Dennis Broe

Dennis Broe

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

Crime in a Bi-Polar World: Good and Evil, Poor and Rich in the Globalized Economy
Saturday, 14 April 2018 20:32

Crime in a Bi-Polar World: Good and Evil, Poor and Rich in the Globalized Economy

Published in Fiction

Dennis Broe reports on the crime novelists' festival at Quais du Polar in Lyon, France.

This is Bro on the World Literary Beat and I’ve just come back from this year’s Quais du Polar in Lyon France, one of the world’s largest gathering of crime novelists – in France crime novels are called Polars. The hot topics this year included widening inequality, and crime novelists taking an interest in how much more sequestered the ultra-rich have become; the French rail strike, the last gasp of the unionized workers in France standing up to Macron’s anti-worker policies with the nationalized train corporation, the SNCF, one of the sponsors of the event. In Italy, the country focused on in the festival, the interplay between the global and local and the role of the state and organized crime; and the exploration in France of what are called ZAD’s Zones of Defense, environmental and social areas carved out by protestors, the most famous of which was invaded by the police a day after the panel concluded.

Crime novels and their cinematic equivalent – on the screen called the film noir – have often had a sympathy for the underdog and for working-class habits and ways of life. In the U.S. Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Cornell Woolrich took the detective novel out of hands of well-to-do British detectives, and by creating the hard-boiled novel brought a new realism and class consciousness to the genre.

DB Chester Himes images 1

They were then followed at the time of the growing popularity of the paperback by another generation of American writers including Jim Thompson, David Goodis and Chester Himes who were exceedingly critical of American society in the 1950s. An international panel at Quais du Polar, though, focused on crime writers’ explorations of a class not previously featured in the form – the super-rich, now sequestered in gated communities and rearing their youth as well in select schools that limit interaction with other classes.

quicksand

Malin Persson Giolito, a Swedish author has written a book Quicksand which attempts to come to grips with why one of these rich teens goes amuck in her high school. Colin Harrison from the U.S., whose most famous book is Manhattan Nocturne, talked about the class geography of Manhattan and his experience of being at a gathering of the ultrarich for a wedding on Long Island, which also involved Black and Latino youth from the Bronx parking the cars of the invitees as part of an unequal way in which the two worlds interact.

Finally Gianni Biondiollo, from a working class background in Milan, discussed a book he has written about murder on the catwalk involving the fashion industry in that city called The Charm of the Siren. Biondiollo explained that he became a kind of sociologist to study the closed and wealthy world of Milan’s fashion industry. This involved a leap of imagination also since he is colourblind. Biondiollo and the Scottish author Ian Rankin with his eponymous Inspector Rebus both come from, as did many of the writers at the conference, working-class backgrounds, and their police detective characters exhibit that perspective but both also point to the way the now more bourgeois aspect of the form of the detective novel itself pigeonholes and tames working class perspectives by interpolating them under the sign of the police.

A subject that came up in several panels was the current strike of the cheminots, the railway workers, trying to protect their salaries and to protect the railway system from being privatized. This is perhaps the last great strike by what is left of France’s unions. Its most powerful sector at the moment is the public sector and it is the railway workers who led the other unions in winning a prolonged strike in 1995 that kept the French government from cutting back social welfare. The railway itself, the SNCF, was one of the sponsors of the conference and in a panel on the movement of 1968 titled Under the Pavement, the Polar, recalling the famous phrase from that moment, Under the Pavement, the Beach, there were mentions of support by two authors for the strikers which were widely cheered from the audience.

the lorraine connection

Dominique Menotti, who in her other life is a professor of economic history, writes mysteries about the current economic climate including The Lorraine Connection about murder and strikes in an electronics firm. She spoke about May 1968 and how the ripples of the movement shook French society until being extinguished in 1983 and 1984 under the so called socialist Francois Mitterand.

Her fellow author Serge Quadrappani, a translator and noir novelist whose mysteries are often set in Italy chimed in that the spirit of 1968 in Italy ended for him with the death of the film director Pier Paolo Pasolini on a beach just outside Rome. Pasolini, he claimed. was killed by the Italian police who had always regarded him as a troublemaker. Needless to see this speculation never made it into Abel Ferrara’s uneventful detailing of the director’s last day titled Pasolini.

That the support of these novelists for the strikers was greeted with warmth by the audience goes along with the fact that since the strikes began more of the French population has come out in favour of them, 42 percent in favor before and 47 percent after, despite the fact that many of the population will be driving or taking buses, because the strikes are two out of every five days and will last three months. This is so far the best organized protest against the Macron government’s picking off the working force issue by issue and sector by sector.

Night of the Panthers

In Italy noir novels, polars, are very regional and each region has its own well-known author. The dean though of Italian noir, Massimo Carlotto, whose The Last Good Kiss is a veiled swipe at the Berlusconi era, did not come but did send his protégé Piergiorgio Pulixi whose Night of the Panther tracks drugs, the government and the mafia in the Northeast Veneto region, just outside Venice.

Carlotto has founded his own line of novels called Sabat/age which is designed to highlight through various authors working in various regions the ongoing relationship between organized crime and the state. The line itself in its continuing to deal with the political economy of crime is a kind of resistance in the noir novel to the main Anglo-Saxon emphasis at the moment on what is called “the domestic noir” best exemplified by Paula Hawkins Girl on the Train and which purports to bring a more female and psychological dimension to the genre, but which also tends to evacuate the social aspects.

As for the regions, Mimmo Gangemi, chronicler of the Southern region of Calabria at the tip of the Italian boot in his series titled The Little Judge, pleaded for the region to be seen as something other than just the home of the ‘Ndrangheta, the family centered mob. Gangemi also disputed the claims that the ‘Ndrangheta had become internationalized – but this denial was belied by a film shown at the conference Anima Nere, Black Souls. It opened with a family from the shepherding village of Aspromonte now involved in drug-running in Milan and very much internationalizing.

Maurizio di Giovanni talked about the food, sights and odors of Naples as seen through his detective Commisario Ricciardi who operates in the fascist period under Mussolini and works sometimes intuitively through the smells of the dead while Valerio Varesi whose River of Shadows is about the now largely de-industrialized Po Valley, the former center of working-class activity and who has been compared to the American Crime Writer whose subject is Louisiana James Lee Burke, cautioned and argued ominously that through the internet and globalization the Italian regions were becoming much more homogenized.

My ZAD

Finally, some French authors of crime fiction have taken to chronicling the phenomenon of what are called ZADs, Zones of Defense, people’s resistance sites organized around environmental and social issues where all kinds of counter-organizations sprout, similar to but more enduring than Zucotti Park in the Occupy Movement.

The ZAD to stop the building of the airport at Notre Dame des Landes this year was successful and the state has called off the environmentally intrusive construction. The occupiers wanted to stay on the territory and continue to develop it as an alternate site but the day after the conference the state began clearing them with tear gas and stun grenades.

Jean Bernard Pouy’s My ZAD in fact begins with just such a scene and was inspired by the resistance site organized to protest the building of a dam at Sivins in the Garonne section of Southern France. The other famous ZAD, now utterly and brutally cleared is the refugee camp at Calais. Pouy, an inveterate noir writer and anarchist explores the coming back from the dead of a 40-something Zadiste who, fired from his job and beaten, rallies to contest local corporate power proving that the social and political polar is not only alive and well but also vibrantly topical.

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

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

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

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

DB netflix graph

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

DB not broken

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

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

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

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

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

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

DB 6 bread riots

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

DB 5 marie antionette

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

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

 

                                     

                         

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

Framing the Russian Revolution

Published in Cultural Commentary

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

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

DB Cult Leader Vladimir Lenin

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

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

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

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

RR The Defence of Petrograd Alexander Deineka 1928

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

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

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

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

DB SovietWoman1920

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DB Tatlins Tower

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

DB Rodchenkos lunchroom

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

DB Kuleshovs By The Law

Lev Kuleshov's By the Law

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

DB Feodor Osteps The Yellow Ticket

Feodor Osteps, The Yellow Ticket

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

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

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

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

Framing the Russian Revolution

Published in 1917 Centenary

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

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

DB Cult Leader Vladimir Lenin

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

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

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

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

RR The Defence of Petrograd Alexander Deineka 1928

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

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

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

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

DB SovietWoman1920

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DB Tatlins Tower

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

DB Rodchenkos lunchroom

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

DB Kuleshovs By The Law

Lev Kuleshov's By the Law

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

DB Feodor Osteps The Yellow Ticket

Feodor Osteps, The Yellow Ticket

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

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

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

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

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

Published in Visual Arts

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

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

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

DBroe nantes

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

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

DBroe nantes elephant images

 

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

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

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

DBroe nantes museum

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

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

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

DB memorial

 

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

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

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

Horror, horror everywhere - and not just the election result

Published in Films

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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