Dennis Broe

Dennis Broe

Dennis Broe is a television, film and culture critic whose latest works are Birth of the Binge: Serial TV and The End of Leisure and the detective novel Left of Eden. He taught in the Master’s Programme in Film and Television Studies at the Sorbonne. His criticism appears in the Morning Star, on Arts Express on the Pacifica Network in the US, on Breaking Glass on Art District Radio in Paris, People’s World,​ and Crime Time. He is an Associate Editor of Culture Matters.

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.”

Gangs that rob and run banks, Spanish TV and Netflix
Monday, 25 May 2020 09:02

Gangs that rob and run banks, Spanish TV and Netflix

Dennis Broe continues the series on streaming TV with a critical look at Money Heist, and the machinations of Netflix 

The fourth season of Alex Pina’s Money Heist was released on Netflix last month, and his new show White Lines premiered on the same service in May. There is a world of difference between the splendour of Money Heist and the misery of White Lines, which points to possible problems with the streaming service, whose European headquarters is now just outside Madrid.

First, let's look at the genius of Money Heist, a series that was more appropriately titled, in its Spanish TV release, La Casa de Papel (House of Paper), recalling Marx’s characterization of capitalism as a house of cards. Netflix purchased the first season of the series and cut it into two seasons. Spanish TV shows average 70 minutes, but Netflix felt that was too much of a challenge for Anglo-American and global audiences, who are more used to shows of 45 minutes.

The first season took off, watched in 44 million households, the top ratings hit on the service for a show whose language is not English. The series was by far the most popular last year in Western Europe (France, Spain, Italy, Great Britain) and one of the most popular in the world. Netflix then signed its creator Alex Pina to an exclusive deal, and poured money into what is effectively Season Two of the series.

There is what might be called an allegory of production in this new season. Just as the producers are now more flush with money, so are the characters, having pulled off a successful heist in season one. They release 140 million euros to the Spanish populace, in a huge crowd scene, dumping it from zeppelins like modern day Robin Hoods, and use the funds to secure themselves supporters as well as access to the Bank of Spain to save a member of their band.

Why the phenomenal success of the show? The best way to answer that is to think about two major changes the show makes to the heist film, its master genre. Thieves in this long and honorable genre are often enclaves of marginalized or working-class gangs formed to steal money from an impregnable fortress (The Asphalt Jungle, Rififi, The Lavender Hill Mob).  

La Casa de Papel, on the other hand, has the gang breaking into the national mint, not to steal money, but to print money – just as the European Central Bank printed money in the wake of the financial collapse in 2007-2008 and the European sovereign debt crisis. Only the ECB money went to bail out banks and corporations, or to further indebt governments who then had to cut social services to pay the original loan. This austerity treatment was particularly acute in Spain, La Casa de Papel’s home country.

In contrast, Season One of Money Heist was about printing money for the people, in this case a ragtag underclass gang of thieves. So the show’s support across European countries ravaged with debt and victims of austerity, while watching corporate and financial power increase through quantitative easing or money printing, was clearly a vote for using the state’s power to print for the benefit of all, instead of for the wealth of a few.

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The importance of addressing this inequality is stressed in key moments near the end of the first season. The Professor, the gang leader, has been courting Murillo, the cop who is pursuing him. When she finds out he is the gang leader she is furious at his betrayal. But after he explains what the ECB has been doing in terms of rescuing the financial elite and leaving everyone else in the lurch, she changes and becomes his ally and his lover for real. Later, a male colleague, who loves her – as in Spanish film director Pedro Almodovar’s films, there are many conflicting circuits of desire in the series – is about to turn her in when she tells him that it is not clear in this situation who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. Because of that revelation, and his love for her, he lets her go free.  

Season Two has the gang breaking into the Spanish National Bank and tapping the state’s gold reserves, melting them down and mixing them with trinkets. With the global loss of confidence in the US dollar, heightened by the weakness of the Trump administration, many nations, led by Russia and China, are starting to sell off their dollar reserves and convert them to gold. But again, the national treasury either hordes the precious metal or uses it to boost the finance industry with little benefit to its citizens.

The gang’s attempt to melt down and then spread the gold – using, as Murillo explains, furnaces purchased from Germany, one of Spain’s austerity torturers – is another effort to address the general redistribution of wealth upwards by the state. This demand was understood by the Spanish state which refused to allow shooting anywhere near the actual bank. Both seasons then present a wish fulfillment that is also the mark of a demand for equality.

The second major change to the heist film is the intention of the undertaking in Season Two, not only to break into the bank and secure the gold, but to retrieve their captured comrade Rio, taken and tortured by the Spanish police and intelligence service. The Professor explains to the gang that they will always be hunted and may be picked off at any moment. His aim is to reverse the way the country thinks about them and instead call attention to the repressive aspects of a state which also furthers inequality. In other words, to tell a different tale about who are the good guys and who the bad guys, so that the gang will no longer be thought of as criminals but rather as justified redistributors of wealth.                           

Previously, most heist films ended with the gang either dead or dispersed (Asphalt Jungle) or in handcuffs (The Lavender Hill Mob), though in more modern and especially in African-American female-centered examples of the genre, either one member of the gang (Set It Off) or several (Widows) do escape and are able to use the money. The professor’s goal of shifting public opinion to exonerate the thieves and concentrate on the actual thieves in the government radically alters the contours of the genre.

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Outside the bank are throngs of red-suited protestors wearing the gang’s Dali masks, which recall the equally anarchic V for Vendetta Guy Fawkes masks. The scene is also reminiscent of the Madrid Plaza del Sol anti-austerity movement, the Indignados (meaning indigent or destitute), which gave rise to Podemos, now one of the parties in power in Spain.

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Perhaps the sentiment behind the series is an attempt to link it with older currents of Spanish anarchism. This sentiment references the contemporary Spanish film, also on Netflix, Gun City, set at the height of the anarchist movement in Barcelona in the 1920s. The state in Casa de Papel Season Two is exposed as an unlawful entity, with links to Francoist fascism, that kidnaps, tortures and holds prisoners without charging them. Rio recounts the torture methods, including being buried alive, on a Times Square-type Jumbotron that is broadcast across the world and counters positive depictions of kidnapping and torture in American series such as 24, and more subtly in Homeland.

The global multitude

There is also an attempt in Season Two to evoke a global “multitude” as Michael Hardt and Toni Negri describe world collectivity. In a prescient anticipation of Corona culture, Tokyo – the gang adopts city names in a nod to Tarantino’s color names in Reservoir Dogs – attempts an operation on a wounded member with remote help from a doctor in the gang’s computer center in Pakistan. Equally, the final gambit of the season, a sort of fairy tale Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, depends on the efficiency and solidarity of miners from Asturias.

The counter to the rigidity of the police state in the series is the desire of the gang, which often overflows boundaries and leads to entanglements, but as in Almodovar’s films is also seen as a source of their power. Two moments in particular are worth pointing out, both involving music.

In Season One, the appropriately named Moscow, as he is digging a tunnel to get out of the mint, sings “Bella Ciao,” a song which is refrained multiple times in the series and was an anti-fascist rallying cry in the “Red Zone” in Northern Italy, as workers and peasants battled the Nazis.

The second, among many, moments of desire is Berlin’s rendition of the Cuban song “Guantanamera”. Berlin martyrs himself in Season One but returns in flashback in Season Two as more pure object of desire, and less macho and sadistic. In terms of his life on the series, as Shakespeare says, “nothing becomes him quite like the leaving of it.”

He dances with himself and sings this Cuban folk song about a peasant girl from Guantanamo – as we cut to the working-class woman Nairobi inside the bank vault, who tries on the gold ingots as earrings.

It’s as close as television comes to what Kant called the sublime, those most beautiful moments of nature. The scene recalls similar musical sequences in the cinema such as Scorsese’s pool shark running the table to the accompaniment of “Werewolves of London” in The Color of Money. Or Spike Lee’s transcendent club dance scene scored to “Too Late to Turn Back Now”, celebrating the enduring spirit of the collectivity of Black Power, in BlackKkKlansman. Berlin’s plaintive voice and elegant dance, illustrated by Nairobi’s appropriation of the gold ingots, is the equal to both.

Alex Pina, Netflix, and Spanish TV Production   

After Season One of Casa de Papel, Alex Pina signed an exclusive deal with Netflix. The results so far are mixed and point to some potential problems. Season Two started off well, but then at the midpoint began to stretch out and focus not on the gang’s duel with the repressive apparatus of the state, but on internal enemies and foes within the bank. This stretching out results in the necessity, driven more by commercial than narrative considerations, for a Season Three, but also leaves audiences feeling that the promise of the second season was not fulfilled in that season.

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Alex Pina’s next project for Netflix was the just-released White Lines, an Ibiza sexfest that does recall the go-go years of the island when it was one of the European club and techno capitals. The story of the uncovering of a murder that happened twenty years ago allows the series to frequently flash back to this golden era.

However, the show has little to recommend it. It’s been called a “trashy beach novel” and what a falling-off is this from the heights of the pre-Netflix Season One of Casa de Papel. It seems more like a knockoff to fulfill a contract obligation than a series. In Britain after World War II Hollywood had to produce “quota quickies”, to allow import of their “A” material. Those films though did feature some stunning film noirs, unlike this quota quickie which if you subtract the sex and drugs isn’t even a cabana on the Ibiza beach – more like a wet towel.

Pina’s next project, before Netflix Seasons Five and Six of Money Heist, sounds like it is back on track. Titled Sky Rojo (Red Sky), it involves three sex workers from Cuba, Argentina and Spain fleeing both their pimp and the police. 

Netflix has bet heavily on Spanish film and television, most likely after the European and global success of Money Heist, having set up their European headquarters in Tres Cantos, near Madrid. All Spanish film and television production has been suspended since mid-March due to the coronavirus crisis. The streaming service, as part of a 100-million-dollar global fund, has supported the cast and crew of its Spanish productions and Spanish film and television in general.

The question though is this. Is this a pure gift, or is it also a way of Netflix further insinuating itself into the Spanish film and television landscape at a time when its films and series could have taken off globally without Netflix? The more essential the American streaming services become to the functioning of local film and television industries, the greater the chance of those industries losing their autonomy – which suits the monopolistic tendencies of transnational capitalist media corporations like Netflix.

Canadian TV series, Quibi, surveillance capitalism and mental junk food
Monday, 18 May 2020 11:15

Canadian TV series, Quibi, surveillance capitalism and mental junk food

Dennis Broe continues his series, looking at how Cardinal inverts the usual cliched story of individual serial killers to suggest the shared gult of capitalists; how Tribal suggests bias against First Nations people in the justice system in Canada; and points to the links between the new Quibi Turnstyle format and surveillance capitalism. Image above from Tribal

In the spotlight this week is Canadian television, as two series with exceptionally interesting seasons have just concluded. Cardinal, on the private network CTV follows an Anglo male and a French/Quebecois/female detective team investigating serial killings in the frozen mythical hamlet of Algonquin Bay, in northern Ontario. The show has just wrapped after its fourth season, by far its most interesting, especially the stunning twist on the trite cliché of the individual serial killer.

The second series is Tribal, a pairing of a female Native Canadian chief, also a detective, with a seasoned and at first cynical and racist male colleague, who slowly reacts against the predominant mood on the local Alberta police force and respect his partner’s culture. Tribal, which boasts actors known to U.S. and global TV audiences – Jessica Matten from the CBC and U.S. CW series Burden of Truth and Brian Markenson a veteran of Mad Men and many Canadian series including the too-quickly cancelled The Romeo Section – is the second major series from APTN, the Aboriginal People’s TV Network. APTN programing consists of North American indigenous news and series, spotlighting Northern Canadian regions, while also linking to other indigenous peoples around the world, particularly in Australia and New Zealand.

Cardinal

The detective pairing in Cardinal, the lead detective John Cardinal played by Billy Campbell from The Killing and his partner Lise Delorme (Karine Vanasse from the ABC series Revenge), is a cagey way of producing a show that plays to both Anglo Canada on CTV and French Canada on the channel Super Ecran, both owned by the same company. Lise’s Frenchness is not much remarked upon on the series and the final season, which concentrated on her reactions to the case, is the exception as her tenaciousness and compassion is usually outshined by Cardinal’s obsession, just as French Quebec is subordinated to the Anglo majority in Canada.

The series, available on BBC4 and Hulu, is based on the award-winning novels of Giles Blunt, with each season featuring a serial killer who Cardinal is obsessed with tracking. The small town of Algonquin Bay has more murders per capita than possibly any town in the world, except those in Iceland where its mystery writers have collectively killed off a high percentage of the population in a country where in reality there are hardly any murders.

The first three seasons are mainly interesting for the relations between the two leads, with Cardinal moving in the course of the show from darkly obsessed to willing to acknowledge in the fourth season, at the urging of his daughter, that he has feelings for his intrepid partner Lise. The murder element in the first three seasons is a sort of highly sadistic torturing of both the Algonquin Bay residents and the audience, as the detectives pursue ever more perverse, and ever less socially connected and defined, killers.       

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But something different happens in season four and, as in the Icelandic series The Valhalla Murders, the narrow serial killer motif begins to widen. The inciting incident in the killer’s revenge trajectory involves the greed of the supposedly morally upright victims, who participate in a scheme to rid the forests of its birds and make it available for logging. The killer’s calling card is a feather, to remind his victims of their part in this tragedy. So the guilt in this last season rests not with a socially isolated loner but with the greed that is constantly engulfing Canada’s frozen north, where the rush to strip the land of its minerals and its forests gained such momentum under the reign of the conservative Stephen Harper. The background of the serial killer is linked to the larger issues of environmental exploitation for profit, and the perpetrators are not only the isolated individual but a group of capitalists and their henchmen. It’s a vast improvement on the possibilities of a tired narrative tradition in the crime field.

Tribal, available on Blu-ray and DVD from Netflix and Amazon, tracks the efforts of the local Calgary police to integrate the tribal police force into their ranks. The experiment is merely a public relations gambit to make it seem that the era of colonization is over but it gathers steam as the local chief, Samantha Woodburn, slowly convinces her ageing, world weary and broken partner, “Buke” Bukosky, that her First Nation’s ways have meaning and value.

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Near the end of the first season’s eight episodes, the series hits its stride. Buke rises to the defence of his colleague as the Calgary police commissioner wants to cancel the project. In the highlight of season one, a now-corrupt Native former lead officer delivers a monologue about the unequal and unfair nature of justice as it is meted out to First Nations people by the state through the local police force. Samantha attempts to prove him innocent of a police frame-up, and the guilty finger slowly starts to point toward the racist Anglo police force itself.

This is the second series by showrunner Ron E. Scott, who also created Blackstone about reservation lives and struggles and which ran for five seasons on APTN. Tribal is a flagship show designed, with its crossover pairing of an Anglo and Native cop, to promote the network, partially funded by the Canadian government, and allow it to expand its work of countering the neglect and devaluing of the Northern indigenous peoples as an excuse and rationale to pilfer their resources.

Quibbling With Quibi (Part II)

This week we will look at Quibi form and content. The service is exclusively available and designed for mobile phones. It uses what it calls Turnstyle video technology, allowing the shows to be viewed in either horizontal (landscape) form which makes it more like a traditional though tiny screen, or vertical form where presumably one could also run other applications underneath while watching the series. The service attempts to turn the limitations of mobile phone viewing into gimmicky bonuses so that, for example, the upcoming Steven Spielberg Horror series After Dark can only be viewed at night. Of course this also makes apparent the way that viewers are being monitored since their phones can only activate the show in the evening.

Martin Scorsese’s comments on the era of the superhero film in the age of streaming apply here. He called these films, produced by Katzenberg’s former studio Disney, “theme parks” rather than “the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional psychological experience.” Quibi “series” on the other hand are just single rides, reduced, in their 7 to max 10-minute form, to the ride alone. No buying tickets, no getting in line, no anticipation, just the ride, with almost nothing to show for it when the ride is over.

The other “innovation” in the short form consists in possibly undercutting industry labour contracts which have not caught up with this new technology, and paying reduced rates for workers employed on Quibi’s “entertainment bites” as opposed to longer-form series. There is a possibility that this loophole is what allowed the service to launch and produce so many series so rapidly. As Shoshana Zuboff says, these new forms of surveillance capitalism partly rely on outwitting regulation by moving so rapidly they cannot be evaluated and countered. She adds that…“In the absence of a clear-minded appreciation of this new logic of accumulation, every attempt at understanding, predicting, regulating, or prohibiting the activities of surveillance capitalists will fall short.”

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As for the series themselves it is important to emphasize that the high-end flagship dramatic series constitute very little of the total Quibi content which is primarily what it calls “news” and features as well as short form documentaries. One of Quibi’s “innovations” is raising the status of social media “influencers” so that their shows appear alongside recognized industry names. Prominent among these is The Rachel Hollis Show where the host dispenses pithy advice to young mothers in the nature of “it’s not the quantity of the time you spend with your kids, it’s the quality.” Says Hollis, “As an influencer, what everyone dreams about, literally, is being an early adopter…the first person to step into the space.”

Hollis is the perfect Quibi representative, someone who values getting there first over making any positive social contribution and whose dream life, her interior psyche, is given over to nothing but visions of her own empty success. She is to the post-natal field what Trump is to politics.

As for the dramatic series, there is a possibility that the form could be valuable. The 20-minute podcast from which the Amazon series Homecoming was adapted made for very tightly constructed half-hour episodes of that series, enhancing its critique of the corporate over human values of the pharmaceutical industry. For the most part that does not happen with the purely “entertainment” preoccupation of founder Jeffrey Katzenberg’s Disney-Dreamworks imprint on Quibi.

So, in the remake of The Most Dangerous Game with The Hunger Game’s Liam Hemsworth, a Detroit down-and-out denizen of a decaying city willing to sell his soul to get the money for his wife’s cancer treatment to corporate exec Christopher Waltz (Inglourious Basterds), who is sheltered in a gleaming tower, has some resonance with the contemporary situation. However, a more daring casting with an African-American actor in the lead might have resounded at the moment, because of the Georgia hunting and killing by an ex-investigator of the black jogger Aumaud Arbery. It might have highlighted the way this kind of hunting of African-American men not only persists in the U.S. but is rationalized by the system, as the murderers in Georgia were only arrested two months after in the wake of a national public outcry. But this kind of radical envisioning of deep-seated racism, which is the subject of the film Get Out, might have upset the mindless entertainment formula that in the end may doom Quibi to irrelevance.

Flipped, where two disgruntled workers decide to create their own Home Fixer Upper show is simply Quibi nodding in its fictional series to the mindless decider and influencer mentality that it is also promoting in its non-fiction entries.

Sam Raimi’s 50 States of Fright in some ways shows the real limitations of the form. The first series of horror episodes, which will highlight all 50 U.S. states, takes place in Michigan and incorporates elements of Raimi’s own A Simple Plan, in this case centering around greed for gold with the more traditionally spooky elements of his Evil Dead. The problem is that once you figure out what the horror payoff is for each episode, even an eight-minute episode begins to feel about two-and-a-half minutes too long. Quibi may become the victim of its own abbreviated form – since there really is little development, the audience may wander. Meanwhile Quibi will have done its job of further destroying our capacity for empathy, reflection and commitment.

The best of the opening round of Quibi series is the teen murder mystery When the Streetlights Go On, which, given the dark nature of its subject matter which concerns teen murders, really would have been much better titled When the Streetlights Go Off, and which features but does not star Queen Latifah. The mystery is compelling and the total length of the ten episodes clocks it at about the length of a film. Here the problem is the lack of depth in each episode, which must climax and then restart. This retards any actual character development because of the addictive imperative of forcing the viewer to the next episode.

Lockdown is being relaxed and workers are starting to come out of their homes. For many, this will involve leaving their homes to face unsafe working conditions and governments which do too little in the way of testing and screening. Is Quibi to be their only solace on the trip to and from their first, second, even third jobs? The lasting contribution of this service may be to convince more and more workers that they want more from the limited leisure time that is offered them than “quick bites” which are really just mental junk food.

Home Before Dark and Quibi
Wednesday, 13 May 2020 08:11

Home Before Dark and Quibi

Dennis Broe continues his series with a look at Home Before Dark and Quibi

It's the first masterful series from Apple TV+, after a horrible slip out of the gate with the clumsy, awkward The Morning Show. Home Before Dark details the efforts of a nine-year-old reporter to get to the bottom of a disappearance and supposed murder that has wracked a small town in the state of Washington. While The Morning Show glamorizes mainstream media, by supposedly reveling in its foibles, Home Before Dark is an actual critical series that exposes, though its youthful truth seeker, the inner workings of a small town ruled by aging male public officials who conceal and bury the truth.

The key to the series, which has several well-defined and extremely differentiated characters, is the intrepid reporter Hilde Lisko, based on an actual pre-teen journalist. The real-life journalist, also named Hilde, covers the crime beat, but the series improves on reality by altering this trajectory so that what the fictional Hilde focuses on is broader than crime reporting. Her interest is investigative journalism, and her heroes come from All The President's Men.

Her single-minded pursuit of the truth gets her to the bottom of a long buried crime which had resulted in the ostracizing of a Native American (Yakama) brother and sister. The brother, she discovers, had been falsely convicted of the disappearance of a young boy. The sheriff, the mayor and the sheriff's son all have secrets around the disappearance which they guard jealously.

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Hilde and her allies

Hilde also assembles a team to help in her investigation. There are her two classmates, an Asian girl and an African-American boy, Spoon and Donny. Donny is particularly well fleshed-out as a worldwise nine-year-old investigative entrepreneur. Her other allies include the independent African-American female deputy, Trip, the lone truth seeker in the sheriff's office, as well as Hilde's lawyer mother, who comes to the aid of the jailed Native American Sam. The villains are equally well drawn: The smug sheriff who constantly covers up his initial rush to judgment, the alcoholic mayor who may have beat his son, the missing boy Richie, and the sheriff's son, Frank, caught up in the lies of his father which have imprisoned him as well.

What the series does is assemble a group of outsiders who challenge the (white, male) power structure in the town and succeed. It's a Me-Too fairy tale where diversity triumphs. The enterprise is led by the stunning performance of Brooklynn Prince, its stalwart heroine.

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Teen romance in 'Blue Velvet'

The show tells some truths as well about what this new generation is facing. It has the structure of the John Hughes teen films of the 1980s, with its assembling of a Scooby-Doo gang, its focus on the romance of the adolescent older sister Izzy, and its food fight at school in the midst of which Hilde's group is assembled. However, this is a darker time than the '80s, so the 'teens' here are nine-year-olds, that is, exposed to murder, corruption and cover-ups much earlier than in the '80s, when neoliberalism was just starting to take hold. In these more perilous times, the confluence of greed and corruption is an essential part of what kids must confront in growing up. The darker mood is echoed and announced in the soundtrack, with refrains from Blue Velvet, itself partially a young adult and teen film which describes a far more guilty world than the films of the early '80s.

Home Before Dark also features generational differences in technology with its focus on the social media expertise of its pre-teen characters so that, for example, Hilde's paper is online while her father's was printed. The young entrepreneur Donny notes about their foes, 'My intel tells me they are smart and savvy,' and Hilde must explain to her grade-school colleagues what in the world microfiche is. Here, though, unlike Netflix's Stranger Things, the technology gap is seen as something to be overcome in their exposure of the truth, not as mere nostalgia.

The only false note in the series is the character of Hilde's father. Her sister Izzy, in a stunning moment, accuses Hilde of 'sucking the wind out of' everyone around her, as the sister, another well-draw character, feels stifled in a family with a star reporter. In the same way, Jim Sturgess's constant mumblecore Marlon Brando as Matt Lisko, a relocated Brooklyn slacker, is a solitary piece of ham acting that attempts to suck the wind out of what is an otherwise stunning ensemble cast. His digressions and constant illogical reversals often bring the show to a halt. Perhaps this is the problem of a group of actors, relatively less known, and a single actor, with more of a reputation (Cloud Atlas, Across the Universe), who attempts to monopolize the show and as such puts his own patriarchal imprint on it.

But this drawback does not succeed in sinking or even deterring the forward motion of the show. Hilde and her expert crew of diverse truth seekers expose and triumph over the decaying debris of a white male power structure which attempts to hang on at all costs and stands in the way of progressive change.

Quibbling Over Quibi (Part 1)

Quibi, which stands for Quick Bites – bursts of entertainment of less than 10 minutes, designed for mobile phone use on the go – launched in the US in early April in the midst of the lockdown.

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Quick Bites

This is no fly-by-the-seat-of-its-pants startup enterprise. The service collected $1.75 billion in funding from not only all the major Hollywood studios (Disney, NBC Universal, Sony, Warner, Liberty, CBS Viacom) but also the tech industry (Google and Alibaba), chemical industry (Proctor and Gamble) and major retail (Walmart).   

The head of this new streaming service, which like the others takes on the appearance of a major studio, is Jeffrey Katzenberg, former chair of Disney and then co-founder and CEO of DreamWorks. Katzenberg’s stamp is that of ‘pure’ entertainment. At Disney his reign produced The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, The Lion King and at DreamWorks, a Spielberg-Disney conglomerate, he oversaw Shrek, Kung Fu Panda and Monsters vs. Aliens. These were noxious and sometimes obnoxious (Shrek) overly media-savvy and saturated American fairy tales with little real progressive or social content, or diluted or muted to a general weak liberal line.

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Quibi’s stars 

The programming on Quibi follows the Katzenberg line, highly star oriented – with Jennifer Lopez, Queen Latifah, LeBron James, Steph Curry, Guillermo del Toro, Sam Raimi, Will Arnett – flashy, instantly grabbing but with little value other than diversion. Tales told, not by idiots but by highly skilled entertainers yet still ‘signifying nothing’ except to grab and hold the audience for the required 7 to 10 minutes. The high end is scripted series, but the majority of content is the much-cheaper-to produce second and third tier documentaries and ‘news’ features, headlined in some cases by social media ‘influencers,’ that is online product pluggers who have fashioned themselves into savvy consumer promoters, just when consumption under lockdown is taking a dive as people instead struggle with how to pay the rent and feed their families.

Quibi though is not just a studio, reviving the worst aspects of cable (a flagship dramatic series with the rest of the programming reruns) and “reality TV,” it is also a digital conglomerate and as such is a participant in all aspects of the surveillance economy. Its most startling innovation is that it is only available on mobile phones and designed to fill in the short gaps in workers’ lives as they scurry to their suddenly more dangerous jobs. At the moment, because of the amount of work being done at home, this “innovation” may have lost some of its potential to attract, though the app was downloaded 1.7 million times in the first week after its launch.

Katzenberg says Quibi is ‘the best of Hollywood and the best of Silicon Valley’ but it’s also the worst of each. The company earns revenue through ads and offers a cheaper monthly subscription rate for no ads and at its launch it had already secured a year’s worth of advertising time. Quibi will also harness viewer information both for its own programming purposes like Netflix – it asks your age when you subscribe – and in addition it may also sell the data to advertisers. Indeed, it has already been accused of ‘leaking’ email addresses to Google, Facebook and Twitter, companies adept at harnessing participant data for commercial surveillance. The Quibi come-on was a message saying ‘A whole world of quick bite entertainment awaits you. Please take a moment to confirm your email to better secure your account.’ It’s through gimmicks like this, as one media analyst put it, that companies are able to create such an all-encompassing profile.’

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Digital Conniving in Chris Hegedus’ and D.A. Pennebaker’s Start Up 

Quibi is also designed to take advantage of the coming 5G faster download speeds for mobile phones and as such may also raise rates for mobile subscribers as well as pushing the extensive development of the network of 5G towers, which may have an environmental safety factor involved. In addition, harking back to the 2001 film Start Up about a tech company whose idea is stolen before it goes to market by a rival who visits the company and views their interface, Quibi was accused of stealing video technology demo-ed for Katzenberg and other Quibi employees.

This is the underside of the smarmy ‘pure’ entertainment ethos of the Disney/DreamWorks American dream. The intense competition that pits all against all and leads to an endgame of big fish eating little fish, with the blood from the kill polluting the media waters.

ZeroZeroZero and the Global Drug Trade / #BlackAF and Black Affluence
Tuesday, 05 May 2020 13:30

ZeroZeroZero and the Global Drug Trade / #BlackAF and Black Affluence

Dennis Broe continues his series with a look at ZeroZeroZero and the Global Drug Trade, and #BlackAF and Black Affluence Image: Zero, Zero, Zero: Mexican Police in the global drug trade

ZeroZeroZero, a Sky, Canal + and Amazon series based on the Roberto (Gomorrah) Saviano book, has two things on its mind. The first is one of Saviano’s major points – that the global drug trade and particularly cocaine now underpins much of the world’s economy. There are three locations and groups in the series. The Mexican drug lords harvest the drugs. An American “respectable” family from New Orleans transports the shipment and a clan of the ’Ndrengheta, the Calabrian mafia, distributes it.

The second point is made by the Gabriel Byrne character, who acknowledges that his shipping enterprise is only profitable because it is a front for transporting cocaine. The series in its eight episodes tracks the containers as they are loaded in Mexico, diverted to Africa where in order to avoid customs they wind their way through Dakar in Senegal, Jihadists in Mali—who explain that they are at war because they have been disenfranchised by the French—and Morocco, a “civilized” country where bribery finally secures the shipment reaching the toe of Italy.

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The global drug trade has a major influence on the world’s economy. Saviano points out in the book that in Columbia both the leftist guerillas, the FARC, and the right-wing death squads, the AUC, partially fund themselves through the cocaine trade, a staple of the economy as a whole. This sheds new light on why, for example, supposedly “normal” or “democratic” right-wing governments like the present Duque regime have gone out of their way to sabotage peace talks which might result in a drying-up of the trade on both sides.  

Saviano also points out that after 2008, in the world’s banks liquidity became a problem with the banks’ money drying up.  To the rescue, especially in New York and London, came laundered mob drug money, from Russia and Latin America. These funds rescued the banks and helped restore their depositors’ money which had been lost through speculation, and so saved the global financial system.  

The second point in tracing the shipment, which is itself the lead “character” in the series, is that wherever the cocaine trade goes, violence and corruption result. In Mexico, the police muscle their way into the trade, fashioning an army of street drug vendors to form an armed militia to take on the existing drug lords. The American brother and sister, trained by their father, are adept at sprinkling money all along the journey to bribe as many public officials as possible.

The ’Ndrangheta, the most clannish of the three major mafia groups, has also become the most globalized and has profited hugely from its central place in the drug trade, enabling it to enter every aspect, legitimate and illegitimate, of Italian life. In the show a bloody battle breaks out between families that will see a series of betrayals, each more frenzied than the last, as the $32 million shipment winds its way to Italy. During the Coronavirus crisis, as Saviano reports,  various organized crime groupings have been using the delivery of goods as a cover for breaking the quarantine and distributing drugs. They are a sort of Cosa Nostra version of Amazon, or perhaps Amazon is a corporate Cosa Nostra. The two begin to merge.   

Roberto Saviano     

What is new about ZeroZeroZero is the determined global sweep. Three stories are tracked independently, in Mexico, on the high seas and in Italy. All three are linked at the beginning of the shipment and finally at the end. There is a clever trope used in each episode where one of the lead characters, usually the American brother or sister, reaches a climactic point that is then flashbacked to show how they got to that point. The final scene set amidst brutal carnage and destruction is a masterpiece of understatement as the American businesswoman serenely negotiates the next shipment oblivious to the bodies piled up around the transaction.

This is a strong critique, but there are some problems. In its presentation, this series has the mark of a Sky production. The series is often violent, as reflects its context, but also is often sadistic, dragging the audience through scene after scene in anticipation of sudden brutality that is a relief when it happens, and which somewhat takes away from the point. This was true of Sky’s other most famous series, based on the earlier Saviano book, Gomorrah, but that series is more sharply focused on the political economy of the Camorra, the Naples mafia, with each episode highlighting a different aspect of the gang’s reach into several layers of the economy.

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The sadistic violence is a Sky trademark, along with an often acute examination of underground economies, and both are also present in its latest series Gangs of London. The sadism bears the imprint of its former owner Rupert Murdoch. Its new majority shareholder Comcast, which only recently dropped out of a legislative lobbying association which advocated laws defending gun owners’ right to use their weapons whenever they feel threatened and limiting non-white voters, will most likely not alter Sky’s trajectory.   

The treatment of the American brother and sister who for the most part are seen as the audience’s main identification figures, is also questionable. Next to the bloodshed unleashed by the Mexican soldier turned drug kingpin, and the more intimate savagery of the Italian ’Ndrengheta revenge killings, the Americans appear to be civilized business people, and we root for them to steer the shipment to its destination. Their white privilege is largely unquestioned until the end. There is also a lack of perspective in that we never see the victims of the drug sales, or acquire any understanding of the pressures that drive these buyers to abuse the drug.

Nevertheless, ZeroZeroZero—a drug runners’ term for the purest cocaine borrowed from a description of the whitest flour—goes one better than Narcos. Its attempt at global storytelling across three continents reflects the magnitude and interpenetration of this deadly industry in a scope that rivals the power of the drug itself. What is still to add is the problem of a global system where working-class users pick up the drug for respite from the increasing desperation of their lives, and middle-class users are driven to the drug as a stimulus to keep producing to maintain their lifestyle. 

#blackAF: African-American Forcefulness or Simply Black Affluence?

Kenya Barris, the creator of the ABC sit-com Black-ish which also has inspired two spinoff series Grown-ish and the upcoming Mixed-ish, has added another series #BlackAF (meaning Black as F***) to the “ish” franchise – or in DC terms, the ish universe or “ishverse.” The concept of “ish” is a tricky way of saying the characters, while addressing more typical African-American concerns, also are part of and indeed relish being middle-class or in the case of #BlackAF, not nouveau riche but rather for the most part comfortably settled into affluence.

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Barris family in the lap of luxury

Still, there is this nagging, clawing, and to the Barris family—the sit-com family that bears the real name of their creator with Kenya himself playing the father—irritating fact that they can never leave their blackness behind. This is particularly a problem for the dad Kenya ,who is constantly grousing about white people. He is acutely aware of the way in Hollywood he can still be treated as a second-class citizen, seen in his encounter with Modern Family’s creator Steve Levitan, who he feels slights him. He claims that Levitan gets preferred treatment, though in the upper strata of the town, they are equally accomplished.

The show was pitched as a combination of Black-ish and Curb Your Enthusiasm, with Barris taking the curmudgeonly Larry David part and with the addition that what he is irritated about is still-existing racism, which the show presents as mostly real but sometimes overly harped-on by him. There has been criticism of Barris’ performance, as not being curmudgeonly enough and not exploring the depths of his troubled and troubling consciousness as much as Larry David.

Perhaps the larger problem with the series is that while Larry David is a misanthrope, prickly on a number of issues, Barris’ problems and irritation mostly spring from his treatment as a black man within the entertainment world and the rarefied world of the upper strata of Los Angeles society. To try to fit the Seinfeld-Curb Your Enthusiasm comedy-of-manners template with characters irritated about modern life over the issue of racism may be a way of denying or flattening the still awful prevalence of that issue.

The other problem is that the show confuses grousing for critique. Barris’ easy fitting of the history of African-American exploitation and impoverishment into a few phrases—he does keep reminding us it all springs from slavery—though it may be meant to normalize conversations about racism and thus keep the subject on the table, possibly has instead the effect of flattening it and trimming the uncomfortable edges.

The critique is not a real critique. A series like The Larry Sanders Show which is much more vicious and tells many more truths about its object of satire—how relations in the television industry are centred around profit and prestige—points the way to what #BlackAF might have been.

It’s from a different era but a passage from that acute social critic Chester Himes, discussing Los Angeles in the 1940s, describes the overwhelming nature of the problem in his first novel If He Hollers Let Him Go. The lead character, a black worker in a factory in LA talks about how he…

…had been hurt emotionally, spiritually, and physically as much as thirty-one years can bear: I had lived in the South, I had fallen down an elevator shaft, I had been kicked out of college…I had survived the humiliating last five years of the Depression in Cleveland; and still I was entire, complete, functional; my mind was sharp, my reflexes were good, and I was not bitter. But under the mental corrosion of race prejudice in Los Angeles I had become bitter and saturated with hate.

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In a later novel, The End of a Primitive, Himes describes what happens when a creator tells actual truths about race in America:

They cancelled all radio appearances, all public contacts, removed his books from the stores, returned them to the publishers, …writers for the capitalist press labelled it sordid, bitter, the most poorly written book ever published, said hate ran through it like a yellow bile, likened it to the graffiti on walls, and termed him psychotic…

We’re a long way from the mild irritation in the guise of critique of #BlackAF with its actual disdain for offending anyone. Is this a factor of how far African-Americans have come in this society or is it simply a new kind of parading of mild rebuke as a thinly veiled rationale for wallowing in affluence?

Stream it, skip it or revolutionise it? Series TV post-Covid
Tuesday, 05 May 2020 09:26

Stream it, skip it or revolutionise it? Series TV post-Covid

Dennis Broe considers post-Covid-19 possibilities for a more progressive, artist-led approach to film and television series. Image from Superstore

Before quarantine when a phrase like “shelter in place” seemed like something out of the apocalyptic future forecast in The Walking Dead, the main issue in film and television was how the industry would manage the transition from an actual to a virtual world.

The studio system and the major television networks were being challenged by the gauntlet of streaming services and by a wave of consolidation that merged studios (Disney-Fox), paired communication distributors with product (AT&T-Time Warner) and cable networks with satellite production companies and networks (Comcast-Sky-NBC Universal).

Consolidation by corporations

The result of this consolidation and increasing monopolization is a group of behemoth streaming services—Netflix, Amazon, Disney+, Peacock (Comcast NBC), Apple+, and HBO Max (AT&T-Time Warner), that were set to challenge first US domestic and then global production, including national film and television support and channels.

This has all of course been hastened by the global Coronavirus sequestration as sheltering in place produces captive audiences and global activity moves online. Thus Jeff Bezos the richest man in the world increased his wealth by $25 billion in March , with Amazon’s online delivery spelling the end of many department stores and with the company cracking down on and firing dissenters. It’s online streaming service Amazon Prime is now in about half the households in America. Netflix added 2.3 million subscribers in the US and Canada for a global total of over 182 million and Disney+ in 5 months accumulated 50 million subscribers in what was predicted would take 2 years to accomplish.

So, one possibility of what can happen when the pandemic is over or contained is that this monopolization will continue unabated and induce a homogenization where six services produce the majority of the world’s television and increasingly film as well—with many films going immediately online in light of the closing of cinemas. Local production then will be merely collaborative with each country adding its own flavour to streaming service co-productions.

Another possibility is independently owned and produced subscription platforms, such as Means TV which bills itself as “the first post-capitalist cooperatively run streaming service.” Means produces an array of programs on such topics as Art House Politics, with artists using various video forms to comment on the contemporary social situation and exposés such as The Screenwriter with No Hands, about the mysterious death of a Hollywood scripter who investigated the industry’s relationship with the Pentagon and weapons manufacturers. This is essentially a kind of Steven Soderbergh iPhone school of do-it-yourself video with fairly professional aesthetic and production values.

Transformation by artists

There is a third possibility. That is divorcing already established and considerably accomplished film and television serial aesthetic and narration from the profit motive. Film and television artists from around the world struggle constantly with trying to accommodate their work to commercial imperatives, always fudging and softening what they might want to say if they had more freedom. In that sense, the vaunted freedom of Netflix, which writers and directors are trotted out to champion, has these artists still highly bound to the market, and also has them in most cases not able to profit from their work because they are paid a fee upfront and no residuals.

For this alternative to work, there would need to be a combination of the existing government funding—which admittedly in the short term will diminish due to the economic depression wrought by the combination of capitalism and coronavirus—public support and funding and a change in the attitude of artists who are willing to trade huge profits for a living wage, in order to truly create work they can be proud of, instead of work they must in part disavow and that only contributes to global addictive viewing.

What is needed is to wed the second and third possibilities, the aesthetic of contemporary film and particularly serial TV, the dominant narrative form of this era which can be adept at critical analysis of society, with the can-do spirit and vision of independent media. Series like the Icelandic The Valhalla Murders, deeply critical of the personal corruption of judicial power, the American Homecoming, darkly accusatory of the murderous profiteering of the drug companies and France’s Game of Influence, a penetrating look at the corrupt and deadly power of global polluters like Monsanto, all point the way to a more critical future. Not to mention marginalized sit-coms such as One Day At A Time and Superstore which focus on the challenges of minority single-parent families and the problems faced by a contemporary largely female, diverse labor force. The problem is these series are exceptions and only occur sporadically because of the need to fill the airwaves with innocuous blather, targeted to specific audiences to gain subscribers.

Two contradictions in the largest of the corporate services could be exploited to produce this change. The first is the desire of artists to utilize the narrative armature they have devised for a more socially directed purpose. This is what lies behind their, at the moment obligatory, paeans to the freedom of Netflix. The second is these artists' own desire to get paid, to have a living wage. Netflix, backed by the power of finance capital, pays them upfront and then profits in perpetuity from their work. Independent media would offer continual if lesser income. Many artists would be willing to make this tradeoff and it is also important that they, like any worker, be paid for their work, instead of being asked to work for free.

The Chinese word for crisis wei-ji contains the double meanings of danger and opportunity. The Coronacrisis in film and television could result in the danger of ever increasing corporate monopolization and homogenization or it could yield the opportunity of artists transforming an already powerful medium into a truly socially relevant one.

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