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.

Lovecraft Country: Liberating 1950s Apartheid America One Monster At A Time
Sunday, 15 November 2020 16:30

Lovecraft Country: Liberating 1950s Apartheid America One Monster At A Time

Dennis Broe continues his review of new TV series. Image above: Battling Housing Segregation in '50s Chicago, from Lovecraft Country

It’s now a done deal with the series already out in its entirety, but the best pilot and one of the best shows of the year is HBO’s Lovecraft Country. The series is a second stunner by showrunner Misha Green after the too-quickly aborted success of Underground, about the underground railroad. Lovecraft Country refashions and redefines ’50s America, not as consumer paradise, but as apartheid state, just as Underground revisions the pre-Civil War battle against slavery as a revolutionary struggle.

The pilot of Lovecraft Country is a combination of Green Book and Night of the Living Dead, one a masterpiece and the other a hunk of unmitigated garbage. Lovecraft Country cleans up the trash that was the Academy-Award-winning Green Book and resets its smug righteous Driving Mr. Daisy reaffirmation of white, liberal America by refocusing its road trip by three African-Americans through a perilous Northern landscape that is fraught with the still-present danger of white cops constantly threatening their lives. The pilot also revives George Romero’s still shocking masterwork, a zombie apocalypse where the horror of the ’70s America racist police state in the end outdoes the horror of the flesh-eaters, as the sole black survivor is gunned down in a finale that merges the Black Panther Fred Hampton’s killing with the zombie film.

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Lovecraft’s Monsters

Here, after the terror the three African-Americans suffer at the hands of white America on their trip from Chicago to the supposedly progressive haven of Massachusetts, the appearance of several of horror writer H.P. Lovecraft’s signature monsters, The Shoggoth – blobs devouring everything in their path with thousands of snapping teeth – comes as a relief. These monsters at least are finite and not part of a perpetual system that categorically excludes black people. Or, as the show would have it in quoting James Baldwin, part of a country where the American Dream is achieved at the expense of the American Negro. The contemporary series nods at Romero’s classic – with police and the three black crewmembers trapped in the same house, this time the monsters attack and eat the police, revenging the death of the lone Black survivor in Night of the Living Dead.

Admittedly, the show is uneven and is more a series of spectacular parts than a stunning whole. However, its project of revisioning African-American representation and extending it both to genres and to areas of intellectual activity which Blacks had previously been locked out of is a mind-bending corrective to the representational apartheid practiced in white Hollywood and academia.

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'50s Haunted Diners

Episodes one and three emphasize the socially critical aspect of New Black Horror, so prominent in Get Out, the masterwork in this subgenre. Tik, Letti and the reliably stabilizing Courtney B. Vance as Tik’s Uncle George, take that most American of adventures the road trip, in search of George’s lost brother. They encounter not the oddball-but-endearing characters of a Route 66 but rather a murderous police state aligned against them. In a diner, they view the ’50s kitsch figures not as nostalgic but as menacing, and are forced to flee with the arrival of armed attackers. A lingering and unnerving shot of a white man with a gun in the back of a truck suggests the chase and murder of Georgia jogger Armaud Arbery, pursued by a gun-toting ex-cop and his sons. Finally, they are pursued to the border of a county which has a sundown clause, meaning, the sheriff explains to them, that they can be shot if they are found in the county after sundown.

Episode three, with Tik, Letti and Tik’s father back in Chicago, takes up the thorny ’50s question of housing segregation, as Letti buys a home in North Chicago across the line of demarcation. Letti faces a brigade of white men parking their cars in front with the horns perpetually blaring to drive her out of her home. The trick, Tik reveals, is one that U.S. soldiers used in Korea where he was a part of their efforts to drive prisoners insane. That revelation of American mind games rewrites the myth of Korean ‘brainwashing’ solidified in the film The Manchurian Candidate.

Social distancing via racial segregation

The house is haunted with the spirits of African-Americans massacred in the abode. Inside and outside Letti and Tik are tortured by that other kind of social distancing, the racial segregation that with its attendant defunded schools and perpetuation of poverty is still a primary way today of maintaining inequality. Letti revenges herself on the cars with a baseball bat and stakes her right to cross the colour line.

Episodes two and four are about bringing African-Americans to the forefront of genres they have been locked out of. Black audiences, lacking an identification figure in what was the squeaky-clean genre of horror, often rooted for the monster who ravaged the privileged victims of a supposedly all-white America. Episode two restores Black agency to the genre as Tik, Letti and George stand in the center of the standard horror trope of the haunted house, here a Massachusetts mansion with a devil cult that not all the characters escape from alive.

Episode four places Black characters at the center of an Indiana Jones-type adventure saga, but with an African-American historical perspective. When Letti has second thoughts about crossing a frail rope bridge in a typical adventure sequence, Tik’s father spurs her to conquer her fear by telling her the rope reminds him of the whip his mother described to him, used by masters on Black slaves.

Throughout, the African-American characters also counter myths about Black prowess exclusively in the fields of sports and entertainment. George and his wife Hippolyta are cartographers, drawing up maps in the Green Book that provide safe journeys through the dangerous morass of apartheid America. Hippolyta proves herself adept at astronomy, and in a later episode acquires a lived historical knowledge by inserting herself into various epochs. Their daughter Diana writes and illustrates her own comics, in a way that presages today’s Black comic resurgence. The family reads and reveres sci-fi adventure author Edgar Rice Burroughs and H.P. Lovecraft mentor and Dracula creator Bram Stoker. The series highlights Black curiosity and intellectual acuity as the show itself crosses cultural colour lines in showing that it is not for lack of persistence and interest that African-Americans have not thrived in these areas.

The show also of course rewrites Lovecraft himself, using a contemporary novel by Matt Ruff that highlights the horror writer’s glaring limitations. Lovecraft wrote in the 1920s, with the Klan firmly established and often, as in The Call of Cthulhu, set the stories a decade earlier, at the moment when the progressive period of Reconstruction was still being turned back, just after statues commemorating the Confederacy had sprung up everywhere, and when a new category of ‘whiteness’ was being constructed by pitting all the European US arrivals against their non-European ‘other(s).’

In Cthulhu Lovecraft recounts the danger posed in the North by a Negro sailor “from one of the queer dark courts on the precipitous hillside” and in the South in the bayous surrounding New Orleans by a Voodoo gathering containing “singular and hideous” rites. Lovecraft Country refashions and reverses this fear, as in one episode the Shoggoths appear again, this time to destroy a squad of Chicago police who have come to wipe Letti out of her home.

In the most stunning reversal of a horror staple, Letti’s sister Ruby undergoes the wolfman transformation from human to beast, a prosthetic tour-de-fore pioneered by Rick Baker in An American Werewolf in London. The trick here is that Ruby transforms from an African-American to a Caucasian woman. This monster is instead granted full access to white society. Ruby had previously been rejected from a sales clerk position at the department store Marshall Field’s but ‘white’ Ruby is not only hired but made supervisor at the store. The episode spotlights the horror of white privilege as it is lived by Black America.

A critique of capitalism

One problem with the series is that it stays at the superficial level, viewing Lovecraft as simply a creator of monsters, including in a later episode, an Alien-type Korean female that we sympathize with as she revenges herself on both the Japanese and on US servicemen in Korea, both of whom oppressed the country. Beneath the surface prejudice, Lovecraft’s creatures from the netherworlds actually constituted a critique of the rational, scientific, calculated world of a capitalism that was hell-bent on erasing all traces of the ancient myths and modes of thinking that his monsters represent. The series misses this aspect which in the second season might be a way of more thoroughly linking Lovecraft’s subconscious love of the irrational with the battle of the series characters for recognition of their own modes of thinking and making sense of the world, which both embraces and contradicts the rationalized “normality” of the consumer world around them.

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The Macon Seven on the run in Underground

Lovecraft Country also signals the arrival in town of a new show-running sheriff, Misha Green, an African-American female writer whose work, both here and in Underground is peppered with images of revolt and resistance. The “Macon 7” plantation runaway slaves in the first series who make an impossible journey from the openly oppressive South to the more sophisticated prejudice of the North and the genre and gender smashing intrusion of Tik, Letti, and Hippolyta in her second series carve out a far more openly rebellious path for Black television representation, making Shonda Rhimes’ professional and middle-class world (Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, How to Get Away With Murder) seem tame by comparison.

Exec-producing on Lovecraft Country are J.J. Abrams and Jordan Peele. Abrams seems to contribute little to the mix, except occasional melodic horror strains on the soundtrack, borrowed from Lost, which often attempt to create the feeling of terror but seem divorced from the actual action. Peele, on the other hand, continues to invest the horror genre with contemporary social significance. This series is the true follow-up to his Get Out, where the horror is the psychic manifestation of the racist system which terrorizes the characters.

Lovecraft Country, with its array of cops more frightening than the actual monsters, and its ordinary African-American characters deeply embedded in the street life of a community with its stickball and block parties also casts a suspicious and critical eye on that other HBO series Watchmen and its Kamela-Harris-type Black female superhero vigilante cop, whose opposition to white racism could equally be an opposition to Black rebellion. The high point of Watchmen is the first 10 minutes of the series, which figures the Tulsa massacre as jealous Okies revenge themselves on the economic prosperity of Black Wall Street. Misha Green though, as everywhere else in this extraordinary show, goes one better than that heavily-awarded series in sending her characters into the past, in an entire episode based on the Oklahoma bloodletting.

This may be a series of parts, rather than a coherent whole – but the parts are some of the most memorable moments of television in this year of Black Lives Matter.

‘Vida’ on Starz: Fighting gentrification “But with a little sex”
Friday, 11 September 2020 09:52

‘Vida’ on Starz: Fighting gentrification “But with a little sex”

Dennis Broe reviews Vida and some other of the latest series on streaming services. Image above:Vida’s Mari (Chelsea Rendon) as neighbourhood activist

All over the news today are articles about a new kind of white flight, again as in the 1960s to the suburbs, but this time it is also a Covid-19 flight, from beleaguered cities to the supposed safety of rural areas and the suburbs.

There is a different kind of flight, though, which is not voluntary but forced, and that is the decades-long process of gentrification. It’s highlighted as it occurs in a Mexican neighborhood, in the first season of the Starz series Vida.

The series, available on Amazon Prime, loses focus in its two subsequent seasons, where it turns into an LGBTQ-themed telenovela, and was cancelled after its third. But that is no reason not to celebrate the triumph of season one, where Vida tackles the problem of displacement of minority and poor populations better than any of its film and television rivals.

The series opens with a bang as a young Mexican punk goth woman, Marisol or Mari, with a wicked message which she later conveys through spray paint, posts a manifesto declaring her anger and willingness to fight back over the dispossession of her neighborhood, the Boyle Heights section of Los Angeles.

Boyle Heights has a long history as a progressive center of the city from its earliest Jewish radical and Japanese populations. It was one of the few neighbourhoods in L.A. not to block minorities through what were called restrictive covenants (see: Ronald Reagan et al.).

In 1949 the neighborhood elected the first Mexican and Latino city councilmember (and later Congressman), Edward Roybal. Once Jews in the post-war era started moving out to more upscale areas, Roybal acted to further open up the area for what is now its predominantly Mexican population. It is currently the centre of an attempt at a land grab by the wealthy dominant class since, with the resettling of more affluent residents in downtown L.A., it could become a more fashionable adjacent alternative to downtown’s high rents, something akin to hip and slightly cheaper Brooklyn’s relationship to Manhattan.

Mari’s group, The Vigilantes, are activists disturbed and frightened as they watch the neighbourhood change around them. Real estate developers from the nearby Silver Lake area eye the neighbourhood, “eager for those Trump dollars.” In the vanguard of this attempted dislocation is a Latino-fronted real estate group “sucking the blood out of the neighborhood.” Against Mari’s and the activist group’s “Make America Brown Again,” the Latino real estate agent Nelson Herrera is buying block after block of what the agency calls BoHe, the rebranding of Boyle Heights as a now fashionable location. This landgrab utilizes white artists, whose outpost Mari spray-paints, as their shock troops, while the real estate agency offers predatory loans that will result in residents losing their local businesses.

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Lyn (Melissa Berrera) and Emma (Mishel Prada) on the rooftop of their neighbourhood bar

Returning to this neighbourhood in turmoil are the two Hernandez sisters Emma and Lyn, brought back at the death of their mother, the Vida (“life” in Spanish) of the title, and now proud possessors of their mother’s debt-ridden bar that is a mainstay and casual gay centre of the area. Emma is a tough-as-nails, corporate businesswoman back from Chicago, and Lyn, with hippie tendencies, is a kind of palimpsest of all California counter-cultures, a vegan slacker comfortable in the upscale hipness of nearby Silver Lake.

The sisters are thoroughly assimilated, and as the series opens couldn’t be further from the Mexican roots of the neighborhood. Emma wants immediately to get rid of the low-rent tenants in the bar building, many of them undocumented, searching for a “better” clientele. Lyn, meanwhile, dropped by her Anglo boyfriend just after her mother’s death, seeks solace in the orgiastic complacency of Silver Lake poolside sex.

Both are brought down to earth and humanized by their reacquaintance with the neighborhood. Eddy, the gay wife of their mother, who also lays claim to the bar, finally shames Emma into not becoming an agent of dispossession herself by turning out the building’s tenants. Lyn, meanwhile, while being adopted by the affluent Silver Lake crowd, has second thoughts as she is riding the bus home with a Mexican maid, who cleans up the bodily fluids strewn by the privileged pool users.

Capitalist and colonialist culture

There is conflict between the two sisters as well, with Emma the responsible one and Lyn perpetually trying to “find herself.” But the more interesting conflict is between Emma’s corporate and Lyn’s privileged “alternative” values and the fellow-feeling of the neighbourhood. What in many shows would be a one-episode pilot, where the sisters finally decide to stay at home and become a part of the neighbourhood in adopting the bar, takes the entire season because this is not just a personal conflict but a conflict of values. More pointedly, it’s about the sisters learning to reaccept as a positive value the ways the more communal culture they grew up in challenges what they have learned from the capitalist and colonial culture outside the neighborhood.

The culture manifests itself in two ways, language and its food. The characters use a simplified form of Spanglish, that constant mixing of English and Spanish that is the mark of a people whose native tongue is devalued. The show does not translate either these phrases or the words to a multitude of Spanish songs, forcing its Anglo audience to learn the phrases, many of which are street lingo, such as the amount of porquería, or bullcrap, with which this neighborhood in the process of being moved in on has to contend.

Elsewhere the contentious Mari and a friend rebond over a chamoyada, a flavoured sliced ice drink, and Lyn gets into an argument with an upscale Mexican city councilmember about putting Valentina, a brand of hot sauce, on a taco. Food is a signifier and imprint of childhood cultural heritage in the lives of these people.

Neighbourhood dispossession has been a popular theme in film and television recently, including a rival Netflix series, also set in Boyle Heights, Gentrified, much slicker and hipper than this series and much less effective. Robert Moses’s mass dispossession of New York’s African-American and Hispanic populations is also the subject that underlies the film Motherless Brooklyn, whose heart is in the right place but which is ultimately spoiled by its clumsy, play-by-the numbers, Chinatown-clone narrative.

The nearest rival to Vida is The Last Black Man in San Francisco, a thoughtful, quietly sad film about the cleansing of that city of its poor and even lower middle class by the ever-increasing rents, because of its adjacency to Silicon Valley. But that film is perhaps too quiet and mournful and so does not have the immediate visceral impact of Vida.

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The two sisters with Eddy (Ser Anzoategui), the soul of the neighbourhood

The second and third seasons lose focus and pit rival groups against each other in what amounts to the same struggle. Emma’s decision to cut Eddy, the conscience of the tavern, off from her stake in the bar in season two is supposedly, but not actually, rectified by Eddy’s returning to the place, this time as bartender, not co-owner. Emma sells off a mural her mother had commissioned showing the two girls as taking part in the Mexican Revolution. The indescribably sad moment when it is papered over with a beer ad goes unremarked.

Season three features the return of the patriarchy in the form of the sister’s lost father, whose full-force identification with a rigid religiosity threatens their mother’s legacy in making the bar a space of LGBTQ freedom – a space, by the way, that is echoed by the all-LGBTQ writers’ room on this show.

That season also sees Mari leaving The Vigilantes, who themselves get sidetracked and campaign against the transgender bar. Mari turns from collective political work and instead is “discovered” by a website entrepreneur and transformed into a politically trendy “influencer.” Her revolutionary expression of the pain and resistance of her neighborhood is now converted into a more commercial “edginess.”

There is nothing askew with the shift to a more telenovela confrontation with the religious patriarchy. The problem is that the reclaimed father now becomes the primary foe and the gentrification process is sidelined. There is no reason for this. The two are twin aspects of the same oppression and it is needless and heedless to pit one against the other, rather than seeing how they form a seamless whole.

On a positive note, the series does end with the memory of Vida with all her flaws restored in the eyes of her daughters and with a wise neighbourhood woman’s santería, that blend of Mexican native traditions with a more primitive Catholicism, posed as an alternative psychic healing method both to the more Western psychoanalysis and to the father’s Pentecostal evangelism.

Starz and sex as pay-per-view commodity

Starz, the network that broadcast Vida in the U.S. is a pay-per-view channel whose rivals, before the streaming services, were HBO and Showtime. Starz, a latecomer to pay-per-view, often attempts to distinguish itself with the quantity of its nudity and sex. The famous opening scene in Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels recounts a director’s ambitions to make a film of quality about people’s lives during the Depression, to which the studio executive keeps interjecting, “But with a little sex?” At Starz, the network execs always seem to be interjecting, for example in the case of Vida’s ambition to tackle the thorny issues of gentrification: “Yes, but with a lot of sex?”

So we get a montage of the two sisters, one lesbian, one straight, copulating as the opening of one show. There are several kinds of “kink,” as in Lyn’s councilmember wanting her to wear a strap-on, and Emma, programmatically gay, taking a former male inmate who is working for her for a sexual ride in her office to ease her anxiety. Sometimes this adds to character development – Emma realizes the form of sex she often engages in is simply a corporate brand of using people to satisfy her needs – but just as often it’s simply a way of Starz hooking audiences with a quantity and an outlandishness of nudity that makes Game of Thrones look like Camelot.   

P-Valley’s Working Girls

This has been true in the history of the channel with a show such as Spartacus, nominally about the slave who challenged Rome, distinguishing itself from HBO’s Rome and from other shows on that channel by adding bloodcurdling, sadistic violence to the bloodcurdling, sadistic sex. Even Outlander, the channel’s most successful entry, is essentially a more sexually explicit, time-traveling kinkily romantic bodice ripper.

The ultimate expression of this use of sex as branding mechanism is the channel’s current series P-Valley, which stands for Pussy Valley. (I rest my case.) The show about African – American dancers in a Mississippi strip club does validate  their work by presenting it from their point of view, but refuses any wider consideration of how they are trapped within the colonial structure of the backwater of that state.

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Party Down’s precarious Hollywood caterers

Starz’s actual glowing moment was Party Down, a two-season series about precarious workers in Hollywood who must labour with a catering company while trying to make dreams that are constantly shattered come true. It’s a hilarious show about the more perpetual downside of the lives of Hollywood hangers on – Mulholland Drive as a sitcom.

Formerly we might have labeled the sex on Starz as “gratuitous,” but that word does not capture the nature of what is going on here. Sex on Starz is corporate and commercial. It is commodified, often not about freedom of bodily expression, but a marketing gimmick to suck in audiences. Even the sex on Vida, which does often also enhance character development, is ultimately not so much boundary-breaking and liberating as way degrading – not the sex itself, but the fact that it is often used simply as a means of addicting viewers and thus is devalued.

Such is la vida in the ever more intense competition for viewers who in the midst of an economic malaise, state and militia violence and a pandemic can scarcely afford food and medical supplies, much less add pay channels on top of their already exorbitant cable bill.

The Finales of Fearless and Perry Mason: How to End and How Not to End a Serial TV Season
Saturday, 22 August 2020 08:55

The Finales of Fearless and Perry Mason: How to End and How Not to End a Serial TV Season

Dennis Broe continues his series on TV series, looking at Fearless and the new Perry Mason. Image above: Peaky Blinders’ Helen McCrory as crusading defense attorney in Fearless

There was a lot of fanfare recently around the wrapping up of HBO’s remake of Perry Mason – which unfortunately has a botched ending. The cliché in Hollywood on endings is, “Give the audience what they want, but not in the way they want it.” Perry Mason outsmarts itself and finishes by obscuring justice and not giving anyone what they want. The show thinks it’s much smarter than the original, mocking Perry’s forcing a confession on the witness stand as an unrealistic cliché, but then substituting an equally tortured and far less effective cliché, that of the defense attorney’s impassioned plea, in a way that simply lets all the air out of the show and leaves the audience clamouring for a more emotionally truthful ending.

In contrast a golden oldie from three years ago, ITV and Amazon’s Fearless, follows through on its tougher political convictions with an ending that, though it has an emotionally unbelievable element, still drives home its much stronger point about the lying machinations in the American and British deception that led to the Iraq War. The less effective Perry Mason was renewed before it had completed its initial run. The far more politically astute Fearless – starring at the height of her Peaky Blinders success, Helen McCrory that show’s irrepressible and slyly seductive elder Polly – was not renewed for a second season, with its strong and effective message about government deception almost surely contributing to its untimely demise.

One British tabloid blamed the show’s cancelling not on its strong stand on government deception, with its opening credits citing Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair and Donald Trump as liars and spin doctors, but on “wobbly camera movement.” It was the camera movement apparently, and not the revelation of the conspiracy itself, that made the newspaper dizzy. The New York Times pigeon-holed the show as being only for “the conspiratorially minded.” The show does purport to unearth and show anger about a monstrous conspiracy – though one that was later revealed as entirely true. It resulted in the deaths of millions and was the opening salvo in the wholescale destruction of both Arab nationalism and much of the Middle East.

Emma Bannville is a crusading defense attorney with a radical past, out to save a wrongly convicted client whose dogged defense of her client leads her up the ladder to the highest levels of government corruption and malfeasance. She channels the activism of the women’s British anti-nuclear movement in the Thatcher-Reagan era, and the radical spirit of a dead lover, in her quest to find a buried truth. Her determined pursuit leads to the revealing of a personal crime by the US military and the British government, covered up in order to allow the headlong rush of both countries into an illegal war with Iraq.    

Opposing her is an equally resolute female American intelligence agent who is paid big bucks – the effect of which is seen in her opulent home in a DC suburb – to clean up her government’s mistakes. To do so, she employs an underhand bag of tricks that does not stop at murder. 

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Michael Gambon’s complicit government official 

The series also focuses on a Tony Blair-like Labour politician on the rise, who the US government is supporting, who rather presciently is not unlike the Blairite leader now in power after the ousting of Jeremy Corbyn. The finale comes down to Emma threatening her own suicide in a way that finally forces the guilty party to confess. The ruse is not quite convincing, since it is not easy to believe a callous official would ruin themselves to save someone else. However, the confession itself, which sheds light on the ruthlessness of the British-American march to a fabricated war, and the persistent machinations needed to continue to conceal the truth around that rush to war, is utterly convincing.

Fearless does a superb job of beginning with a hopeless legal case and then having that case have far-reaching implications. Its uncanny truth-telling and clear anger almost a decade and half after the fact about the criminal chicanery that led to a silencing of a people’s movement in the US and in Britain against an unjust war more than justified the show running multiple seasons. But its stark political clarity most likely acted against its being continued and instead it was cancelled after one season.

Perry Mason and The Case of the Careless Remake

Which brings us to the obscurity and overwrought “complexity” of HBO’s Perry Mason finale. Here complexity becomes a way of tampering with the emotional truth that the series demands, tamping it down and dissipating what could have been a much more impactful conclusion.

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Raymond Burr’s Perry Mason grilling witnesses and forcing confessions in court

The former series was of course known for its climax, where Perry broke down a witness on the stand and got them to confess, thus freeing his client who the police and prosecutor tried to convince a jury was guilty. Yes, this was highly clichéd and the contemporary series cannily acknowledged it when Hamilton Berger, who will become Perry’s perennial foe in court but is here assisting his legal team, tells the team that they will never get the LAPD officer guilty of the murders to confess on the stand, that no one ever breaks down and confesses in court.  

But we still want to see the officer brought to justice and exposed for his crimes. Instead, the series then substitutes one cliché for another. Perry, instead of trying to expose the officer, instead makes an impassioned summary designed to sway the jury, a far more persistent cliché in the contemporary courtroom drama than that employed in the old Perry Mason. The officer finally gets his just rewards but this is out of sight, almost as an aside, and never acknowledged in public. The show might better, after acknowledging the cliché, have one-upped it by delivering a surprise that forced the confession on the stand. That would have given the audience the emotional lift that the former show offered in seeing justice wrenched at the last minute from a rigged system that almost never allows it.

Clearly that was something fans of the books and the series responded to. The thrill of seeing the lackadaisical, lazy or corrupt work of police and prosecuting attorneys exposed each week was an important part of what the series offered. The HBO show denies that pleasure to its audience, instead sacrifices it on the altar of middle-class “complexity” and “ambiguity,” which is simply about that classes mixed feelings at being trapped between a working class which pushes for more and an upper class which simply takes more.

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Matthew Rhys’ Perry Mason as a lawyer who does not expose injustice 

The remake also does not save the final court scene for last. The scene takes place at midpoint in the episode. After, there is a whole lot of tying up various strands of the series, but the only one with much emotional resonance is Perry’s secretary Della Street asserting that she is not a secretary but rather a legal partner who wants a percentage of the client fees, and to be put through law school herself.

A faith healer subplot, which might have resulted in a romantic interest for the young Perry, is also disdained in favor of Perry and the woman exchanging pleasantries about the place of faith in life, a conversation which is philosophically trite and emotionally sterile.

Fearless ends with a stark conclusion that drives home its exposure of the corruption of two governments in promoting an illegal war. Its reward for such truly fearless honesty was cancellation. Perry Mason ends not with a bang but with a whimper, in an ending that blunts its critique of the LAPD and the Los Angeles political power structure. Its reward was to be renewed even before the series ended.

The fate of the two shows is a sad indictment and illustration of how Serial TV, a supposed return to a television Golden Age in which showrunners exercise unprecedented freedom, is instead often bound by rigid social and industry conventions around radical questioning of the powers that be.

The Left Forum Presents: 

Friday September 4, 6-8 PM, EST: Perry Mason and the Case of the Careless Remake with Dennis Broe talking about the new and old Perry Mason, HBO and the new streaming services, and about giving the audience and not giving the audience what they want. 

Register here.

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

Coal mines become gift shops: Black Suns at Louvre Lens

Published in Visual Arts

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

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

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

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

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Louvre Lens: Corporate Glass in a Verdant Park 

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

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

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Lens, February 1918

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

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

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

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

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

v Honthorst Christ Crowned w Tho

van Honthorst's Christ Crowned with Thorns

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

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Ribot's St. Vincent and The Raven

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

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

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

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

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Robert Mitchum’s murderous minister in Night of the Hunter

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

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

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

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

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

Malevich’s Cross

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

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Reinhardt's Ultimate Painting    

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Progressive ecological and political awareness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Far-right nonsense

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

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

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“Untamed savagery” in a poor section of Bogota

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not very progressive......

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

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

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

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

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

Not very hard-hitting......

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

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

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True Television Satire: Seth Meyers and Amber Ruffin 

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

Not very accurate.....

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

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Trump era 'individuality'

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

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

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

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

DB23 Timothy Omundson in Lassie Come Home

Timothy Omundson in Lassie Come Home 

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

....so really, not very necessary

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

They Stream Movies Don’t They? City of Tiny Lights and Hamilton
Monday, 13 July 2020 15:35

They Stream Movies Don’t They? City of Tiny Lights and Hamilton

Dennis Broe continues his review of series TV with an analysis of City of Tiny Lights and Hamilton. Image: Tommy Akbar amidst the neon in City of Tiny Lights 

Although the highlight and main attraction of most streaming services is always new series and seasons of serial TV, they also attract viewers – and more importantly to them subscribers – by posting high profile films, often with a holiday slant. Netflix premiered Scorsese’s The Irishman at Thanksgiving 2019 in an attempt to have families stay at home and gather around the TV or computer, rather than go out to cinemas at the opening of the Christmas blockbuster season.

For 4th of July weekend, Disney+ served up an exquisitely well-filmed but troubling version of the mega New York theatre hit Hamilton about the country’s founding fathers. For all its gloss, the Disney+ entry took second fiddle to a relatively unknown BBC film, the extraordinary detective thriller about the exploitation of urban minority neighborhoods City of Tiny Lights (available on Amazon Prime in the UK).

In the latter, Tommy Akbar (Riz Ahmed) is a two-bit Pakistani private detective who knows his mixed Anglo-Middle Eastern London neighborhood like the back of his hand. He is hired by a sex worker to find her co-worker and this begins a trail of death and destruction. The trail leads him to the local mullah and a Muslim group patrolling the streets, a real estate developer who he grew up with, an ex-lover also from his childhood, an intimidating American agent supposedly searching for “terrorists,” and the area’s local drug dealers, all against the background of an attempt to “modernize” this turf that Tommy loves and has inhabited all his life.

The script is by Patrick Neate from his Edgar-nominated novel, which he translates to the screen in a way that is pitch perfect. The direction stresses visually the ways the neon of the contemporary London scene is broken down and refracted rather than centralized, casting its eerie transmuted glow on all the inhabitants, continually washing them in a false light they must live under.

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Real estate developers remaking neighborhoods in City of Tiny Lights 

The master text for this genre of political and economic truth-telling via the detective thriller or film noir is of course Chinatown. City of Tiny Lights has absorbed the lessons of that model, but the sign of that absorption is that it plays them back in non-clichéd ways and tells us something new about the methods employed to “clean” urban neighborhoods of their inhabitants. As with Chinatown there is also a crossing of the political with the personal, with each interacting to reinforce the villainy of the other.

One way to emphasise the extraordinary accomplishment of this film to compare it to another film on the same theme which remains at the level of a preachy thesis film, though its heart is in the right place. Motherless Brooklyn attempts valiantly to recount the way Robert Moses negatively transformed the city of New York in the 1950s, leaving many urban areas blighted.

However, it is an utterly clichéd, pale imitation of Chinatown, complete with a Moses stand-in as Chinatown villain Noah Cross and a personal “passing” plot which never really registers. Ed Norton’s performance as the Tourette’s-afflicted detective is all actorly ticks rather than the lived-in inhabiting of a role, which we find with Riz Ahmed. The end result is a film that seems to be more a Hollywood projection of and imposition on a neighbourhood and a city, than an actual description of a place.

City of Tiny Lights, on the other hand, delights in the sheer breadth of places and people that Tommy encounters, as well as his familiarity with the bodegas, the mosques, the kids on the corner selling what they can, and the memories of his own past in a mixed neighborhood.

All this comes at a time when there is still so much misunderstanding and fear of poorer neighbourhoods, which often are tarred with the “terrorist” label, or dismissed as unsuitable for habitation, in order to be replaced by luxury high rises. In the end the film sides mightily with the community, people like Tommy in his dogged pursuit of an inconvenient truth, and in the best noir tradition helps to transform that community into a collective, redeeming what mainstream media would simply term “denizens of darkness” into a kind of extended family

Hamilton and Settler Colonialism

First, the good news. The 2016 stage version of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton is exquisitely transformed into a filmed version of the musical. It alternates between close-up views of the individual actors at key moments in their decision-making process of committing to the rebellion against the British, medium-shot views of the ensemble that catch the frenetic energy of the song and dance numbers as the young country struggles to be born and to exist, and long shots of the entire stage which suggest an overview of the moment of the American Revolution and the establishing of the federal institutions.

The hip-hop music tends at times to be a bit too flattened out, as it accommodates to the Broadway musical idiom. On the other hand, the lyrical mastery of the perpetual rapping expands the limited Broadway vocabulary, and opens up the possibilities of not only what but also how much can be said, providing a dense layer of non-stop rhyming and energy that reinvigorates a rather staid musical form.

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Snowpiercer’s Daveed Diggs as Jefferson in Hamilton

Miranda as Hamilton, the Caribbean Creole and perpetual insider-outsider, lends a quiet dignity to the role in the last act of the musical, making the character’s redemption and demise both touching and affecting. Elsewhere, Daveed Diggs brings an astounding, pulse-pounding charisma to the role of Thomas Jefferson, which enlivens the second half of the work. The first half is propelled by the seditious struggle of the colonists, but the second half takes on the task of dramatizing Hamilton’s nationalization of the financial system through the Federal Reserve and the battle over state’s rights, more complex and difficult subjects to make work on the stage. Diggs, who is so good in a similar vein as the revolutionary energizer of the class struggle aboard the train in Netflix’ current Snowpiercer, is a showstopper who keeps the second half humming.

Now to the problem. In the light of the Black Lives Matter contemporary protests, the show seems trapped in 2016 – a relic of Obama-era representation where the best African-American’s could hope for was, as the black actor playing Aaron Burr sings, simply to be present in “The Room Where It Happens.” But that somewhat empty phrase does not imply having any power, just simply being present in the room.

It’s unfortunately a phrase that points to the vacuousness of Obama era “change” which in the end has resulted just four years later in African-Americans having to take to the streets en masse to demand that they not be killed by the police.

This is not the main problem though. The show employs “whiteface,” that is African-American actors taking the part of what largely at the time were their white masters, particularly in the forms of Washington, Jefferson and Madison, key characters in the show. The prolific and erudite African-American historian Gerald Horne in The Counter-Revolution of 1776 claims that one of the major reasons for the “revolution” that Hamilton is so keen to lionize is for white slaveholders in the colonies to maintain their slaves. He also illustrates how the British, the Crown, effectively mocked in the musical as cowardly and patronizing, had, four years before the rebellion and as a way of controlling the colonies, acted to free the slaves in the Americas.

Horne’s contention that this attempt by Northern transporters of slaves and Southern owners of slaves to preserve the institution was perhaps the root cause of the American Revolution can be debated. What the book proves though beyond a shadow of a doubt is that the uprising and victory by the settler colonialists, as viewed from the perspective of both African slaves and the indigenous Native or First Americans both of whom when possible fought on the side of the British, perpetuated over 350 years of oppression and inequality for both groups that is still with us today.

Hamilton is full of nasty asides about Jefferson being a slave-holder and immigrants being the ones who really know how to get the job done, but the main line of the musical is a constant validation of an American project which has always systematically disenfranchised the very African-Americans who so cheerfully and energetically lend their voices to revalidating these founding fathers. Thus Washington’s melancholy lament in “One Last Time” as he prepares to retire to Mount Vernon leaves out the fact that his luxurious retirement on the plantation is financed by the work of his slaves.

The falsehood of the colonial settler rationale whereby, as Jefferson – who held over 300 slaves – maintained that all men are created equal, was, as Horne asserts, never sufficiently challenged, and consequently repeated itself in American history. The US has thwarted indigenous movements toward independence and autonomy, which admittedly sometimes appear messy, in Korea, Iran and Guatemala in the 1950s, in Indonesia and Vietnam in the 1960s, in Chile and Nicaragua in the 1970s and 1980s, and today in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, and Venezuela, while fostering death and destruction in Libya and Syria.

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Aaron Burr trying to gain access to “The Room Where It Happens” in Hamilton 

Hamilton’s attempt to put one more patch over the myth of American exceptionalism, which sees the country only as a pillar and shining light of freedom, is now, because of the Black Lives Matter movement in the street, fraying at the edges. Hamilton already appears locked in a time capsule, emblematic of an era where simple representation without real change was all that was on offer.

It’s not enough to just be present in “The Room Where It Happens.” To be simply a witness to, as the Black playwright August Wilson said about African-American representation, a “white culture” whose thrust is “to deny us our own humanity, our own history and our own need to make our own investigations from the cultural ground on which we stand as Black Americans.”   

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.  

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