of Chandler’s plotting when he himself, and most readers, are not overly concerned with it, mostly because the themes and atmospherics are so strong.

The other aspect of Chandler’s work Fuller points to is how his repressed homosexuality plays out in his novels. Fuller does make a strong and original case in both examining the life and the novels for traces of this proclivity, which Chandler may never have acted on. In fact, there is a whole range of criticism which sees noir, or tough-guy fiction, as driven by repressed and unfulfilled masculine relationships. The problem here though is in a way the failure to link what may be an unconscious motivation with the main line of the novels. How does the repressed homosexuality affect Chandler’s views of society?

The Man Behind the Mask is well worth reading for its careful examination of Chandler’s overt politics and how this played out in his novels. The book though doesn’t do justice to Chandler’s achievement in significantly advancing the class consciousness displayed in his predecessor Hammett, and laying the groundwork for an even sharper class critique practiced by his successor Ross Macdonald. In Black Money, Macdonald explored all the dark nooks and crannies of the loathing and disgust generated over the failure of the capitalist delusion that Southern California was a new Eden and land of promise.

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Marginalised and forgotten: indigenous and working-class people in TV series
Monday, 21 December 2020 21:15

Marginalised and forgotten: indigenous and working-class people in TV series

Dennis Broe reviews TV series that focus on indigenous and working-class themes, including Mystery Road, Don’t Forget The Driver, The Connors, and Superstore. Image above: Aaron Pedersen as Jay Swan in Mystery Road

Few series on television focus either on both the earth’s first inhabitants, the indigenous, now mostly quartered in slums across the world, or on workers, their lives and their daily concerns. The Australian series Mystery Road, now back for its second season, bucks this trend in focusing on the scattered remnants of the country’s Aborigines as they find themselves besieged in new ways by their Anglo colonizers.

Likewise, the BBC’s Don’t Forget the Driver (available on Britbox in the US) deals with a lonely and depleted working class playing out the string in a rundown shell of what was once a seaside resort, while The Connors and Superstore describe the effects of Covid. The Connors begins its new season with the extended family jobless and unable to pay the rent and Superstore recounts the effects of Covid on its essential workers, caught between a company more concerned with profits than workers’ safety and customers hoarding supplies that are in too short supply.

This is the second season for Mystery Road (BBC in the UK and Acorn in the US), a series based on an Aboriginal cop, Jay Swan (Aaron Pedersen), a character already established in two previous films. The mystery road that Jay travels is the wide-open country of Australia’s great and impoverished North, populated by its indigenous people and everywhere now the subject of a land grab by the Anglo tenants of its overcrowded cities looking for a property bargain. Season one centered around the death of a ranch hand in one of these towns and illustrated the monopoly on power a ranch owner exercised on the surrounding land and peoples.

Season two has Jay pursuing a crystal meth drug ring that radiates out from the town he arrives in and showers death and destruction on the entire region. Jay quickly traces the potential source to a local trucking company in cahoots with another powerful ranch owner, and suspects there is someone behind them. Part of season two is directed by Warwick Thornton whose Sweet Country was as astute examination of how the Australian treatment of its indigenous people in 1929 was closer to 19th century American slavery, as an Aboriginal ranch hand who strikes a blow in self-defence against a cruel and tyrannical owner must flee into the bush country and eventually stand trial before a white jury for his crime.

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Swedish anthro-colonialist in Mystery Road  

Warwick brings that understanding of this perpetual oppression to the series, which also highlights through several characters, often revolving around the indigenous female cop Fran (who partners with Jay) the complexities of modern Aboriginal life and its encounter with colonial capitalism. A subplot involves a Swedish archeologist, Sandra, working on a dig in the town that she claims will illustrate the continuity of indigenous life and thus serve as an answer to the claims that it is simply primitive.

Just as in how anthropology has been criticized as in its attempt to “understand” other ways of life which it imposes Western concepts on these customs, the locals see her as intrusive. This distrust comes to a head when she conceals the traces of a crime she finds on the dig because it would imperil her work and when her offer to have the town keep her findings is refused by the university that stakes her claim. She is neither completely well-meaning nor innocent of the same exploitation that the Anglo crystal meth dealers are engaged in.

Of course, it is possible to argue that the national Australian Broadcasting Company is engaged in the same process in the symbolic realm in using the country’s indigenous as a source of digital profit in creating a globally popular series. But something more is going on here. The series employs the iconography of the Western, with Jay Swan as the prototypical silent Western hero, a kind of Aboriginal Shane. He is both stoic and blunt but behind those qualities is the hardiness of a cop who is unwanted in Anglo law enforcement – represented here by the local racist police chief who disparages him and may himself be implicated in the drug running. He is resented also because he is an independent and powerful Aborigine and a stalwart defender of his people.

Season two illustrates these qualities in his steadfast and dogged pursuit of the Anglo dealers in the service of breaking their hold on the lives of those from which they are growing rich. Late in the season, a secret pad of one of the dealers stresses the lavish lifestyle acquired by the profits of this purveyor of misery. Jay, as opposed to the Western sheriff, is not a defender of justice and the rule of law in the abstract but rather a proponent of justice for his people and they are the source of his strength and resoluteness.

Jay’s ex-wife Mary seems to follow him along the mystery road as she turns up here again, this time involved with an ex-cop who suspiciously offers Jay aid. Mary is a nurse and hospital orderly who cares deeply for her patients and over the course of the season also demonstrates a propensity for police work in her aiding of Jay. She seems headed in that direction in season three, but the move from caregiver to cop is a questionable one. Jay’s daughter’s friend Shevorne, who functions as a surrogate daughter, also reappears, involved with a meth-head boyfriend in a relationship that she must sort out.

The series does a remarkable job of embracing the complexity of a people attempting to cling to their own traditions and forced to transition to a world that is ever more not of their making.

Working-class TV: few and far between

Network, national and streaming TV is filled with characters living a lavish lifestyle and/or one relatively untouched by the problems that beset the majority of populations under Western capitalism. The richness of the interiors of most television series is designed to blend seamlessly either with the advertisements which surround them, where a problem is solved in one minute by an appropriate commodity, or with other streaming service fare which reinforces the idea that lavishness is omnipresent and to be aspired to. Can you say Emily in Paris?

A series which counters this characterization is Don’t Forget The Driver, a recounting of the put-upon life of an ageing English seaside bus driver. Peter Green (Toby Jones in a series he also co-wrote) lives in the dying seaside resort of Bognor Regis, a smaller and more desperate Brixton – or in the US a Coney Island or Asbury Park, – past its day in the sun and haunted by memories of former glory.

Peter is a single father whose daughter can’t wait to leave the town, has care of a racist mother plagued by dementia, and ignores a would-be girlfriend. His plight is summed up each morning by his beat-up old car that only starts when he takes a hammer to it. Toby Jones is hilarious in the role. He’s a British Bob Newhart, able to grind every laugh possible from the dry acceptance of his lot in life, including putting up with a brother (also played by Jones), the apple of his mother’s eye who has cheated and swindled his way to his “promised land” of Australia where he affects an Aussie accent.

In each episode the beleaguered driver pilots another group of passengers to an obscure destination, none more hilarious than the group of septua- and octogenarians (the series is set in the 1980s) who barely survive the trip to Dunkirk in France to cheer on the British fallen at their gravesite. Unbeknownst to him, on the way back he is unwittingly part of a smuggling ring, bringing in a teenage African female stowaway Kayla in search of her brother in London.

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Beleaguered driver Peter (Toby Jones) and his stowaway Kayla (Erin Kellyman)

It’s Kayla’s presence that enlivens not only Peter’s life but also those around him, making his daughter more resolute about the path her life will take and prompting Peter to accept the relationship the erstwhile owner of a rundown sausage stand by the sea is offering him.

This crossing of an elderly European with an African refugee is becoming a staple of Euro representation. Its original and best rendering is Aki Kaurasmaki’s Le Havre where a retired fisherman encounters and hides an African boy, assisting him on his journey. (A bleaker and dystopian version of this trope is the Dardennes’ La Promesse.) The current Netflix film The Life Ahead has Sophia Loren as an aged prostitute who takes an African boy under her wing in a relationship that seems arbitrary and never grounded in mutual acceptance.

The point of the encounter is that it is enlivening for the European, stuck in the deteriorating patterns of the Old Continent to encounter the youth and enthusiasm of the young African refugee. Don’t Forget the Driver doubles this pattern as Peter’s prejudiced mother also succumbs to the caring and fellow feeling of her Indian neighbour. Against the wave of anti-immigrant sentiment sweeping the continent, this trope offers the counter-argument that the encounter of the two continents is a lifesaving breath of fresh air and necessary for the survival of an atrophied Europe.

The Connors is another series which deals with working-class life and which has in its current season taken as its point of departure the increased burden that Covid has brought to the working class in the US – now almost synonymous with the working poor. The series was a hit in the 1990s for its co-creator Roseanne Barr, but after its successful revival she was removed after a racist tweet. The fictional family is intact with Roseanne’s absence on the show being explained by her death from an opiate overdose, a sneaky way of describing her tweet as the product of a fevered drug-induced existence.

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The Connors besieged with Covid

In the pilot of this new season, this extended family of Roseanne’s husband, two daughters, son, their children and her sister each struggle due to the Covid shutdown to find work. The Connors’ plight acutely mirrors workers in the US, largely employed in the service industry, now finding those jobs have disappeared due to accelerated automation and online selling. These workers are encountering a difficult retraining process from semi-skilled to skilled laborer, so that in one recounting a theme park stage manager must become an electrician, a taxi driver a plumber and a cook must acquire the expertise of a software manager. Dan, Roseanne’s husband, meets a family friend who has found work as a process server announcing the eviction of working families from their homes.

In the conclusion of the first episode, after fruitless attempts at finding work, the “family friend” appears at the Connors house to announce it is being repossessed. This is the presenting problem for a season in which the Connors’ plight increasingly will become the new normal for American workers, who must risk their lives now in search of dangerous work in the midst of a pandemic because of a government that refuses to expend money to take care of its most needy – while its congress schedules a special session to pass a bill appropriating more and more billions for war and armaments.

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Superstore’s diverse labor force dealing with Covid

Finally, NBC’s Superstore, returning for its sixth and final season, began the season tracking the effects of the Covid first wave, from March to July, on its diverse workforce in their attempts to both serve a public growing increasingly more hostile in its hoarding of diminishing supplies like toilet paper and a corporate hierarchy that salutes the workers as heroes for showing up for work but is unconcerned with supplying them with the masks that might keep them safe.

The pilot was supposed to be about America Ferrara’s leaving the show, having anchored it for five seasons and with her departure delayed because last season's final episode could not be shot, as the show was forced to shut production in the first wave. Instead, that storyline was delayed an episode so that the series could focus on how workers in the store coped with the pressures they were, and continue to be, under in the pandemic. In a remarkable instance of a series putting its social worth over more standard entertainment values, Amy’s departure and the resolution of the standard romance between her and her co-worker Jonah took a back seat to a pilot that stressed the overall impact of the crisis on a diverse workforce.

The success of these three instances, antidotes to Emily in Paris, prove not only that working-class television that deals with actual hardship and suffering is possible, but that there is a thirst for it on the part of precarious viewers, who at this point constitute the majority of the audience.

Coal mines become gift shops: Black Suns at Louvre Lens
Tuesday, 18 August 2020 11:42

Coal mines become gift shops: Black Suns at Louvre Lens

Published in Visual Arts

Dennis Broe reviews Black Suns at Louvre Lens in France, on until the end of January 2021

Lens was a small but highly important town in the industrial era of the late 19th century, located in the former French-Belgium coal belt. It is now the home of the satellite museum Louvre-Lens and the site of the first major post-coronavirus lockdown exhibition in France – and perhaps the first in the world.

Soleils Noirs, or Black Suns, traces artists’ use of the colour black. It also reminds us of the spell that coal – visible in two pyramidal slag heaps just outside the town and visible from all parts of it – has cast over a city which has now transformed itself from a coal-exporting to a tourist economy.

This change from a productive to a symbolic economy is all the more startling because Lens was at the heart of a Franco-Belgian region that was the industrial capital of the world in the late 1800s, outdoing even northern England, the centre of industry in the earlier part of the century. It was near here that Emile Zola came to do his research for Germinal, his seminal work on a strike in a coal mine.

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Louvre Lens: Corporate Glass in a Verdant Park 

The last of the mines closed in 1968, at the beginning of the Western transformation from an industrial to a service economy, as European jobs started to be shifted overseas or to Eastern Europe. Today, Louvre visitors eat lunch outside, on the covered-over entrance to mine shaft number 9. The Louvre Lens building itself, in the centre of a verdant park that was constructed over the mining grounds, is a ’90s flat corporate glass structure by the Japanese firm SANAA, that seems to have been airlifted into Lens from some alien space. It’s the opposite of Frank Gehry’s Bilbao museum, a fish-like structure that suggests that city’s historical relation to the sea. Here the museum design effaces history.

The town itself, besides being subjected to the environmental devastation of the coal economy, was also in the centre of the fighting in World War I. This second assault by Capital on the working class wreaked even more havoc on the town. Lens was utterly destroyed as a result, and had to be rebuilt from scratch after the war.

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Lens, February 1918

A mini-tour which the city offers of the miners’ quarters outlines the power structure of a mining town. The mine’s owner lived in the more cosmopolitan nearby city of Lille, comfortably sheltered from the suffering at the mine. The workers lived in mostly single family units built by the mining company, which also ran the school their children attended – where no doubt they were informed this was the best of all possible worlds. The place of honour and the larger homes in the town were occupied by the mine’s engineer, the mine’s police and security director, and the pastor, each concerned with maintaining order and profitability.

The workers’ cottages seem ample. However, when one recalls that black lung disease claimed many of them at an early age, the neat, white entrance doors are perhaps closer to an upright coffin, which echoes a clip in Black Soleils from FW Murnau’s Nosferatu in which the vampire’s exit through his castle door suggests an eerie tomb.

The lobby exhibit is another pyramidal pile of coal, but unlike the actual slag heaps just outside the city, this one is made of pieces of black confetti. It suggests the way the town, whose industry is now a combination of tourism, banking and retail, has transformed itself from the heaviness of actual coal into an economy that is lighter, airier but also – especially in these COVID times, more fragile. The Lens attempt at transformation is echoed in England in Liverpool’s and Manchester’s recreation as arts centres, and in the US of Pittsburgh’s incomplete changeover from coal and steel capital to an eastern US version of Silicon Valley.

The exhibition itself is a major examination of darkness, and the thrill and energy it exerted in the history of art. To its credit, the exhibition also never strays far from the pall that black in the form of coal has cast over the town and that artists have represented.

Though not present in the exhibition, the originator of the contrast between black and white, darkness and light, in highly distorted settings, is Caravaggio and his traces are everywhere in the show. Prior to Caravaggio’s early 17th century chiaroscuro, there is Tintoretto’s 16th century Renaissance portrait of a man holding a handkerchief, clothed almost entirely in the darkness of the Venetian nobility, with the handkerchief being a single splotch of white. Piero della Francesca’s portrait of an Italian nobleman with brown skull cap, which subtly takes on the black sheen of the background, is outdone by Leonardo da Vinci’s startling depiction of another nobleman whose black bonnet blends utterly with the murky background in a way that suggests that regal bearing returning to primordial ooze.

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van Honthorst's Christ Crowned with Thorns

There were Northern European Caravaggistes, represented here in the Dutch Gerrit van Honthorst’s illumination of the faces of what looks like Dutch merchants peering out of the darkness to torture Christ. And there is Rembrandt’s etching of a white mass of figures wrenching Christ’s body down from the cross and out of the darkness.

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Ribot's St. Vincent and The Raven

The Spanish Caraviggistes are more bountifully represented with Jusepe de Ribera’s Plato holding a book of ideas, seeming to wrench light from the darkness, and with Murillo’s Christ chained to a column, his gaunt body about to succumb to the shadows behind him.

The most stunning Caravaggio-influenced paintings though are those by the French artist Theodule Ribot, more than 200 years later. His 1870 Good Samaritan shows nothing of the Samaritan of the biblical story, instead focusing in the foreground on the twisted frame of a man beaten and robbed by thieves and in shadowy background the Pharisees, the religious zealots, passing him by. Ribot’s other work, which echoes Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven, is the contorted corpse of Saint Vincent with a black bird perched on top, cawing and eager to feast.

The Romantics are well represented in the exhibit in their combination of a welcoming of the mystery of the night and of the force of nature. Emile Breton’s Storm has four peasants as tiny specks on a landscape, trying to find shelter from a monstrous wind that is tormenting and twisting the trees around them.

Equally tumultuous is the landscape that Mephistopheles and Faust gallop across on their steeds in Delocroix’s lithograph, which has the Devil importuning the scholar as he invests him with the glamour and decadence of the night.

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Robert Mitchum’s murderous minister in Night of the Hunter

Just as stunning are three film clips that recall the Romantic era. Hitchcock’s opening of Rebecca has the innocent young bride in voiceover recounting her entry into the haunted estate, a bastion of male power, as the camera pans up a road covered with underbrush to alight on a dark and foreboding mansion. The evil and seduction of the night is also highlighted in the man’s midnight meeting with his mistress in Murnau’s Sunrise, and the pursuit through a swamp of the children by Robert Mitchum’s rampaging murderous preacher, in Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter. This is a film that lays bare the subconscious evil that was the underside of pristine corporate, capitalist America in the 1950s.

The Symbolists of the 1880s and 1890s also embraced black and the night for its shimmery, translucent, ethereal qualities. Odilon Redon’s illustration of a combination of Poe’s poem The Raven and his short story “Elenora” has the woman and the bird appearing as if from beyond the grave, with each shaded in black. Gustave Dore’s woodcutting The Wolf and The Lambs displays the penned-in creatures being eyed in the moonlight by a crew of hungry wolves, in a night not only where all cows are black but where all lambs are eaten.

It is in the Realist and Impressionist era though that the night begins to symbolise the dark weight of industrialism in the lives of the bourgeoisie – and more pointedly on the mass of workers who suffered from it. Manet’s portrait of the future Impressionist painter Berthe Morisot in black dress has her gaunt fingers twisting around a fan as she stares pensively at the painter. Philippe-Auguste Jeanron’s 1833 A Paris Scene is more class conscious, with three children in the foreground crouched around a slumping, bandaged father, as in the background a bourgeois couple stroll blithely across the same bridge. The father’s bandage represents the unsuccessful attempt at a Paris uprising in 1832, which the royalty and industrialists put down as they increased their wealth through capitalist exploitation.

In the same vein, in 20th century photography, two photos from the 1950s by the aptly named Jean-Philippe Charbonnier (charbon is the French word for coal) capture first a little girl running though a mining tenement, her clothes taking on the omnipresent dark element of soot, which is also captured in a second photo of a garment on a mining tenement clothesline. Near the end of the mining period, in 1960, a series of miners’ photos are highlighted by one of a stolid, unblinking face of a miner in whose gaze is captured both the pride of his work and the hardship it inflicts on him.

Malévitch Kasimir (1878-1935). Paris, Centre Pompidou - Musée national d'art moderne - Centre de création industrielle. AM1980-1.

Malevich’s Cross

Painting in the 20th century moves toward an embracing of the symbolic economy, as representation gives way to abstraction. The Russian Suprematist Kasimir Malevich’s 1915 Cross is a huge oversize, weighty black cross, almost tipping over on its white background. This is not pure abstraction though. The bulk and oppressive weight of the cross, with Russia at war with Germany on nearly the eve of the Russian Revolution, suggests not only the Iron Cross, the German military badge of honour, but also the pulverizing weight of the Orthodox Church in maintaining the Czar’s power as he sends his subjects off to die. The painting predicts that both are about to collapse.    

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Reinhardt's Ultimate Painting    

Finally, there is Ad Reinhardt’s Ultimate Painting from 1960, a black rectangle where one can only dimly perceive even different shades of black. This void is perhaps meant to signify the end of painting, but what it may also signify, given its place at the beginning of the changeover in the West from an industrial to a service economy, is the dawn of a symbolic regime where finance and fictitious capital will outpace industrial and productive capital. That is, Western capital itself is at the beginning of a movement to a level of abstraction where the stock market, currency speculation and a nascent digital economy will dominate the productive and industrial economy. This moment thus also calls into being Abstract Expressionists such as Reinhardt who represent it on their canvases.

This transformation is also strikingly visible in the geographical setting in which the painting is displayed – the transformation of Lens from mining economy to museum economy.

Green Frontier and Wild District: The Bolivarian vs. The Bolsonarian Revolution
Sunday, 16 August 2020 08:30

Green Frontier and Wild District: The Bolivarian vs. The Bolsonarian Revolution

Dennis Broe reviews Green Frontier and Wild District, two shockingly different approaches to South American struggles for political liberation. The image above is from Green Frontier

Two series from Colombia, Green Frontier and Wild District, both Netflix originals and both made by the same production house, Dynamo, stake out the left and right of Colombian politics.

The iconography of the progressive series, Green Frontier, links it with a history of Latin American films dealing with the continent’s indigenous peoples, a part of the tradition of Magical Realism which charts the expression of indigenous cultures in a colonized landscape. The theme of the series is the destruction of the Amazon on the Colombian-Brazilian border, and a lost tribe trying to ward off the loggers who would destroy them and the forest, along with the deeper, more insidious and more persistent menace of Western colonialism.

Wild District on the other hand employs the iconography of the American action film in its more reactionary and caricaturing forms. It depicts guerilla forces as savages, and its characterization of the slums of Bogota is racist and classist – just another jungle, as primitive and untamable as the actual jungle inhabited by the rebel group FARC, rather than the habitat of one of the continent’s poorest and most deprived populations.

Progressive ecological and political awareness

Since both series are Netflix originals, it would seem the streaming service is interested in covering all bases. With the more independent, left-field Green Frontier, whose pilot is directed by the superb Ciro Guerra, it’s trying to attract a progressive audience who are committed to the ecology of preserving the rainforest and the country’s indigenous people. With the straightforward action series, which boasts a superb performance by Juan Pablo Raba, veteran of Narcos, the service seems to be playing to the populist and far right, in a show that openly rationalizes the work of the death squads, an auxiliary of the former Uribe government.

The pilot of Green Frontier owes much to Guerra’s visual acuity and his thematic concerns. His first global success, the film Embrace of the Serpent, was about the relationship between two aging members of their respective civilizations. One was a German social scientist in the jungle at the turn of the last century, in the vanguard of what would become a pillaging and patenting of its secrets for Big Pharma, and the other was his guide, an indigenous last member of a tribe wiped out by the European colonizers. The indigenous guide recalled this devastation in a series of scattered images that operated more from an intuitive and unconscious logic than the Western scientist’s rational mapping of this world. In Green Frontier a warrior, one of the last members of his tribe, communicates with a female member both in this world and in another, with the otherworldly images shown in a negative silvery tint.

Guerra’s second film, Birds of Passage, adopts codes from the gangster film to recount how an Amazon tribe succumbs to the profit-making inducements of the drug trade and how the ensuing greed for material objects utterly demolishes their centuries-old customs and ways of life. It’s The Godfather or Scorsese’s Casino in the jungle, as it maps the changes wrought by money. It is even closer to Gangs of Wasseypur, a stunning Indian film about the changes in an Indian province over 40 years by the introduction of a profit-making gangster economy.

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The jungle under the heel of a Nazi demon in Green Frontier

Green Frontier also presents the jungle under attack from the loggers who are stripping its assets, from a mysterious white man who is a demon with a history that extends back to the Nazis, and from the local corrupt police whose leader “Uribe” orders the killing of the Bogota female agent who instinctively acts to protect the jungle.

The series opens with the slaughter of both an indigenous woman Ushe and a group of nuns and is in the present an investigation by the Bogota agent Helena and her partner Reynaldo, who has been outcast from his indigenous community, into the killings. A flashback narrative recounts the relationship of Ushe and Yua, the male protector of the jungle. The jungle itself is defined as both holder of the secret of life and as female.

The flashbacks are not so much backstory, as they would be in a more Euro-centered narrative, as they are a parallel world with the jungle itself acting to protect Yua and at times making him invisible. The series is elegantly filmed on the Colombian-Brazilian border and the loggers, whose boisterous chainsaw at one point interrupts a conversation between Ushe and Yua, are the visual and aural sign of the Bolsonaro-Trump assault on the environment, waged in the Brazilian case against the rainforest and in Trump’s case against public lands which he is now opening to drilling and mining.

The series ends with an epic battle between the Bogota agent Helena, now in touch with her roots in the earth and allied with the jungle, and the white demon Joseph, a remnant of the Nazis, the ultimate degradation of Western civilization. It’s a monumental struggle and one those who want to save the earth are engaged in each day.

Far-right nonsense

Wild District on the other hand is far-right nonsense that misses completely the changes that are going on in Colombia, a traditional bastion of Latin American conservatism and a U.S. ally which is in the process of attempting to get out from under the thumb of its history of violence and right-wing death squads. The recent arrest of the hit-squad aligned former president Alfaro Uribe for corruption is a sign of these changes.

The question in Colombia at the moment is the question of peace as the FARC, the revolutionary guerrillas, have been more than willing to lay down their arms and accept a peace deal in order to challenge the right wing at the polls as a political party. However, despite overwhelming popular support for the peace process, the current president Ivan Duque, a protégé of Uribe’s, opposes it and allows the guerrillas to be assassinated by still highly active right-wing killers as the former guerillas, having surrendered their weapons, are now defenseless.

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“Untamed savagery” in a poor section of Bogota

None of this is even hinted at in Wild District which is not much more than a sounding board and rationale for far-right sentiment and continued slaughter in the country. The FARC are portrayed as bloodthirsty kidnappers of children, ignoring any rooted connection they have with the peasantry, and as simply sadistic killers and grudge-bearing executioners of those who would desert them, forgetting that the FARC as a unit has pushed for peaceful disarmament. There is no mention of the far-right death squads who hunt them.

The series is so far right it would have difficulty even finding a place on the Fox Network, though it might fit comfortably in an evening slot on the Fox News Network between discredited Fox commentators Bill O’Reilly and Megan Kelly. This series makes Jack Webb, the McCarthyite-era creator of Dragnet, look like Bernie Sanders. It lacks the subtlety of even a 24 or a Homeland where at least the ideological message is more complicated, and subtly obscured.

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Juan Pablo Raba as an ex-guerilla fighter in Wild District

Its one positive feature is the lead character, Jhon Jeiver, a “light foot” FARC former assassin who creeps up on everyone but whose effort to insert himself into everyday life is touching and includes his attempt to reestablish a relationship with his son. In a well-drawn scene in the market where he has found work, Jhon tells a female customer seeking a solution for a burn to forget a pharmaceutical remedy, and instead shows her how to apply the healing plants aloe and calendula (marigold) that he learned in the jungle. His nemesis on the series is of course the snivelling, sadistic jungle revolutionary who wants to continue the fighting, the exact opposite of the contemporary Colombian reality.

The difference in the two series is strikingly apparent in the use of the names of the Colombian leaders. In the far-right Wild District, “Duque,” the current leader now accused in the press of corruption and who opposes the peace process, is the name of the tough on the outside but heart-of-gold female detective who is Jhon’s handler. In Green Frontier, “Uribe” is the corrupt head of the local police who orders the assassination of Helena, the eventual protector of the jungle and of the authentic Latin American heritage.

The ideological difference between the two series is shocking, although ultimately of course both series contribute to the profits of Netflix. However, there is still a stark contrast between two views of Latin America. Green Frontier is allied with the Bolivarian Revolution which attempts to redistribute wealth and raise the living standard of the continent’s poorest, often those with an indigenous or African background. Wild District aligns itself with the Bolsonarian Revolution which attempts to sell off both the natural and cultural heritage of the continent in its return of wealth back to the richest.

One revolution attempts, as does Helena, to preserve the continent. The other, which like Wild District characterizes all efforts at change as savage, instead attempts, as can be seen in the murderous spread of the coronavirus out from Brazil to its neighbours, to destroy the continent and keep it under the colonial heel.

A Strange Bird: Comcast and Universal's Peacock streaming service
Monday, 27 July 2020 09:59

A Strange Bird: Comcast and Universal's Peacock streaming service

Dennis Broe continues his review of series TV with a sceptical look at Comcast and Universal's Peacock, the latest streaming service from the world of capitalist media conglomerates

Do we need yet another television network/movie studio/cable station conglomerate turned into a streaming service whose main contribution is to put its back catalogue online?

This question is prompted by the conservative cable network Comcast’s launching of Peacock, its entry into a crowded field. The name summons up the NBC logo and is designed to invoke fond memories of that network, bought by Comcast to combine with the Universal film studio and challenge the likes of Netflix, Amazon, Disney+, AppleTV+ and HBO Max in what is becoming an increasingly crowded not to say polluted field.

Not very progressive......

These “hyperconglomerates,” media giants combining telecommunications, satellite systems, and digital delivery and transmissions, are often reactionary in nature. AT&T, the parent company of HBO Max, called “the most Republican of any publicly traded company” has long pushed for increased business deregulation and deeper tax cuts. Comcast, now spreading its tentacles across the world with its acquisition from Rupert Murdoch of the main European satellite service Sky, only recently withdrew from the thinktank ALEC, which promoted the murderous and racist stand-your-ground laws and is involved in a voter ID campaign to disqualify black voters.    

The Office: An American Workplace (NBC) season 1Spring 2005Shown: B.J. Novak (as Ryan Howard), John Krasinski (as Jim Halpert), Jenna Fischer (as Pam Beesley), Rainn Wilson (as Dwight Schrute), Steve Carell (as Michael Scott)

The Office: a brutally honest look at corporate capitalist office culture

The answer to the question of Peacock’s relevance, given what has been proposed to anchor the channel so far, is a resounding ‘No!’ The streaming service flagship series is Brave New World, based on the Aldous Huxley dystopian novel. Peacock is using the old cable model of trying to make a splashy debut with a high-powered series which will conceal the fact that most of the content, as is always true on cable channels, is not new but simply cable-ready reruns of old shows and movies. A major draw here is The Office, whose brutally honest look at corporate capitalist office culture has made it one of the most watched shows in the world. The show ran on NBC but at this moment is still lodged in Netflix and won’t premiere on the streaming service until January 2021.

There will supposedly be an Office reunion episode which is designed to make viewers remember the magic of this highly satirical and often hilarious series. However, if the 30 Rock reunion is any indication, what it will do instead is evoke anger as viewers of the 30 Rock “reunion” thought they were tuning into an hour-long episode of the series and instead got what was predominantly an extended infommercial for Peacock, with some bits from the series sprinkled around the promos.

Not very hard-hitting......

Instead of fond memories, the show might have made viewers question how hard-hitting or edgy 30 Rock, whose title celebrates NBC’s corporate headquarters, ever was to begin with. The series was always made up more of slight jibes rather than actual pokes at the industry. It didn’t bite the hand that fed it in the way that actual satires of the industry such as The Larry Sanders Show or Episodes, did. Instead it sprinkled magical fairy dust over a network that had been largely out of touch since The Office ended, perennially caught between the aging conservative heartland audience of CBS and the hipper, female, urban and sometimes progressive audience of ABC. For the better part of a decade it has not been able to make up its mind what it was, while frequently floating blandly between the two poles.

The stellar program on the network at the moment is Seth Meyer’s Late Night. His segment “A Closer Look” (available on YouTube) has become much harder-hitting during the lockdown, at it pounds away at Trump, Senate Republicans and police and paramilitary strongarm tactics in the streets. Increasingly grabbing the spotlight though, especially in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protest, has been one of its writers, Amber Ruffin, whose recounting as a black woman of her daily humiliating and intimidating experiences with the police was a series highlight.

DB 22 True Television Satire Seth Meyers and Amber Ruffin

True Television Satire: Seth Meyers and Amber Ruffin 

The funniest and baldest satirical moment on network TV this season was Seth and Amber’s faux “trailer” for White Savior, a send-up of trash like The Green Book where Meyer’s white guy constantly appears to take the credit and get the attention for the hard work Ruffin’s characters carry out. At the end it is Meyer’s liberal sitting on the bus who invites Ruffin’s Rosa Parks to “take a seat” next to him, hogging the limelight in her challenging of racial inequality. Amber Ruffin’s show on Peacock is being rushed into production, and given the lack of quality material on the service so far, it can’t come fast enough.

Not very accurate.....

Which brings us to Brave New World, (soon available on Sky in the UK) a soft-focus gauzy mess of a show that gets Huxley completely wrong. It turns his criticism of the way technology in the wrong hands is capable of promoting conformity into an Ayn Rand, Trump-like paean to narcissistic and suicidal individualism. There is indeed a way the novel could be effectively updated in the digital age to talk about how all experience is being flattened by monopolistic entities like Amazon, and by streaming services like Peacock. But that might be hitting too close to home!

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Trump era 'individuality'

Instead the series has the ultra-rich mainly worried that they can’t have multiple dates with the same lover as monogamy is outlawed, replaced by titillating soft-focus orgies. Outside this Valley of the Dolls shtick are the poor who live in the Savage Lands in a kind of Mad Max broken-down world. But here too their major concern is not that they have no food, shelter or employment but that they have “lost their individuality,” whatever that means. The satire and description of a devastated world with a rich urban centre and an utterly left-for-dead periphery, one where our world is heading, is much sharper and accurate in the dystopian movie series The Hunger Games. Compared to it, this version of Huxley doesn’t even have the heft and weight of Netflix’s version of Sabrina the Teenage Witch.   

Far more effective and affecting is Peacock’s other revival, the second film of the long-running USA series Psych, titled Lassie Come Home (available on Prime Video in the UK).  USA is owned by NBC, as the major network’s owned many of the prime cable channels, but did not own up to that fact, making it appear that cable was a land of plenty divorced from network television when in fact it was dominated by it.  

The heart of Psych, a series about a fake psychic detective, was always the repartee between the bumbling would-be Sherlock Holmes Shawn Spencer (James Roday who co-wrote the film) and his number two, his sidekick Gus (the African-American actor Dulé Hill). There is certainly an uncomfortable element to the unequalness of the bantering, with Shawn always coming up with his own names for Gus, barely addressed in the follow-up film as Gus now gets to choose which name Shawn comes up with for him that he can tolerate. But their playfulness and knowledge and revelling in the more obscure and degraded back alleys of pop culture can be infectious.

The second film follow-up to the series is built around affectionately honoring a member of the cast, Timothy Omundson, who played Lassiter, the hard-edged official police foil to Shawn and Gus’s lackadaisical – but ultimately always more effective – sleuths.

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Timothy Omundson in Lassie Come Home 

Omundson had a stroke and was unable to be a part of the first film. This second film is written around him, with the stroke explained in the film as the result of a gun battle, resulting in his actual inability to speak in the former stern voice of the character, and with his physical paralysis incorporated into the film. The last sequence has him overcoming both in a way that is touching and heartfelt, a tribute to working with the disabled, who themselves are rightly beginning to demand a place on network television and at the centre of modern life.

....so really, not very necessary

The sincere and warm sentiment of the cast and writers for the actor and his condition comes through strongly in the series and makes it authentic, everything the promo hucksterism of the 30 Rock reunion and the misguided banality of Brave New World are not. There is a long way to go before Peacock spreads its wings and displays its colourful plumage, or for that matter even justifies its existence.       

Perry Mason and The Case of the Missing Case
Sunday, 05 July 2020 08:51

Perry Mason and The Case of the Missing Case

Dennis Broe reviews the new HBO Perry Mason series on Sky.

There are many things to like about HBO’s new version of one of the most popular book and television series of all time, Perry Mason, which is available in Britain on Sky and in France on OCS. This young Perry Mason, set in the Los Angeles of 1932, is traumatized from his experience in World War I, à la Peaky Blinders. Perry is also a lost generation private detective not above sleazy blackmail himself, à la Jake Gittes in Chinatown. These defects give the character a long way, and multiple seasons, to go before he becomes the staunch defence attorney who enjoyed taking the toughest and most hopeless cases.

Matthew Rhys from The Americans is pitch-perfect in the role of the talented but befuddled and mixed-up Mason. To this origin story is added that of a bright young African-American beat cop, told by the white officers on the force that on the LAPD he will never become a detective because he is black, and who we know will eventually become Perry’s investigative ally, Paul Drake.

The period is lovingly and extravagantly recreated, including a flashback trench warfare battle scene with bullets whizzing by that rivals the opening of Saving Private Ryan. The same episode ends in a wide shot of an LA downtown street populated with autos and both suggest that the budget here and the set construction are akin to that of HBO’s last global hit Game of Thrones. The costumes also are a marvel of period design and recreation.

But but but.....

So what’s the ‘but’? It lies in the legal case, which must in some way be the justification for the elaborate reconstruction. A single case stretches across all the episodes and it involves Perry helping to free a client who appears to be as the older Mason might say “guilty as sin.” The problem is that in the initial episodes the case is a sort of more gruesome Lindbergh Baby Case, updated to the Silence-of-the-Lambs-serial-killer era, involving murder instead of kidnapping. The crime is ruthless but seems to have no wider implications, and seems stuck there just to have Perry and his future assistants Della Street and Paul go through their machinations. 

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Perry as Private and Camera Eye 

There is a terrific long shot in the opening of episode two which features a disconsolate, dejected and tattered Perry slumped in an alley in the foreground, a drunk collapsed in the middle ground and two men in tuxedos in the background. This shot illustrates the hopelessness of the Depression, not so different from what is being experienced today as even CNBC is declaring that in the wake of the Covid-19 crisis almost half of the US population is without a job. There is also an elaborate construction of a Hooverville, the impromptu collection of shacks that sprang up as the Depression worsened in ’32. You can find their equivalent today under any bridge in LA, as the always burgeoning homeless crisis adds economic victims of the Covid-19 crisis to what may soon be named Trumpvilles.

The equally elaborate showbiz temple of a female Christian revivalist Sister Alice is a spectacle that rivals Hollywood, but seems extraneous because in the 1930s there is already Hollywood as Depression-era diversion. The creator’s explanation for inclusion of this set piece is that it hasn’t been done in noir period pieces before.

All of which leads to what might be called the ‘period fetish fallacy’ in American film and television. Instead of attempting to grasp and express the wider social and economic significance of the period, there is an exact and painstaking reproduction of the minutiae of the era. In the case of Sister Alice, novelty replaces analysis. 1932 was a moment in American history where momentous social forces were brewing, generated by the unemployment caused by a capitalist crisis. These forces resulted in both the New Deal and the advancement of American labour and labour unions. That background is absent except as colourful detail from this Perry Mason, which instead lavishes too much time on middle-class diversions like faith healing or tabloid sensationalism.  

This is especially damaging since both the former series and the Perry Mason books are extremely plot-driven and require an intricate case. Because so much of this series works, let’s hope that in the second season the creators will choose to turn their attention away from the minutiae and toward the meaning of the period they have so successfully begun to plumb as a highly original starting point for the show.

Perry Mason and The Case of the Curious Contradictions

“Da, da dum.” These are the opening bars of the Perry Mason theme, as indelibly etched in the brains of viewers of the time as Dragnet’s “Da, da dum dum.” The series itself, which premiered at what was still the height of the McCarthy era in 1957 and ran through 1968, tended to remake the Perry of the novels, which debuted in the early 1930s in the midst of the Depression, into a more stalwart defender of the law than in his literary manifestation.

The Mason of the 1930s novels, once he determined the client was innocent, often went to great pains to deceive, outmanoeuvre and trick the police, who were often portrayed as not just incompetent but dishonest. In The Case of the Rolling Bones, from 1939, Perry orders clients to wipe down their fingerprints, confounds the DA in the necessarily revelatory final courtroom scene by setting up a rummy witness in the audience, and reacts angrily to finding his phones tapped by the LAPD.

When that novel is transferred to CBS in 1958 the counselling to break the law is gone, the rummy witness is left out, and the wiretapping is done by an obscure private shamus who informs the police. The last scene has the series’ cop Lieutenant Tragg visiting Perry’s office and informing him of the rogue wire-tapping which results in the trope at the end of each episode, the group guffaw with Perry, Della, Paul and Tragg all having a good laugh. What could be funnier than wiretapping an attorney in an attempt to jail an innocent defendant? The key difference in cultural politics is the transposition from the more wide-open Depression era 1930s to the more closed down corporate climate of the late 1950s.

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Perry at work in a court of law 

The show though did have its moments. In one of the series’ best episodes, season one’s “The Case of the Moth-Eaten Mink,” Mason has had to face the wrath of the police for supposedly defending a cop killer. He confronts – not in the courtroom but in his own law office – the actual killer, who is himself part of the justice system. Mason is still the defender of the weak and wrongly accused, though there is some flattening out of experience, as the Klondike prospector in “The Rolling Bones” is shorn of his early 20th century rough and tumble appearance and outfitted instead in ‘50s corporate attire. It’s a whitewashing of the character and the barbaric gold rush milieu from which his fortune springs.

Stains on a spotless America

There is also in the subtext of the Mason TV show the tragedy of Raymond Burr, a Hollywood homosexual who could not come out because it would not suit his image on the show as a staunch defender of the principle of law. This Perry, although he was supposedly enamoured of his gal Friday Della Street, probably preferred the handsome debonair “bachelor” investigator Paul Drake. Burr went so far as to create a fictitious wife and child who he claimed had died in a plane crash. When questioned about being a “bachelor” of an advancing age, which could lead to the accusation of being gay, he replied that he was not a bachelor but a widower.

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Burr as Perry hiding behind the law 

In the end it seemed he devoted his life to the show in the maintaining of his public image and the denying of his private desire. He was accused of being complicit in not taking a stand, but he was equally the victim of a system and an era that demanded its heroes be stripped and shorn of their human qualities. The TV Perry was often a blander version of the Perry of the novels, in an era where repression and dull conformity ironed out the human wrinkles that were viewed as stains on a spotless America. 

The global drug pandemic, police supremacism and the corruption of film-makers
Monday, 22 June 2020 10:10

The global drug pandemic, police supremacism and the corruption of film-makers

Dennis Broe focuses on the global drug pandemic, dealt with in different ways in three new series     

Three new series deal variously with the drug pandemic, that byproduct of the despair that has grown in the wake of neoliberal capitalism. As opportunities shrink because of a global upward redistribution of wealth away from both the working and middle classes and the socially responsible agencies of the state, more people turn to the powerful opioid fentanyl, the old reliable cocaine in both its middle-class (sniffed) and working-class and underclass (heated) form as crack, and to new imagined drugs to remove that pain.

These are the drugs du jour of three series, Hightown, Amo and Homecoming which deal in various ways with the culture, lifestyle and repressive mechanisms which surround their intake. However, because drugs are useful palliatives in societies that do not welcome change, for the most part the series, while offering detailed descriptions of the problem of drugs, do not offer constructive solutions on how to eradicate them.

Drug Dealers in Corporate Suits: Homecoming

 First and foremost is Amazon Prime’s Homecoming, whose second season stars Harriet, the film about the black abolitionist, Harriet Tubman. The first season had Julia Roberts – in this second season still exec producing – playing an at first compliant psychotherapist fronting for a drug and biochemical company, the Geist Group, which used veterans as guinea pigs to test a memory-erasing drug. Her mind was wiped also and she slowly started to wake to the callousness of the drug company’s exploitation of humans, who were already casualties of the corporate war machine.

The series’ first iteration was as a 20-minute podcast and it is exceptionally tightly structured, cramming more storytelling into a half hour than more series manage in an hour.

The second season begins with Tubman, also having lost her memory, waking in a rowboat and desperately attempting to piece together who she is and what has happened to her. There is a fractured storyline, as in the film Memento, that when ironed out is actually quite simple. The strength of the second season though is its laying bare of the ambition of the Geist Group which amplifies its first season program of expunging the memories of ex-soldiers to expand and join with the military to weaponize its memory-erasing drug to use on the battlefield and on the homefront. The effort is led by Joan Cusack’s Pentagon official whose utter lack of morality or responsibility, couched in corporate-military jargon, is striking.

As the series unfolds, we watch a grab for power by Hong Chou’s put-upon underling who quickly grasps that to get ahead in the biological and pharmaceutical corporate world what is required is an innate ruthlessness and a disregard for how the drugs being developed actually affect the users. She also imbibes a milder form of the drug which the company manufactures, a red roll-on – a “take the red pill and chill” – that allows her to live with the anxiety produced by her lack of conscience.

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Stephan James’ dogged war veteran pursuing the truth

Fittingly, it is If Beale Street Could Talk’s Stephan James as a war veteran who doggedly pursues the truth who enacts a karmic revenge on the company that is unfortunately more wish-fulfillment that fact, but welcome just the same. A second strong season from one of the few shows to deal with the drug epidemic caused by the seldom discussed corporate and capitalist pharmaceutical industry.

High Times in Hightown

More problematic by far, but a reliable guilty pleasure, is Starz’s and Amazon Prime’s Hightown which describes its locale as Provincetown or P-town, as utterly riddled with drugs to the point that only users, sellers, cops and informers inhabit the space. The series focuses on the struggle of a lesbian Latina working-class addict, Jackie Quinones, who barely holds down his duties on Cape Cod patrolling the coastal waters for illegal catches. Her job is described mockingly by the macho cop she wants to impress as a “fish detective.”

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Fish Detective Turned Real Detective in Hightown

She hits bottom in her addiction early in the series, and we watch her in her twin attempts to get and stay clean and to become an actual detective, a job for which she shows an aptitude. Jackie is constantly late on the rent for her dishevelled apartment, uses relationships to secure a next high, and sees nothing wrong with her oversexed life in P-town which she describes to a councillor as a “lesbian Shangri-La.” She finds the body of a young fellow addict and is the first to realize that another young female addict witnessed the murder and is in danger.

The plot cleverly intermixes her struggle to move up in her career with the detritus of her addict life, so that, in tracking a lead on where the witness might be she has to lie to a former lover to borrow her car and then drive carefully, since her licence has been suspended. Jackie’s struggle is intermixed with that of the macho cop she is trying to impress, who begins a relationship with the stripper-girlfriend of the drug dealer he is pursing, and an older-brother type fisherman caught also in dealing and using.

It’s an addictive mix, and the series well illustrates how drugs and drug culture have seeped into every aspect of life in the US, and how their use and pursuit propels the young adults in this series, informing every aspect of their existence.

Now the problems. The series is exec-produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, responsible for C.S.I, one of the most conservative of all series on television, where supposedly unerring but actually highly suspect forensic science negated any use for juries or trials and like Dragnet in the 1950s meant the cops were always right.

This is the new, updated Jerry Bruckheimer but some basic premises remain. The first is that, although treatment centres are a feature of the series, they are largely seen as useless, overruled by the need for drug use to be policed.

The second is the nature of the villains. The series takes the “daring” tack of having black and Latino dealers as its heavies. Daring because Hollywood will usually throw Caucasian dealers in the mix so as not to draw flak, but here we have simply unadulterated racism. The series can point to the prominence of drugs distributed by impoverished communities as an alternative source of income as a rationale for its characterization, but the problem is that the focus stays on the street dealers without any attempt to portray the wider socio-economic environment of a global and highly profitable drug trafficking economy which is sanctioned if not encouraged by many governments.

Recently, because of the Black Lives Matter protests against the police, Cops was cancelled. It was one of the television monuments to racism, a series that launched Murdoch’s Fox network and which viewed poor and minority communities entirely from the front seat of a squad car. Hightown has a lot going for it, most especially the engaging struggle of its Latina lead, but it would be better if it told some larger truths about why drug culture exists and why it is perpetuated, instead of sometimes falling back into C.S.I. police supremacist mode.

Drugs and the Duterte Death Squads

One of the Philippines’ better directors, a global darling of the film festival circuit, is Brillante Mendoza who of late has taken as his major subject the drug crisis fueled by President Rodrigo Duterte. Like Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Duterte has used the omnipresence of drugs in the slums of Manila as a pretext to wage war against its inhabitants.  

Two of Mendoza’s films on the subject present wildly different points of view, and both are in evidence in Amo, his series for the independent TV5 in the Philippines, distributed globally by Netflix. Ma’ Rosa, a nod to Pasolini’s Ma Roma, details the mom and pop desperation of an elderly couple who must sell drugs in order for their shop to survive and whose family is then brutally beset by the police.

Alpha, The Right to Kill, on the other hand, is told almost entirely from the police perspective as we follow a “daring” raid on the heart of the Manila slums that goes wrong. The right of the police to terrorize the populace is affirmed, while one lone cop is chastised for corruption. It is most likely that with the success of Alpha Mendoza was commissioned to undertake Amo, a series about a teen drug dealer and his uncle, a corrupt cop.

Why was Mendoza, whose own perspective seems to mesh with Duterte’s, chosen to fashion a series on this topic? Instead of (for example) the other most well-known Philippine filmmaker Lav Diaz, whose filmmaking style is more oblique but who has proved himself in films like The Halt and The Woman Who Left to be a far more strident and nuanced critic of the contemporary regime? The answer lies probably in commercial reasons, and government censorship.

Nevertheless, Mendoza is an extraordinary filmmaker incorporating in his series aspects of Italian neorealism, in his gritty portrayal of the slums, and European modernism. For example, in a reflexive joke where raps about the desperate situation of the populace appear on the soundtrack and then feature the band themselves as the teenage protagonist walks by them on the street.

Showrunners frequently describe their series as “like a long movie”, but that is seldom the case since they are mostly broken into plot-heavy smaller pieces. The style though that Mendoza employs, using an immediate and intimate hand-held camera and disdaining any kind of explanation, easy identification, or judgement of his characters does make this more like a movie than a series.

The 13-episodes are mostly in Tagalog, the national language of the Philippines, and follow first the high school student Amo, or Joseph, as he falls further into the amoral lifestyle of a dealer. He begins by skipping school and employing a young girl as a drug runner to escape a police barricade, and then moves to distributing all kinds of exotic party drugs at a club where when the drug turns lethal the English-speaking owners disavow him. He ends alone and on the run. It is in this first half of the series that the Duterte line rules, because we watch Amo’s casual corruption turn deadly and contaminate everything he does. This half of the series functions almost as a rationale for tough and lethal police action.

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Corrupt Cops and the Drug Trade in Amo 

The second half of the series follows Amo’s uncle, a cop himself, as he and his squad carry out a brutal kidnapping of a Japanese drug dealer, coordinated by their superior, the most ruthless of them all. This half functions much more as a criticism of the police and their invovement in the overall corruption that drugs and money generate. And here it is not a lone wolf cop but an entire squad on the force, connected ironically with the anti-kidnapping unit, that plans the kidnapping and subsequent executions.

This is a very mixed series by an extraordinary filmmaker who has brought both his creative talents and his political baggage to television. What the series indicates in actuality is that Philippine filmmakers themselves are not above being corrupted – in this case not by drugs but by the general manipulation of drug culture by those who are not interested in solving the problem, but in profiting from it.

Da 5 Bloods: Black Lives Matter Meets Rambo
Monday, 22 June 2020 09:18

Da 5 Bloods: Black Lives Matter Meets Rambo

Published in Films

Dennis Broe reviews Spike Lee's new film

Spike Lee’s new film for Netflix, Da 5 Bloods, about the effects of the Vietnam War on African-American soldiers, opens spectacularly. A documentary sequence begins with Muhammed Ali detailing why he chooses not to fight: “My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother or some darker people... for big powerful America…..for what?..They never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me. They never robbed me of my nationality.”

Malcolm X explains the war as a continuation of a history of black exploitation in a country where “20 million Black people…fight all your wars and pick all your cotton and [you] never give them any recompense.” Over contrasting shots of the war and ’60s protests against it, comes the strains of Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues” where the singer plaintively pleads for an end to a system where while “bills pile up sky high” the response of a supremacist government is to “send that boy off to die.”

The film also ends strongly in the present summoning the Black Lives Matter protests, which echo again Marvin Gaye’s still prescient words about “trigger happy policing.” In between, unfortunately, things get a lot muddier.

In the fiction, the five soldiers return to Vietnam to recover a treasure trove of gold they had hidden during the war. Each of them, and especially Paul (Delroy Lindo) has been in some way damaged and traumatized by the war. Vietnam is now a prosperous country – a sex worker under the American regime is, under an independent Vietnam, a financial broker – but to return to it for these ex-soldiers is to re-invoke painful memories.

The film is aware of the idiocy of the Rambo myth, where Sylvester Stallone returns to fight the war and this time to win. Nevertheless it falls into a similar trap, as it recycles classical Hollywood images with the racist and imperialist residue of those images still intact. Lee’s film summons Francis Coppola’s Apocalypse Now with the Wagnerian “Flight of the Valkyries”, as the five travel upriver to find the gold. This is the least offensive of the references, because the original was cognizant of the lunacy of the war. Paul, wracked by guilt over what happened in battle, grows increasingly mad as they travel further upriver, suggesting that Joseph Conrad’s Kurtz and Coppola’s Brando character suffered from what would now be called PTSD –  not innately mad, but driven mad by war.   

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Bloods on the battlefield

Elsewhere though, the references are not so innocuous. Echoes of Treasure of Sierra Madre in the way the thirst for the gold divides the bloods give way to a direct quote in one scene which figures the Vietnamese as Sierra Madre’s scurrilous Mexicans, one of whom intones in a kind of Vietnamese/Hollywood/Spanish: “We don’t need no stinking official badges.”   

The film cannot acknowledge that the Vietnam War was won by the Viet Cong, freedom fighters whose struggle against US imperialism is the same struggle that African-Americans are engaged in today in the inner cities of the United States. Thus, one character, who can’t stop refighting the war, is executed in a way that depicts the Vietnamese as bloodthirsty bandits. The only male Vietnamese character the bloods trust is a bounty hunter, whose parents fought for the US puppet government of South Vietnam. A flashback to the ’60s battlefield continues the “othering” of the Vietnamese by showing them only in outline, an approach used in Oliver Stone’s far better Platoon and which has been criticised.

Finally, the film, since it positions itself within the traditions of the War Film and the Western, complete with the bloods in campfire scene (surrounded by hostile Indians/Vietnamese?), must end in a battle. This one features the bloods and their European NGO allies against Jean Reno’s bloated Frenchman, and again the nearly faceless Vietnamese are simply enlisted behind him in a way that suggests nothing has changed in Vietnam since the French were driven out in 1954.

With heavy casualties the bloods win the battle and so in a way replay the Vietnam War. We’ve come both a long way and not very far at all from Rambo.  

Statues also die
Saturday, 13 June 2020 13:01

Statues also die

Published in Visual Arts

Dennis Broe reflects on the recent attacks on European colonialism and support shown to Black Lives Matter, through the defacement and removal of statues

The first week of European and particularly French and Francophone protests in the wake of the US Black Lives Matter movement concerned parallel police actions against French minorities. This included the death on his birthday of Adama Traoré, held down by three French cops in a hold similar to that executed on George Floyd. Traoré was pronounced dead on arrival at the police station. The official verdict claimed that asphyxiation was caused by the presence in his blood of marijuana. But the family medical examiners reached the conclusion that he died as a result of the chokehold.

Last weekend protestors memorializing Traoré swarmed the streets, despite the Covid prohibition forbidding gatherings of more than 10 people. In the wake of the protests, the Interior Minister announced the chokehold was now banned. The protests were peaceful and most of the marchers wore masks and maintained social distancing. One effect though was that they broke the embargo on street demonstrations which were in full force before the confinement, opposing President Macron’s underfunding of hospitals and his attempt to reduce worker pensions.

This week the protestors widened their approach and took aim at the legacy of European colonialism, most prominently by scrawling “I Can’t Breathe,” George Floyd’s last words, on the Belgium statue in Ghent of Leopold II who presided over the genocidal exploitation of the Congo, referred to at the time erroneously as The Belgian Congo. Across the continent memorials fell, including the statue of Edward Colston, a Bristol slave merchant at the time when the British empire amassed a good deal of its wealth by transporting slaves from Africa to the Americas.

In Bordeaux, the city removed plaques on David Gradis Street which proudly proclaimed that between 1718 and 1789 Gradis’ company had powered 221 boats carrying African slaves to the Americas. Nantes, the center of embarkation of slave boats in France, was already ahead of this movement, having created a memorial to the cruelty of the slave trade. It’s an impressive monument – but so is the at times ostentatious wealth of the city, built on the slave trade, the legacy of which may outlast the memorial. All of which brings up the question not just of memorials but of reparations, a question that has so far not been raised here.

French president Macron was quick to take advantage of the situation having already proclaimed his African soft power policy of redressing colonialism by promising to restore some of the art the French looted from West Africa over the years which resides in prominent museums like the Louvre. The French policy in Africa though includes the carrot and the stick because the French army is still in Mali, Mauretania, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad.

This tearful history was also recounted in Statues Also Die, Alain Resnais and Chris Marker's 1950s film about the theft of this art and its repositioning as colonial booty in French museums. In the film the statues, wrenched out of their cultural context, appear to tear up, wither and die in the asphyxiation of colonialism.

The colonial tradition endures, however. Laurent Joffrin, the editor of the supposedly left French paper Liberation, which published Sartre’s salvos against French terrorism in Algeria, turned his back on that legacy in decrying the tearing down of colonial statues as partaking in the dangerous work of erasing history. Joffrin wished instead that the statues remain as markers of the colonial legacy. But most are not mere markers – they are celebrations.

Joffrin needn’t worry. France’s colonial history is very deeply rooted and will unfortunately endure beyond the statues. But this week a first salvo was fired across the bow against that legacy, both in France, in other cities in Europe, and across the globe.

Rebels in Snowpiercer
Monday, 01 June 2020 07:13

Serial TV and the indignities of class: Snowpiercer, Normal People and Little Fires Everywhere

Dennis Broe looks at how our class-divided society is represented in three current series being streamed on TV

One of the effects of the coronavirus crisis is the accentuation of already exacerbated class differences. Yes, middle-class digital workers cheered largely working-class first responders from their windows, but that did not result in increased pay for these workers, performing the most dangerous tasks involving medical treatment and food supplies. Jeering from the sidelines, and the beneficiaries of the majority of government largesse, are the very wealthy who had often fled to their country mansions or summer homes and brought the disease with them.

Serial or streaming TV has highlighted these discrepancies in three current series. The most startling and most pronounced class gap is that which propels Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer, a series based on his 2015 film which is showing each week on in the US on TNT and globally on Netflix.

Class warfare in snowpiercer

The series is about a train which perpetually “orbits” the earth of the very near future, with all life outside the train frozen after a Trumpian attempt to “fix” global warming by firing nuclear rockets at the stratosphere backfired and froze the planet. The show first introduces us to the “tailies,” the ragtag rebels in the back cars of the train who rushed the train in order to make a place for themselves. They are called “unticketed passengers,” stressing their illegitimacy on a train that is run under the strict rules of capitalist class separation.

The tailies are bunched in groups and thrown scraps to eat, as opposed to the ultra-rich near the front of the train, who enjoy the finest dining from supply cars devoted to feeding them and catering to their every whim. The conception and organization of the train is supposedly the brainchild of “Mr. Wilford,” a shadowy Jeff Bezos/Elon Musk type character, a kind of Wizard of Oz with the strings not yet visible.

In the series the train is referred to as “a fortress to class” and the tailies recognize that conditions will only change “after The Revolution.” Plucked from the masses at the back of the train to investigate a murder in the front is a former police detective in dreads, Andre Layton (David Diggs from the Broadway show Hamilton). At first it seems the murder investigation will be a way of short-circuiting the class element and subsuming it under a more typical police procedural. But that does not happen. Andre discovers that the murder in the midst of the supposed “civilized” cars of the train involves cannibalism, a murder where body parts are sold for profit.

His “detecting” also has the dual role of investigating the running of the train and may eventually lead to a revolt. He watches the leaders of a tailie rebellion be frozen and bids them adieu with the phrase “God have mercy on your spark,” hoping eventually to reverse the cryogenic process and revive them to help him lead the rebellion. 

This direct portrayal of class antagonism is nothing new for Bong Joon-ho, now justly celebrated for his Oscar-winning laying bare of the sharp disparities in South Korean society in Parasite. Also along for the executive producer ride is Park Chan-wook, well known for the violent excesses of Old Boy and Lady Vengeance. He adds an element of sadism to the story, eg in treatment of the tailies who must pay for any rebellion by having their limbs exposed to the frozen air outside the train. Under Bong’s guidance however, this too plays as part of class violence and does not simply stand as gratuitous bloodletting.

While these sharp class contrasts are not unusual for South Korean cinema they are highly unusual for American television, even in the realm of science fiction, which being set in the future allows for a speculative element. Even the fantasy element though in Snowpiercer is mitigated by the fact that “the future” in this tale is 2021, stressing the imminent danger we are all in as the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, based on nuclear and climate change threats, now sets the Doomsday Clock at 100 seconds to midnight. It’s Bong’s stewardship which guides this train and keeps it on course rather than as on much American TV swerving off-course or derailing or getting sidetracked by the adrenaline rush of purely addictive effects. Predictably, many American critics dismissed the series as inconsequential.

The metaphor of the train circling the globe with sharp class partitions may seem like an aberration. But it is clearly being played out and accentuated during the coronavirus crisis in places like the Bronx, where in one twin-tower complex 100 renters at least have contracted the disease and where residents wait up to an hour to squeeze into poorly ventilated cars that frequently break down. This is the very image of the tailies. The Bronx – the city’s poorest borough – has the highest rate of infection, hospitalizations and death while Manhattan, the richest, has the lowest rates. How far are we from the head and tail of Snowpiercer?

Overcoming the Tragedy of Class: Normal People

The BBC and Hulu’s co-production of Normal People is based on Sally Rooney's eponymous novel, and is also co-written and executive produced by Rooney. The 12-episode series follows the initial formation of an Irish couple, Marianne Sheridan who lives in a country mansion, and Connell Waldron, who lives in rented social housing. The couple meet when Connell picks up his mother who cleans the Sheridan’s house, though their class difference is not directly acknowledged until several years (and episodes) later.

Rooney has a highly complex view of class. For her, the way that stark but unspoken class differences divide people is inhuman, and cause misery in society generally and between the couple. In their small town in Galway, the Gaelic football champion Connell is much admired, has a loving and wise working-class mother, and is seen as the ultimate bloke by his male peers. Marianne, on the other hand, is a loner who lets her contempt for her fellow students be known, and who sees herself as just passing through her hick high school until she can be with students from her own class at Trinity, the elite university she is destined for.

However, Connell is not the jock he is assumed to be. He is shy and sensitive, and he and Marianne bond and share a private sexual relationship that establishes their mutual need and respect for each other. Their loneliness is partly caused by their inability to relate to their own class. Marianne is emotionally abandoned by her careerist mother and abused by her useless but privileged brother, and Connell never fits with his blonde cheerleader-type girlfriend. This social awkwardness brings them together in a way that initially transcends their class differences, but then over the years, as we follow them both to Trinity, often causes their relationship to flounder because of these differences.

Connell and sMariannne in NP

The title of Normal People is in one sense ironic because both are not “normal” but are beset with anxieties related to their class position in their world. It also indicates that the tragic element of their relationship is “normal” in the sense of common or universal, because of the prevalence of class divisions in society. Marianne, devalued by her family, pursues relationships that exhibit her as worthless and which grow ever more violent and abusive in a way that critiques the bourgeois petty voyeurism of trash like Fifty Shades of Grey. Meanwhile, Connell deals with the anxiety of the working-class intellectual, honoured but also always on the outside of the elite institution and its attendees in which he nervously circulates.

American accounts of the series focused mainly on sex, partially as a way of ignoring the class elements. There is indeed an abundance of sex as Connell and Marianne fall in and out of bed while continuing to maintain their friendship – but the sex is never gratuitous, it's always revealing of the state of their emotional intimacy. This begins with the tender and affectionate presentation of their initial lovemaking, a refuge from class tensions, continues with their more mature sexual experimentation and concludes with an unsuccessful physical tryst which nevertheless results in Marianne realizing that her form of experimentation has become destructive and is linked to the violence in her middle-class family.

This is an intensely revealing and penetrating series on both personal and social issues, reminding us of what it was like to be young and when love cannot be separated from bodies intertwined. The series never loses its focus on the way actual human warmth and understanding is thwarted by class differences, though the mystique of Connell as working-class writer does often supplant considerations of Marianne’s own intellectual achievements. Normal People is also exactly the kind of series that can win a Golden Globe, BAFTA and/or an Emmy and will be a feature of an award season likely to be utterly dominated by streaming and serial TV.

Class as Race: Little Fires Everywhere

Cornell West’s dictum that “race is the way class is spoken in America” is the key to understanding Amazon Prime’s Little Fires Everywhere, about the relationship between a black, itinerant artist Mia (Kerry Washington) and her well-off white counterpart Elena (Reese Witherspoon). The series draws a sharp distinction between Shaker Heights, one of the richest districts in Ohio and in the country and nearby Cleveland, seen by the local high school principal as a poorly funded educational wasteland.

Little Fires is set in the 1990s, the Clinton years, when race was supposedly becoming invisible. It is at its best when it focuses on the ways that white privilege pervades and indeed defines a community that considers itself “progressive.” Thus, Elena’s daughter Lexie steals the story of Mia’s daughter Pearl’s being refused admittance to an upper level maths class partly because she is black. Lexie pilfers Mia’s experience in order to “round out” her application to Yale. Lexie, the spitting image of her mother, later appropriates Pearl’s identity to hide a far more embarrassing actual hardship she endures.

Mia Elena and White Privilege in Little Fires

The eight-part mini-series tells many subtle truths but flounders a bit in the backstory that crucially defines its two female antagonists. Elena’s choice to turn her back on her dream of becoming a journalist and instead find herself trapped as a mother of four is seen as tragic yet there is also a huge element of complicity in her embracing what she calls “the plan” of marriage and a family which also promises a well-off lifestyle. Mia’s backstory, as a talented but thwarted artist also defeated by a bizarre pregnancy, is simply too singular and odd and detracts from her own critique of the white privilege she finds herself constantly forced to confront.         

The series, in its “fair-minded” willingness to see all sides of class, race and gender conflicts is highly complex, but also itself falls victim to the Clinton-era regressive views of race and class differences as being transcended. In the series, the plurality and “fairness” of the telling thwart class critique. These perpetually unresolved race and class issues perpetually return, if not in the gilded bastion of Shaker Heights then in nearby Minnesota. Here, the Elena’s or Amy Klobachar’s of the world sanction white police violence, as Klobachar did as an attorney, by hiding behind a thin veil of reasonableness and a media characterization of themselves as “moderate.”

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