Dennis Broe

Dennis Broe

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

The Shape of Water
Tuesday, 19 September 2017 07:59

Venice Film Festival 2017: Part Two

Published in Films

Dennis Broe, on the World Film Beat, gives a windup report from the Venice Film Festival.

This was truly a festival that had something for everyone with its top prize, which coincides with my top film, going to Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water, making it by far the frontrunner for this year’s Best Picture Academy Award.

This 74th edition of the festival had Virtual Reality, Hollywood mid-level and indie productions, Netflix, and a host of Italian films including, most bizarrely, an animated up-to-date Napolitane version of Cinderella caught in the web of the mob in Gatta Cerentola, or Cinderella’s Cat, an animated version of the tale set in Naples, where the story actually originated in the 17th Century.

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This modern version, which spans 15 years, recounts an evil stepmother and her gang of cutthroat children, though all in the thrall of the Camorra head who seduces their mother while singing traditional Neapolitan love ballads and wants to make the city a drug haven. Luckily Cinderella arrives to save the day.

Netflix which, as I mentioned in my last piece for Culture Matters was an uncontroversial presence at this festival, appeared with three lacklustre selections and one near masterpiece. In my last piece I discussed the disappointment of Our Souls at Night and Suburra. Also, less illuminating than it might have been was Cuba and the Cameraman, Jon Alpert’s version of a Seven Up saga, where he keeps returning to Cuba over five decades to visit on-camera interviewees including Fidel Castro.

Through visits to a trio of farmers and others the film recounts Cuba’s prosperity in the ‘70s, its desperation as the fall of the Soviet system leaves it without subsidies, and its slow reconversion into a tourist economy. As a travelogue the film is interesting, but as an examination of the many twists and turns the island has had to endure in the face of the U.S. blockade it is unsatisfactory.

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The revelation of the festival was Errol Morris’ Wormwood, about CIA mind control and assassination in the early 1950s. This six-part series is Morris’ best work since his initial Thin Blue Line. Like that groundbreaking combination of fiction and documentary, the fictional element on this film deepens and emotionally expands the story of an agronomist, initially wanting to enhance crops but instead swept up in the biological warfare which would eventually kill him, making the fictional component far more than a simple recreation.

Morris’ own interviews and revelations with the son of the assassinated scientist help penetrate an intelligence community quagmire that involves the Korean War, LSD, the CIA’s own answer to Korean and Chinese brainwashing, and layers and layers of concealment over decades that ultimately also involves a reluctant Sy Hersh, who makes an appearance in the last episode. The work is unflinching and brave as it follows the life-shattering quest of the scientist’s son to find –as did Hamlet which the series references – the truth about his father’s death.

Cold War revelations were one way of attacking the security state in many films at Venice. Another was Frederic Wiseman’s equally triumphant, and extraordinary rear-assault on Trump and his neoliberal ethos in Ex-Libris: The New York Public Library.

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In the best New Deal tradition, Wiseman recounts the ways this library system acts each day as a force for democracy in the state. The library is shown as a vehicle to educate in poorer neighborhoods and to confront the digital divide through its everyday striving to ensure online access, its job programmes, and its challenging of audiences. It does this through presentations such as Richard Dawson’s opening defence of the non-religious community which he explains accounts for 20 percent of Americans, more than any specific religion, and Elvis Costello explains why it was appropriate, in the light of her attack on the working class, to be stomping on Margaret Thatcher’s grave.

Wiseman painstakingly accumulates the evidence of why the state, in its non-militarist, non-financial functions, in the form of this educational institutional which sees itself as working in that capacity, is essential to the well-being and moulding of communities in a way that gives the lie to Trump’s celebration of a state which only supports a nihilist, militarist and financial capitalism for the few, not the many.

One topic in week two was male violence and rape as it affected third world, minority, and indigenous women. This couldn’t have been more timely as two American students have last week accused the Florentine police, two carabineri, of molesting them after offering them a ride home from a disco. The Italian police are already under scrutiny for a crackdown on immigrants. This kind of revelation, if verified, is potentially devastating for the Italian economy, which is highly dependent on tourism.

The best of these films is the stunning Angels Wear White directed by Vivien Qu, the Chinese producer of the equally remarkable Black Coal: Thin Ice, about the deterioration of Chinese personal relations in the country’s capitalist phase. Here, in its presentation of a rape by a police commissioner of two young girls at a beach resort town in the highly industrialized southeast, the film, which focuses on the layers of cover-up that prevent justice from occurring, enhances its story of the exploitation of women with an examination of how this pattern is exacerbated by the money ethos that is permeating the landscape.

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One girl is bought off with a promise to pay for a boarding school education, a young woman witness is beaten by the police, and finally the full array of medical technology is corrupted to keep the commissioner’s power intact. The last image of the witness fleeing and trailing an iconic Marilyn Monroe statue illustrates the inability of women to finally escape this male carnage.

Warwick Thorton’s Australian Western Sweet Country has in the instigation of its plot the rape by a white ex-soldier of an Aboriginal woman. This might, in the Clint Eastwood or John Ford’s The Searchers mode, triggered a more standard revenge plot, with the lone white survivor out after the villain. Here though it is the white system of power that is ultimately on trial and the focus is on the cleverness of the aborigines inscribed under that system in being able to outwit their pursuers.

The film features Australian acting royalty Sam Neil and Bryan Brown but remains centred on the multiple injustices of the colonizers. Similar injustices in the U.S. South of 1944 are recounted in The Rape of Recy Taylor, where the stunning fact is not the rape of a churchgoing black woman by six white Alabama boys, but the fact that she came forward and confronted her attackers.

The NAACP sent its sharpest investigator, Rosa Parks – yes, unlike the myth, she was an activist well before her refusing to move to the back of the bus – and Parks’ investigation was threatened by the local sheriff. Recy ultimately failed to get justice and the rape devastated her and her family, but the retelling of this familiar story counters the corresponding myth of black men affronting white women in affirming also that these kind of incidents did not stop with slavery, where they were a rite of passage for slave owners’ sons. They continued into the sharecropping era of the 20th century and were the equivalent on the female side of the equally violent lynching carried out more often against black males.

My five best entries in the festival then were: The Shape of Water; This is Congo; Ex Libris: The New York Public Library; Angels Wear White and Wormwood. Worst films? James Toback’s Private Life of a Modern Woman; Darren Arronovsky’s repulsively incongruous torturing of Jennifer Lawrence in Mother; and Jim and Andy, a publicity puff piece designed to restart Jim Carrey’s flagging career based on “never revealed” footage of Carrey’s impersonating the superb Andy Kaufman on the set of the Kaufman biopic Man on the Moon.

Carrey comes off as a sycophant suck-up whose need to have everyone love him was the opposite of Kaufman’s groundbreaking combination of performance art and comedy, where he really didn’t care what anyone thought. Carrey spends his time terrorizing hairstylists and extras on the set and is convinced this celebrity privilege constitutes a genuine Kaufman resurrection.  Pathetic!

This is Bro on the World Film Beat leaving the Lido and signing off from Venice 2017.

Venice Film Festival 2017
Monday, 11 September 2017 20:17

Venice Film Festival 2017

Published in Films

Dennis Broe reviews the 2017 Venice Film Festival.

There are three main stories at this 74th edition of the oldest film festival in the world.

Venice as launch pad

The first is the increasing use of Venice as a launch pad for the Hollywood Academy Awards, with the streak of three straight Best Picture Winners broken last year as the Venice candidate – the oh-so-Hollywood La La Land – lost to an actual film deserving the best picture title Moonlight because of a change in Academy voters to include more women and minorities.

This year that voting contingent has been expanded further and so the Venice Best Picture contenders have taken into account that they may need to mix relevance with their more standard Hollywood feelgood fare, especially in this year of Trump.

The films they debuted on the red carpet of the Lido have in many ways attempted to expand the conversation while still focusing firmly on the largely white American middle class. Chiding that class for its isolation, it’s true, but also coming up against the limitations of having to speak in a language that class can understand.

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Only one film actually transcends this limitation, and does so in grand style, making it this year’s lead contender for the Best Picture. That is Guillermo Del Toro’s Cold War fantasy The Shape of Water, a film which in the blockbuster magical realist mode recalls Toro’s own Pan’s Labyrinth.

Water though actually harkens back to two other films of his, The Devil’s Backbone, a horror film set in the closing days of the fascist Franco’s Civil War in Spain which here equates the darkness of the American Cold War with those fascist times, and Hellboy, since this is also an intervention and rewriting of the superhero film with what initially looks like the monster from the Amazon, who recalls the Creature From the Black Lagoon, turning into a hero and the evolving monster becoming Michael Shannon’s maniacal and gangrenous Cold War Security head.

This is lead actress Sally Hawkins’ film. She plays a mute cleaner of a locked-down military facility who gets help in her quest to save what the military industrial complex calls a monster from an African-American female fellow worker. She stands up to her husband who is scared and hides behind the law, from a gay artist who tells the mute woman’s story, and from a Russian scientist.

This mermaid story in reverse, a rewriting of Splash from the female perspective, even features a musical number recalling La La Land. But here the musical number marks a much harder won triumph and a reprieve from the awfulness of the dreary Baltimore existence most souls were confined to in that bleak period.

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Two films that don’t quite succeed in transcending the limitations of their audience, but are well-intentioned, are George Clooney’s Suburbicon and Alexander Payne’s Downsizing. As does The Shape of Water, Suburbicon reworks the flattering idea that characters like Mad Men’s Don Draper were, despite all the racism and intolerance, charismatic builders of a new world.

Matt Damon, the star of both films, is a corporate chief financial officer slowly going to pieces, though he continues to retain his seemingly in control discourse of mastery as his world disintegrates. Here, late 50s middle America is revealed to be a place, like America today, of rigidly-confined, morally-bankrupt shysters.

The problem is that the Coen Brothers script eventually plays the material too broadly, and it moves from social satire to more blockbuster black comedy, losing all subtlety. A subplot involving a suburban rousting of a black family – complete with Confederate flag thrown in their window – resounds with the Virginia race riot,and reminds us that the supposed primitiveness of the late 1950s has in no way been transcended.

Downsizing, again with Damon as an American middle-class everyman, this time gently takes on both the destruction of the planet through global warming and the reduced expectations of his class, as Damon shrinks and enters a tiny gated community claiming to then be doing his part to save the world.

The tiny jokes are clever, as the film is a sort of Darby O’Gill and the Little People meets Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth, but the film seems like too little too late, as the Damon character finally realizes there is inequality even in his gated tiny world and eventually pledges to help right that wrong, but within the confines of the community. The transformation is touching but restores an image of the American middle class of essentially being “nice” people rather than a pampered class whose lifestyle and sense of entitlement is responsible for a global destruction that is now coming home to roost.

Far worse is Paul Schrader’s First Reformed. This follows the story of a priest questioning his values when confronted by an environmental activist, and reeks of a self-righteousness that is not only Schrader at his worst but Schrader combined with the pretentiousness of lead actor Ethan Hawkes, whose self-important projects are beginning to mark him as a Tom Cruise of the indie set. Can you say Vanilla Sky?

The film sees itself in the line of Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest but can’t help end up being closer to the blockbuster pretentiousness of a King of Kings here scaled down to fit a low budget.

Even worse is James Toback’s The Private Life of a Modern Woman, possibly the worst film of the festival which, like the Schrader film, uses the diary writing cliché – once a vibrant technique in French New Wave filmmaking – to here recount the privileged status of a Hollywood star. She is played lethargically by Sienna Miller, who has murdered her lowlife boyfriend, thrown him in a trunk and rationalizes the killing by claiming it has made her a more aware person. Far better actors traipse through her apartment – Alec Baldwin, Charles Grodin – but to no avail, as she continues her pop aphorisms which translate as the truth of the privileged and are more revealing about the snobby righteousness of this class then they are meant to be.

Venice as innovator

The second major story is the festival’s willingness to innovate along with its ecumenism. It is all things to all people, being able this year to absorb the Hollywood onslaught since, as one producer put it, low and mid-level U.S. production, like the films discussed above, now depends on the festival circuit and European festivals in particular for successful openings.

The trick is for mid-level Hollywood production not to dominate European films at Euro festivals. That the pendulum may have swung too far in this direction could be seen at the booing of the festival’s logo this year which was entirely oriented toward Hollywood with outlines of Freddy Kruger, Luke Skywalker and Gene Kelly dancing across Italian screens. This year though there are more and – so claims the festival’s director Alberto Barbera – better Italian films as well.

A major area of innovation is that Venice this year is the first major film festival to host a Virtual Reality competition, with 22 films varying from 6 minutes to Taiwanese director Tsai Ming Ling’s 56 minute first VR feature, The Deserted. The VR festival is being held on the island of Lazarretto Vecchio, once a hospital for quarantining plague victims.

It is now turned into a VR theatre where you sit with about 20 others, put on the goggles and headsets and watch. Tsai’s film, is a continuation of his aesthetic, sometimes called Asian Miserabilism, which is a pejorative description of films which champion the lives of the downtrodden.

Barbera has also absorbed easily both Netflix, Amazon and television, claiming that audiences have many ways of viewing, and refusing to discriminate among them, which is very different than the Cannes controversy over Netflix’ presence in the competition.

The two Netflix entries though were subpar. Our Souls at Night reunited Robert Redford and Jane Fonda, who have both been on the screen for six decades, in a film which though directed by the Indian helmer of the very good The Lunchbox failed to deliver on its concept. The very straightforward Fonda character knocks on Redford’s door and proposes that these two retirees, neighbours for years, begin sleeping together to bare their souls in what I guess amounts to ‘meeting cute’ for the geriatric set.

The problem is that they never do get to talking in a meaningful way and when the Fonda character does present a painful event that changed her life, it is quickly glanced over. She looks great on screen, more Barbarella than On Golden Pond, but her character is underwritten and shrill, while Redford’s restrained male is much more likable. A shame they couldn’t have been more equal.

The other main Netflix event was its production of the Italian Television Series Suburra where the first two episodes were screened. The series which, like the extremely successful Gomorrah, follows a book and a film, details a mob attempt at a takeover of a Roman beach at Ostia to turn it into a port for the importation of cocaine from the South.

The political manoeuvring involves the Vatican, the Rome government, and the local mob being leaned on by the Sicilian Mafia. The detailing of this plot is excellent but the series, in an attempt to expand the material and “skew young”, makes way too much of a blackmail attempt of a monsignor by three youths. They are all disaffected, as the unemployment rate among the young in Italy is 35%, but here their outre lifestyle is expressed in boring overbearing club music as heroic, rather than as what has been left to them. The series has a long way to go to achieve the casual and truthful cruelty of how the mob ruins lives and structures its economy in Gomorrah.

Venice as critic of the refugee crisis

The third story of the festival is the onscreen concern with refugees which in a way accounted for three of the best films of the first week. Eye on Juliet by Canadian director Kim Nguyen is a drone romance, a highly improbable linking of capitalist technology protecting Middle East oil pipelines and a woman trying to flee a stifling situation.

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The artist Ai Wei Wei’s Human Flow tracks the refugee question, as Europe closes its borders to those who are fleeing wars – from Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria –
that the Western powers instigated. The film, often in exquisitely beautiful shots tracks the plight of those fleeing wars caused by climate degradation, or imperialist attempts to garner their home countries’ resource wealth.

A stunning overhead shot descends slowly on what at first look like ants and then we watch as civilians are rousted from refugee camps by Turkish forces, in a deal that Europe has used to hide the crisis. The film, where Ai Wei Wei uses his status as an art world superstar to call attention to the worse migrant crisis since World War II, could not be more timely. Apart from Trump’s renewed call for a US-Mexican Wall, the four Western European powers met last week and created a quota system which will limit Muslims from entering Western Europe, and the Italian police in Rome thuggishly dismantled a camp of Africans fleeing war and climate poverty.

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Finally, the very wonderful documentary This is Congo, which along with The Shape of Water is the best film so far of the festival. It explores through its tracing of four characters the troubled history of that mineral rich country, also a site of imperialist resource grabs, and refugee crises.

The film opens on verdant fields and cow pastures, as a young colonel in the Congolese army says he will return to farming when his job is done. We then follow him as he in honoured by the president Joseph Kabila, little realizing the honour is about beefing him up as he is sent into the danger zone of the mineral processing city of Goma where a rebel army has taken control.

His bravery defeats the mercenaries but he then falls victim himself to the Congolese authorities, and his story truly illustrates why wars have infested the country for so long. The colonial past is rehearsed as is the role of the West in Rwanda and Uganda in fomenting conflict and fragmenting the mineral rich eastern Congo.

The filmmakers also had access to the rebel leader who spouts revolutionary patter to disguise a naked grab for wealth; to a tailor who must flee the so-called rebels arriving in a refugee camp with only his sewing machine; and to Mama Romance, a mineral smuggler whose stones are used for weddings.

The country’s history is rich in betrayal since the American-inspired killing of the truly revolutionary leader Lumumba, and the film well illustrates both the quagmire the country is mired in and the indomitable spirit of its people to continue the struggle.

Venice Biennale 2017
Monday, 11 September 2017 19:43

Venice Biennale 2017

Published in Visual Arts

Dennis Broe reviews the 2017 Venice Biennale.

This year’s Biennale is bigger but not necessarily better than the more overtly politicized 2015 version curated by Okwui Enwezor.

The event, which is running through November, is curated by the Paris Pompidou Center’s Christine Macel and represents in many ways a toning down of the more radical orientation of two years ago. Enwezor’s curated exhibition in the Guardini, the Venetian Guardians, opened with the pavilion in mourning, the entrance draped all in black, for the lingering effects of austerity and the still echoing financial crisis. This year’s Pavilion, design by Sam Gilliam, is draped in bright blue and red flags illustrating Macel’s guiding contention that “in a time of global disorder, art embraces life.”

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This is also quietly one of the most feminist or at any rate female art festivals ever staged. The mood is not sombre or critical and lies a bit outside the realm of more typical art world creation and celebration of celebrity. It’s more in touch with earthly goals, as in the documentation of Anne Halprin’s “Planetary Dance” staged in California’s Marin County. It abounds in materials that accentuate women’s traditional work, such as the male artist Lee Mingwei’s Mending Project that has various threads connecting different parts of the world, and Sheila Hicks’ giant balls of yarn, that are given pride of place at the end of the long hall of the larger curated exhibition in the Arsenale, Venice’s former boatmaking complex. And, finally, it is less under the sway of celebrity. Of the 120 artists, 103 are here for the first time.

The Arsenale is divided into different pavilions, and the Dionysian pavilion is an answer to so many years of women’s sexuality being expressed for the pleasure of men. Here sexuality is expressed of, often by, and for women. Hugette Caland’s vagina etchings have the raw elegance of Egon Schiele’s nudes without the commercial vulgarity of Tracey Emin’s. French-Algerian Kader Attia’s installation first presents a narrow hall where the records of various North African and Middle Eastern female musical artists are on display, in the more confining way the industry presents them. The work then opens up into a spacious but dark room with the artist’s videos, in a way that suggests their inner being beyond the confines of a male recording industry. Only Pauline Curnier Jardin’s sado-maso porn, in a digital video cave that conforms too closely to the male image of the dominating female, mars this foregrounding of female sexuality.

The Pavilion of the Earth illustrates the continuing rape of the planet in the lust for its raw materials. Julian Charriere from Switzerland highlights the coming gold rush in the new hunt for what is being called “white petroleum,” the lithium that powers cell phones and will power the electric car. Incidentally, huge deposits have been discovered under North Korea as the Trump administration makes its bid to stake its claim on them.

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Charriere’s drab towers of deposits, called Future Fossil Spaces, glow from the inside with the eerie blueish light of the mineral. Across the way are the Vietnamese artist Thu Van Tran’s depleted and mangled rubber trees, which remind us of one of the major reasons for French colonization of that country in the last century’s race for its most precious commodity.

Next to these, art superstar Gabriel Orozco’s more tepid mangled logs, titled Visible Labor, seemed languorous and overly convoluted. There is in this Biennale little follow-up to the Nigerian Enwezor’s focus on African Art, but one of the strongest moments of the Arsenal was the indigenous Inuit artist Kanaginak Pootoogook’s depictions of that besieged community participating in a whale hunt and accosted in the office of a Canadian Mountie.

Marie Voignier’s Safari Memories employs the language of wealthy safari hunters, one talks of “clutching a U237 pistol in his belt,” to, as in Ulrike’s Seidel’s film Safari, catch the colonial mentality at work in those hunts. Although here, the rich privileged mood of the Euro hunters is much more ominously about power than Seidel’s later deluded middle-class following, in the wake of this earlier wave.

Though there were strong moments, the overall more laid back and in the end less confrontational mood of this Biennale, whose lacklustre title is Viva Arte Viva, easily could move from art as salvation to “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” with balls of yarn as ultimate signifiers only able to accomplish so much.

More could be gleaned from the country pavilions, those relics of a bygone nationalism, which in overall mood, outside the more typical Western powers, which propose in the sum total of their individual practices a more universalist answer than that offered by the curated event to the continuing horrors of capitalism.

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In the Arsenale, Georgia’s exhibit of a peasant house filled with rain that you could peer into, retained a kind of creepiness that suggested Jim’s finding of Huck Finn’s dead father, but also of the continuing decay of the former Soviet countries in the wake of their neoliberal “awakening.” This was echoed in the Latvian What Can Go Wrong, where Mikilis Fisers’ etchings of a planetary takeover by space invaders, with the creatures conducting at the Met while dead bodies hang from the curtains and parading up the Champs Elysees, playfully suggest that in our world ruled by the 1% the takeover has already occurred.

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In the apocryphal vein also was Italy’s Roberto Cuoghi’s Imitation of Christ where all kinds of distorted bodies of Christ on the cross suggest past histories of genocide – and a future genocide to come, as a Christ roasting in a digital oven echoes the new finding that within 20 years almost half of the U.S. population will lose their jobs to automation.

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The strongest exhibition though, and the supreme expression of this future terror, was Russia’s tripartite hall of first a demon towering over clay workers in a shadowy future, that echoed those depicted by Alfaro Siquieros in the World War II fascist period. This is followed in the next room by the writhing body of a woman on whom the modern terror of a fading capitalism is imprinted. And a final brightly lighted room that seems to be the digital answer but instead has bodies implanted in marble, imprisoned by the digital coding scrawled on the sculpture. The exhibit constituted a truly horrific imagining of our future present and the world toward which Trump, the Republican neo-cons and the Democrat new Cold War neo-liberals are steering us.

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Colonialism in both its old and newer forms is tackled in the New Zealand and Australian pavilions. Lisa Rhihana's diorama Pursuit of Venus traces the interaction between the British James Cook’s colonizing wave and the more peaceful daily pursuits of the Maori – dancing, jousting and preparing food, little dreaming of the holocaust that was to await them.

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Tracey Moffat equally traces the haunted arrival of Cook in Australia in The White Ships Sailed In through found footage of an arrival of a boat in the early part of the last century, the colonial equivalent of the Lumiere’s Arrival of a Train at the Station. A second film intercuts scenes of shocked actors in Hollywood films, Jimmy Stewart, Doris Day, with arriving refugees, making the stars’ trauma seem to be about their arrival. Brazil’s Hunting Ground in its first rooms seems to suggest simply urban decay but then a video reveals the hunted are those in the favela’s in this Most Dangerous Game of global inequality.

Uruguay picks up the theme of colonial brutality in its The Law of the Funnell where a simple wooden device used to brand cattle suggests the whole colonial system or “jail machine”. A sign on the side warned visitors that it was “forbidden to jump in” which I guess means that some visitors to the Biennale, oblivious to their own subjugation, cannot wait to be a part of it and have been hurling themselves into the funnel.

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The Greek pavilion was the most subtle and narratively involved illustration of technologies of conquest. The pavilion is a labyrinth through which the audience travels so that on the top floor there is a white-coated scientist explaining over multiple video screens why experimenting on humans is good for them. The pavilion then ends up with filmed debate over whether the results of the experiment should be used.

Clearly drawn from the Lost scenario of the Dharma Project, the Pavilion was itself a creepy expression of the role of experts in designing technologies that are leaving human concerns behind, in a way that the Greek people have been revisioned by the European Central Bank as a country that had to be reengineered to follow the neo-liberal model.

There are also a number of exhibitions outside the Biennale this year as Venice attempts, or rather is driven to, promote more and more of the city, as the competition between cities for a shrinking tourist dollar becomes grows ever more fierce.

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So now the back side of the city, called the Dorsoduro, is being promoted as a Museum Mile, a name originally coined by developers to describe New York’s upper Fifth Avenue. Spearheading this drive is the VAC Foundation, a joint Moscow-Venice group which has taken over Palazzo Zatere and this year transformed the former palace into a three level celebration of Soviet Art at the time of the 1917 Revolution in this year of its centennial and contemporary art that echoed those principles.

I will be talking more about this exhibition and other global exhibitions commemorating the Revolution in a later article. Here was a recreation of the Russian photocollagist Aleksandr Rodchenko’s worker’s cafeteria, a print of El Lissitzky’s Constructionist and geometrical illustration of the Civil War, an attempt by the Western imperial powers to wrest the country from the Soviets titled Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge, and a soundscape recreation of Vladmir Tatlin’s futurist Tower of Babel.

Alongside these works were Barbara Kruger’s 2015 Connect which presents the iphone as a device for both good and evil with “Pleasure” on one line being echoed by “Fraud” underneath, David Goldblatt’s 1980s photos collectively titled Going Home of weary South Africans returning from work in the apartheid machine, and Cao Fei’s animation of Marx, Confucius and Mao kicking around a soccer ball and debating the meaning of a good society in RMB City, his online city of the future where capital’s problems continue to play themselves out. Most interesting exhibit in the city, which you can access online at www.v-a-c.ru.

On until the closing of the Biennale are two exhibits which equally extend the critical thrust of the Biennale’s Country Pavilions. The Prada Foundation’s The Boat is Leaking The Captain Lied has three German artists taking over a Palazzo and installing film, theater and photographic works that question the direction of late capitalism.

The Prada at the moment is on the map as its Milan space currently features a Virtual Reality piece by Alejandro Inarritu on immigrants, that is causing many to for the first time consider the aesthetic merits and potential of the form. The film director Alexander Kluge weighs in on the ground floor of this exhibit with a film showing readers of newspapers questioning that content.

Elsewhere, photographer Thomas Demand’s office spaces radiate alienation and theater designer Anna Viebrock’s set installations equally recall the sterility of justice in a court setting and technological waste as a discarded computer is surrounded by other less mechanical waste. On the whole the project, while well-intentioned, was difficult to decipher, and attempted to cram too much information into a space that was poorly organized and demarcated.

Another area of the city that is being developed as an art space is the tiny island of San Giorgio. The church of San Giorgio Maggiore has been given over to the Italian artist and founder of the movement called Arte Povera Michangelo Pistoletto. Arte Povera challenged the dominance in the 1960s art world of Pop Art, positing in its return to materials and in its conceptual frame a consciousness of how commodities had been deformed by capital instead of merely a celebration of their dominance.

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We can see this in Pistoletto’s early Venus in Rags where a model recreation of the goddess is dwarfed by the tattered clothes of those too poor to worship at her alter. Today Pistoletto creates mammoth art designed to, like Viva Arte Viva, overcome differences and point to an art utopia. Sometimes this is expressed in his photo posts of Cubans, including the back of a Cuban street sweeper, and sometimes, as in his gigantic projections of the peace symbol of a figure 8, it reads as combination of Christo’s Gigantic Wrappings and Coke’s “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing.”

Art can teach us to sing, but without a notion of discord our songs too easily reproduce the mindlessness of a globe plunging ever more quickly over the abyss.

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

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

Published in Visual Arts

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

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

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

DBroe nantes

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

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

DBroe nantes elephant images

 

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

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

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

DBroe nantes museum

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

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

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

DB memorial

 

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

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

Wonder Woman: a feminist anti-war fable?
Sunday, 09 July 2017 06:00

Wonder Woman: a feminist anti-war fable?

Published in Films

Feminist anti-war fable, or just another piece of cinematic propaganda enlisting feminism to sustain violent imperialism? Dennis Broe reviews the newly-released Wonder Woman. 

'Pure entertainment' is the handle of one twitter hashtag about the film which is now on its way to grossing 600 million worldwide, and is being hailed by critics as an unmitigated triumph. A feminist antiwar fable about equality both on the battlefield and in the superhero genre? That’s how the film is being billed. Would that it were truly so and that in the world of late capitalism it was possible to concoct something called pure entertainment. Unfortunately in the world we live in, that is hardly the case and the film equally can be read as a pro-war extravaganza that enlists and subverts its feminist cause in the service of a imperialist project, that unfortunately brings many of the evils and aggression of capitalism to the forefront of the superhero genre.

Let’s give credit where credit is due. This is a memorable intervention into a genre – the superhero film – which has up this point been entirely male focused. So that when women intervene, in say the pretty good Marvel Series Agent Carter, on ABC which is basically a women’s channel, and cancelled after two seasons, they originate as spin-offs of a male series, as Carter was spun off from Captain America.

Diana, princess of the Amazons brought up in an all-female world, though one in which she has a black nanny who is called her teacher, relates that in her reading of ancient texts she has learned that “Men are essential for procreation but when it comes to pleasure unnecessary,” giving the lie to Christian dogma which for so long forbid women’s pleasure. On the battlefield Diana is a marvel, in low-angle shots stressing her prowess as she destroys the World War I Germans, looking a lot like World War II Nazis, to an anthem that in the DC comic universe previously had only resounded for its male heroes.

Unfortunately, not everyone is cheering. Lebanon, still officially at war after Israel’s invasion in 2006, its fifth invasion of the country, has banned the film and Jordan and Tunisia are trying to figure out whether to follow suit. Its star, Gail Godot, who in the film fits that ultimate Hollywood moniker “fresh-faced” and who seems innocent in the film, served in the Israeli army around the time of one of its bloodier 2004 interventions into the Gaza strip.

Unlike some Israeli voices of peace, detailed in Amoz Gitai’s new film West of the Jordan River, Godot, a military trainer in the army, came out more gung-ho than when she entered and claimed she traded on her weapons use in the army to secure a role in the Fast and Furious franchise. Most notoriously, at the time of the 2014 Israeli invasion of the Gaza Strip – which in comic book terms given the might and the money behind that army is a little like Superman versus Bambi – as Palestinian women and children were being slaughtered, she posted on Facebook “I am sending my love and prayers to my fellow Israeli citizens,…risking their lives protecting my country…We shall overcome!!!"

Godot’s Diana is revealed in her full splendor as Wonder Woman, the first time we see the costume in its entirety, as she takes the battlefield against the Germans. She is surprised at any lack of equality for women – as when she tells the secretary of the American spy she has befriended, who says her job is to go where he tells her to go and do what he tells her to do, that where she comes from that is called slavery. And indeed in the Israeli army, where the real Godot merges with the cinematic Diana, there is female equality, with mandatory military service for women such that by 2011 33 percent of all the army and an astounding 51 percent of officers were women. while a 2000 law granted women equality in serving.

This is echoed in the film with the opening sequence of the Amazon’s warrior training, with this all-female island seemingly engaged in nothing but battle and claiming this preoccupation it is for self-defense. Not only Godot but all of the Amazons seem to speak with an Israeli accent which fosters the claim that the Israeli army itself, perhaps the most aggressive army in the world in terms of invasions of its neighbor’s territories, itself acts out of self-defence as both societies seem devoted to warfare. It’s a country which after being awarded 38 billion dollars in arms aid by Obama, the largest military aid deal in history, criticized the award as too little.

The feminism in Wonder Woman seems to be a very battle-ready one. As individual male aggression accelerates in more warlike and broken societies this makes a certain amount of sense, but the film utterly jettisons the idea that a feminist intervention might stand for pacifism and a way of compelling men to put down their weapons. Diana half-heartedly stands for peace but even she concludes by the end of the film that “ending war and bringing peace to mankind..is impossible… so I stay and fight.”

This may be the reality of the uneven world late capitalism has created, but if so it’s a fairly depressing one. In a midpoint scene, Diana unwittingly scrambles into an all-male British Parliamentary war debate and is ushered out, the point seeming to be not that war is wrong but that women should be included in making war.

If one of the feelgood stories of late capitalism, where inequality is surging, is supposedly women’s rights, here that platform is refashioned to simply be the right to die on the battlefield. It’s a misdirection for the movement, and somewhat akin to the African-American deception in being co-opted by the military in 1948, in a way that has led to a cleavage in that community, where it is necessary to continually raise consciousness over the role of an imperial army in maintaining global order and killing one’s brothers. Now we can add killing one’s sisters as well!

The male side of the film, involving the spy Steve Trevor, has him enlisting a band of minorities to fight: an Arab, a Native American and a Scotsman all enrolled under the banner of the white patron and risking themselves for him. There is also an interesting way in which the Marvel and DC “universes” intersect. Steve Trevor’s act of heroism at the end of the film is very close to Steve Rogers’ act in the Marvel Universe in defeating the Nazi Baron Zemo in Captain America, as the two corporations collide in parallel universes distinguished for their lack of imagination.

In Captain America’s male-oriented origin though, ultimately the frozen Captain America returns to life while all those around him die. Here, Diana the woman is the one living and looking back on fallen comrades. That change may be miniscule though, and one wag praised the success of Wonder Woman as scoring a badly needed victory for a franchise under siege – an attempt to enlist us to root for Warner Brothers-DC which through its generally inept films and characters has played second fiddle to Disney-Marvel. It’s a bit hard to call a multimillion dollar conglomerate an underdog but perhaps that’s what an underdog has come to be, in the era of all companies melding into one, with the other Amazon about to move into produce distribution after buying Whole Foods

Finally, there is the ultimate reveal of the villain, not the German, Nazi-like and later in reality actual Nazi General Ludendorff, but the genteel Britisher whose civilized ways conceals the demon and god of war Aries. This is an accurate depiction of the British empire which has continued to make colonial mischief after the Nazis were long gone. but in the film the implication is glided over in favor of a simple reveal and is obliterated with the special effects barrage that follows.

In the context of the 24/7 warlike nature of the film, Wonder Woman’s answer to Aries, “humans are everything you say but so much more” sounds simply like a rationale and plea for understanding the atrocities of the Israeli army. And not only that, but a plea for sustaining the capitalist and imperialist wars of dispossession which this film unfortunately is more than just lightly engaged in boosting.

Patti Cake$
Friday, 16 June 2017 13:36

Cannes 70 Final Round-Up

Published in Films

Dennis Broe gives his final report and round-up from Cannes.

This is Bro on the World Film Beat “Breaking Glass” in my final report from Cannes 2017............

Cannes Redux: Top Films Outside the Main Competition

My colleagues have gone home long ago, but I’m still wandering the Croissette here at Cannes, selecting the smaller films that over the next year will be released in fits and starts. What follows is a reckoning of what not to miss, what is eminently missable and some oddities and one-shots in films that are then run in Paris after the festival at the Forum des Images, the Reflet Medici and the Cinemateque.  

If it appeared that the traditional arthouse and commercial cinema may be under attack through streaming services like Netflix and through television, this was still at Cannes a healthy outpouring of films that combined a social realism heightened by genre cinema influences either by Hollywood directly (the occasionally Tarentino-esque Bulgarian film Directions and the Martin Scorsese executive produced Italian migrant film A Ciambra) or by global cinema genres (the 70’s spaghetti Western look and feel of the Indonesian Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts).

A dominant pattern then for Cannes political cinema, circa 2017, a pattern that despite Netflix and television still has life in it, is a foundation of Belgium filmmakers the Dardenne Brothers (multiply screened and honored at Cannes with such films as Rosetta, The Promise, and Two Days, One Night) up-close following of down-and-out characters, overlaid with crime and mystery genre elements enhancing the mood. Indeed the Dardennes produced one of the most challenging films of the festival in Loveless, a devastating critique of consumer society in Russia.

Best of the Rest:

Directions.

Posoki is the Bulgarian word for this film about the breakdown of social relations in Sofia, the capital, in the post-Soviet, post-capitalist era. The directions are the traversing of the capital by cab drivers whose series of mostly nocturnal encounters collectively describe a society in turmoil where fellow-feeling has collapsed. The film begins with a besieged driver, who has just lost his business and is indebted to the banks, dropping off his daughter at her high school and picking up another teen who claims to be going to see her grandmother but who is actually a “working girl” at a luxury hotel, where she makes far more than the cabdriver. He shoos the girl out of the cab and then assaults the banker who has just doubled his debt in what is just the opening gambit of a series of humiliating encounters between bedraggled, worldweary but still basically honest drivers and the customers in the classes above who prey on them. A reversal of how the business is usually perceived, more Daniel Blake in the way that the drivers as everymen and women of a society on the brink are exploited than victimizers themselves, as in Taxi Driver.

DB cannes directions

 Pure Hearts or Cuori Puri.

 While the headlines in the Italian Cinema are grabbed by fawning and innocuous directors like Paolo Sorrentino (the Academy Award-winning The Great Beauty and HBO’s The Young Pope), there is in the belly of this cinema a more socially conscious movement which knows that in a society with high unemployment and increasing social tensions crime, as John Huston proclaimed, is just “a left-handed form of human endeavor.”

We’ve seen Gomorrah, the film and television series, and last year’s Cannes entry Fiore or Flower, Romeo in Juliet set in a Milanese prison. This year we have the Martin Scorsese exec-produced A Ciambra directed by Jonas Carpignano who was at Cannes two years ago with Mediterranea, an immigrant film focused on the difficult interaction, once arrived, of sub-Saharan Africans with Italian locals.

More in line with last year’s Fiori is Pure Hearts, Cuori Puri, which opens with its male and female youths pursuing each other in what we learn is one of them trying to catch the shoplifting other but which seems to simply be their passion which in the course of the film will triumph over the mixed backgrounds of working class born-again Catholic, underclass petty criminality, and Roma caught between the two. Another Cannes irruption of a movement worth celebrating.

Wind River

 The rape and murder of an 18-year-old girl on a Wyoming Indian Reservation is the occasion for an examination of the inner lives of those caught on the res, and a socially interesting and relevant indictment of contemporary outside forces which perpetuate that historical misery. The trail of the murder lead expert hunter Jeremy Renner and inexperienced but committed FBI agent Elizabeth Olsen (paired previously as Hawkeye and The Scarlet Witch in The Avengers), apropos of the Pine Ridge protests, to an energy company whose shadowy army of mercenaries impose themselves on the natives. First directing effort by Taylor Sheridan who wrote the script for last year’s Cannes entry Hell and High Water, about righteous bank robbers in the impoverished Texas Panhandle. Concluding sequence of Wind River with two Native American fathers, one in warpaint, attempting to assuage their sorrow and guilt proves this to be more than just a capable crime film though it is certainly that in spades.

DB cannes patty cakes

 The best film of the festival was Patti Cake$, a Jersey musical that celebrates both the resilient spirit of rap and the place of music in sustaining working class cultures within the state’s morass of chemical plants that has all but left them for dead. Danielle MacDonald leads a multi-culti gang of misfits that includes her mother and grandmother as her dreams of music industry stardom are first compared to her stark bartending reality and then in a small way materialize. The film is far from naïve about the tensions at play in a white rapper but ultimately settles for a view of the liberatory quality of the music no matter where or by who it is practiced. The film is also with its soundtrack that includes Springsteen, Heart and Rhythm and Blues, a reminder of the epochs of music that have invigorated and sustained all kinds of working class cultures in Jersey through the ages.

A musical of a different color was Bruno Dumont’s Jeanette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc which features the pre-teen Joan moshing to punk rhythms with a duo of nuns in her sheep fields. The film is at first outrageous especially in that it recasts this legend which is the mainstay of a deep-seated French rightwing. However, as is often true with badboy Dumont, what starts out as rebellious, soon turns in its own way respectful so that all the punk moshing in the end simply reinvigorates with its own highly religious overlay, rather than truly rewrites, the legend of the warrior girl.

Less than meets the eye, although its shot setup is actually quite stunning, is another Netflix entry Bushwick, a supposedly Red State/Blue State fable about an attack on the now hipster community of Bushwick, Brooklyn by extreme Republican outside forces. The film purports to be about liberal, multicultural values threatened by the primitive rest of the country, but actually is a vision of paranoia by its blonde heroine that is closer to an accurate portrait of the mentality of the white settler/artist class that is now colonising Bushwick as the shock troops of gentrification. Stunning long takes in the battlefield scenes cannot save the film from its limited  lack of perspective.

 Worse yet is the Italian film Dopo La Guerra, After The War, about a former radical in the largely unrecounted civil war in Italy in the 1970s, now in the 1980s exiled in France and about to be repatriated to stand trial for his political crimes. The film is told through the perspective of his teenage daughter who tells him at one point to stop talking about politics and concentrate on her needing blue jeans. There is nothing wrong with a teenage coming of age story but here it is used as a battering ram in a very middle class perspective to pulverise the radical inattentive dad. In the consumerist mind of the film, jeans are more important than politics and they take a back seat to principles. Or you might say in a middle class consumerist culture, blue jeans are all that is left of principles.

An oddity of the festival was the Portuguese Fabrica da nada, The Nothing Factory about a group of workers trying to decide whether to make a stand as their factory is about to be closed. The film is dead-on in its trio of suits who explain to the worker’s why they cannot understand the larger dynamics of factories closing, an opinion which is undercut in the worker’s later pointed discussions about the injustices of capitalist globalization from the point of view of those left behind.

Unfortunately, as is often the case with the New Portuguese Cinema, though the subject matter is devoutly to be wished, the slow, grinding presentation and the lack of movement make this not a triumph but a trying engagement with a committed cinema. Here the form, rather than enhancing or expanding, restrains and dilutes the content.

That concludes Cannes 2017. It’s time for me to leave the Croissette and “Shuffle Off to Buffalo” or at least shuttle back to Paris. This is Bro on the World Film Beat signing off. 

Twin Peaks
Tuesday, 13 June 2017 19:45

Cannes 70 Part 3: Best of the Fest

Published in Films

Dennis Broe runs through the best of the fest at Cannes this year.

What were the two most prominent stories at the 70th iteration of the Cannes Film Festival, the ultimate competition and market for cinema? One was the increased presence of the streaming cable service Netflix, which seldom even opens films in theaters, and the other was Serial Television and the continuing challenge it poses to auteur and mid-level film production.

Netflix was represented in the main competition by two films, the better of which was Okja by the South Korean genre director Boon Joon Ho (the seminal serial killer film Memories of Murder). Joon Ho’s characteristic streak of social activism this time expresses itself as a children’s anti-corporate fable about an agribusiness growing a superpig, a pignocerous, that manages to cross ET with Killer of Sheep, Charles Burnett’s examination of the psychological damage the everyday grind of a slaughterhouse inflicts.

Serial Television, at least in its Anglo variety, made its first appearance at the festival in two follow-up works by auteur directors: David Lynch’s Twin Peaks and Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake: China Girl. Given that the series were screened at Cannes, both raise the question of whether what we were watching television second seasons or cinematic sequels. If it appears that the traditional art house and commercial cinema may be under attack, this is indeed the case yet there was still at Cannes a healthy outpouring of films that combined social realism heightened by genre cinema influences either by Hollywood directly (the occasionally Tarentino-esque Bulgarian film Directions and the Martin Scorsese executive produced Italian migrant film A Ciambra) or by global cinema genres (the 70s spaghetti Western look and feel of the Indonesian Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts).

The dominant pattern then for Cannes noir, circa 2017, a pattern that despite Netflix and television still has life in it, is built on a foundation of Belgium filmmakers the Dardenne Brothers – screened and honored at Cannes with such films as Rosetta, The Promise, and Two Days, One Night – and their technique of close-up following of down-and-out characters with crime and mystery genre elements enhancing the mood. Indeed the Dardennes produced one of the most unclassifiable and critical films of the festival Western, whose title is less a genre indication than an indication of the theme – the global and economic power of Western Europe to obliterate the East.

So – a countdown of the best films on offer……..    

Cannes Crime 2017: Top 5 Noir Film and Television Series

5. Directions

Posoki is the Bulgarian word for this film about the breakdown of social relations in Sofia, the capital, in the post-Soviet, post-capitalist era. The directions are the traversing of the capital by cab drivers whose series of mostly nocturnal encounters collectively describe a society in turmoil where fellow-feeling has collapsed. The film begins with a besieged driver, who has just lost his business and is indebted to the banks, dropping off his daughter at her high school and picking up another teen who claims to be going to see her grandmother but who is actually a “working girl” at a luxury hotel, where she makes far more than the cabdriver.

DB cannes directions

He shoos the girl out of the cab and then assaults the banker who has just doubled his debt in what is just the opening gambit of a series of humiliating encounters between bedraggled, world-weary but still basically honest drivers, and the customers in the classes above who prey on them. A reversal of how the business is usually perceived, and more like I, Daniel Blake in the way that the drivers, as everymen and women of a society on the brink, are exploited than Taxi Driver.

4. Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts

Feminine fight-back was a subtheme of the festival in this summer of Wonder Woman. This Indonesian film by Mouly Surya fuses the rich heritage of Indonesian folk tale – detailed so vividly in last year’s Beauty Is A Wound, Ika Kurniawan’s novel about a prostitute surviving Dutch, Japanese and Indonesian militias – and the visual and iconographic heritage of the 1970s Sergio Leone Italian Spaghetti Western.

DB cannes marlina

The landscape for this tale of a woman set upon by thieves who steal her property, is the flat arid Old West plains of the island of Sumba, far from the usual tropical rainforest that is the image of the country. Marlina triumphs over the men in a way similar to that of the triumph of the Girl’s School in Sophia Coppola’s competition film The Beguiled. But that is only the beginning of her tale which features equally the awakening of a pregnant companion along the way. This struggle takes place in the face of the inert figure of Marlina’s mummified husband, no help in confronting wanton male energy in a cruel landscape, where the human scale is reduced to a single horizon line, in shots that signal the majesty of a major director emerging onto the world stage.

3. A Ciambra/Cuori Puri

While the headlines are grabbed by fawning and innocuous directors like Paolo Sorrentino (the Academy Award-winning The Great Beauty and HBO’s The Young Pope), there is in the belly of the Italian Cinema a more socially conscious movement which knows that in a society with high unemployment and increasing social tensions crime, as John Huston proclaimed, is just “a left-handed form of human endeavor.”

We’ve seen Gomorrah, the film and television series, and last year’s Cannes entry Fiore or Flower; Romeo in Juliet set in a Milanese prison. This year we have the Martin Scorsese exec-produced A Ciambra directed by Jonas Carpignano, who was at Cannes two years ago with Mediterranea, a distinctive immigrant film which focused not on the African trip across that sea but on the difficult interaction, once arrived, with Italian locals.

DB cannes a ciambra

This film, shot and conceived in a starkly realistic style, concerns a Roma, a gypsy boy’s bitter coming of age. It details his relation with a Ghanian, Khoudas Seihan from the previous film, who befriends the boy Pio but whose friendship Pio must balance with the demands of his own clan, a rung just above the Africans, and the pressures of the dominant Italians who police the ethnic hierarchical structure. A Ciambra – the title derived from the name of a tiny town in impoverished Southern Italy – is a kind of multicultural updating of Scorsese’s own Mean Streets featuring a preadolescent De Niro.

More in line with Fiori is Pure Hearts, Cuori Puri, which opens with its male and female youths pursuing each other. We find out that one of them is trying to catch the shoplifting other shoplifting, but beneath that is their passion for each other. In the course of the film this triumphs over the mixed backgrounds of working class born-again Catholic, underclass petty criminality, and Roma caught between the two. Another Cannes irruption of a countercultural movement worth celebrating

2. Wind River

The rape and murder of an 18-year-old girl on a Wyoming Indian Reservation is the occasion for an examination of the inner lives of those caught on the reservation, and a socially interesting and relevant indictment of contemporary outside forces which perpetuate that historical misery.

The trail of the murder lead expert hunter Jeremy Renner and inexperienced but committed FBI agent Elizabeth Olsen – paired previously as Hawkeye and The Scarlet Witch in The Avengers – apropos the Pine Ridge protests, to an energy company whose shadowy army of mercenaries impose themselves on the natives. It’s the first directing effort by Taylor Sheridan, who wrote the script for last year’s Cannes entry Hell and High Water about righteous bank robbers in the impoverished Texas Panhandle. Concluding sequence of Wind River with two Native American fathers, one in warpaint, attempting to assuage their sorrow and guilt proves this again to be more than just a capable crime film – though it is certainly that in spades.

1. Western

An excellent examination of the global and the local from New German director Valeska Grisebach. The film details the spirit of colonisation with which a German crew and especially the foreman, building a hydroelectric dam, treat the Bulgarian inhabitants of the nearby village.

The main protagonist is an ex-mercenary, as he says a Legionnaire, who, having served in Iraq and Afghanistan, disdains violence and conquering and attempts to forge relations with the villagers. The construction crew foreman, on the other hand, projects contemporary German economic might as in direct relation to its Nazi past, claiming that “we were here 70 years ago, and now we’re back.”

DB2 cannes western

The film, in dealing with the inhabitants of Europe’s poorest country, refuses the easy labelling of their peasant organizational structure as “mafia” and instead highlights their collective customs. The legionnaire ultimately, and somewhat despite himself, begins to exhibit a more domineering manner and the film leaves open the question as to whether these cultural patterns can be transcended. The undercurrent of violence in the film is promoted not by the natives, as in say Straw Dogs, but rather by the modern colonialists who fly the German flag as a sign of their economic dominance.

Out of Competition But Not Out of Mind

Top of the Lake/Twin Peaks

Both are ultimately a bit disappointing. The better of the two is Top of the Lake, which began well with  the female detective Robin Griffin now back in her workplace of Sydney, investigating both the death of a Chinese sex worker and middle class exploitation of migrants as baby incubators, surrogates.

DB cannes top of the lake

Both investigations are somehow tied to a frustrated philosophy professor/pimp who initially holds the place of the drug lord patriarch of the first season. However, the series dissolves into a haze of ambiguity and confusion as the patriarch becomes a fractured truth teller and the upper middle class Nicole Kidman character instead of being evil becomes is instead merely obnoxious, weakening what was a promising beginning.

DB cannes twin peaks

Twin Peaks unfortunately has a similar trajectory. The question here was, would the series return to a refashioning of the “Who Killed Laura Palmer” framework which made it the best and most influential series ever on the air. Or would it languish in the Demon Bob aftermath of the mess that was the final episodes after the revelation of the incest behind and at the root of the American experience. and that carried over into the experimental but nonsensical Fire Walk With Me.

There is more than the germ of a great series here, not only in the return of many of the Twin Peaks characters but also in a South Dakota story involving a seemingly innocent high school principle, his lawyer, and his wife. But, there is also too much Demon Bob taking over Agent Cooper’s nonsensical skullduggery. Lynch’s explorations of the unconscious are always best (in Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks and Mulholland Drive) when initially grounded in the social world. Still much to like here though, as a New York section quotes Andy Warhol’s Empire as a watcher of the now digital skyline of the city is then punished for his watching in a way that suggests we are all now couch potatoes awaiting our comeuppance.

The Villainess

There is some wondrous bloodletting in this South Korean epic, screened as a midnight film, whose subjective camera opening, recalling the ‘40s noir Lady in the Lake, depicts the savage fighting skills of its gang-trained female assassin. She is then tamed and domesticated as she moves to a legitimate position inside a government security agency and falls for one of its operatives.

DB3 cannes the villainess

Finally though, betrayed by both the agency and the gang, she exacts her revenge in a death-defying armored car sequence that, along with the opening, is a tour-de-force settling of accounts for a whole cinematic and actual history of male violence against women. As she is cuffed by the police, the camera closes in on her and we watch a smile slowly cross her face; the smile seemingly her excitement at the power she is capable of wielding rather than the more simplified satisfaction in male action films of revenge.

Cannes 70 Part 2
Friday, 02 June 2017 20:34

Cannes 70 Part 2

Published in Films

 Dennis Broe in Cannes reports on migrants dying at the festival, heavy and stifling security, female warriors and the Golden Age of African Cinema.

This is Bro on the World Film Beat Once Again “Breaking Glass” at the Cannes Film Festival.

The prizes are in at the festival and first prize, the Palme d’Or, goes to The Square, a Swedish film about the persistence of big money in the art world. Meanwhile, the continuing breaking story at Cannes concerned migrants, two of whom turned up dead in Cannes during the festival while onscreen the Hungarian film Jupiter’s Moon opens with a unarmed Syrian migrant gunned down by the local police, who then acquires the power of, no pun intended, flight in a kind of crossing of the Marvel comics series Legion with the starkest European social reality.

Elsewhere French director Michael Toesca brought four migrants to Cannes to call attention to their plight as the police forbid them from taking their place on the red carpet with the director. This famous tapis rouge on which Nicole Kidman, in four films and honoured by the festival, was a fashion sensation was in a way mocked in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks where agent Cooper seems to be trapped in a red velour curtain, like the carpet, and cannot find his way back to reality as so much of the event seems to both want to embrace the social ills of contemporary Europe and to at the same time deny them, subsuming then in a wash of consumerist glamour.

The order of the day in week two was television, as Cannes screened what was claimed as its first, not one but two, television series: the second season of Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake in its entire six episodes and the sequel to Twin Peaks with episodes one and two screened days after opening on Showtime in the U.S. Footnote, this is not the first series screened at Cannes, that honour goes to Bruno Dumont’s P’tite Quinquin, a four episode series which screened in 2014 but was not a high profile American series and even earlier to 2010s Carlos by Olivier Assayas.

The Top of the Lake screening was unique. We were sitting in a Cannes theatre watching TV for six hours with director Campion and her actors and crew and snacking after every two episodes with candy and granola bars supplied by the screeners. I consider these two series along with Cannes bad boy Lars Von Trier’s The Kingdom the three crucial series for the establishment of a more committed and critical form of serial television, the most dynamic contemporary narrative form, which Cannes by holding the screenings was acknowledging.

Top of the Lake season two began well, with the first two episodes, this season with the female detective Robin Griffin now back in her workplace of Sydney Australia investigating the death of a Chinese sex worker and as well the middle class exploitation of migrants as baby incubators, surrogates, with both somehow tied to a frustrated philosophy professor/pimp who initially holds the place of the drug lord patriarch of the first season. A very promising start but the series then dissolves into a haze of ambiguity and confusion as the patriarch himself becomes a fractured truth teller and the upper middle class Nicole Kidman character instead of being evil as is hinted in her earlier appearances in the series becomes instead merely obnoxious, weakening what was a very promising beginning.

Twin Peaks unfortunately has a similar trajectory. The question here was, would the series return to a refashioning of the “Who Killed Laura Palmer” framework which made it the best and most influential series ever on the air – or would it languish in the demon Bob aftermath of the mess that was the final episodes post the revelation of the incest behind and at the root of the American experience and that carried over into the experimental but nonsensical Fire Walk With Me.

There is more than the germ of a great series here, not only in the return to the Twin Peaks characters but also in a South Dakota story involving a seemingly innocent high school principle, his lawyer and his wife. The second episode though remains consumed in the demon Bob taking over agent Cooper nonsensical skullduggery. Lynch’s explorations of the unconscious are always best, in Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks and Mulholland Drive, when they are initially grounded in the social world and episode two disdains that grounding.

The series does explore two crucial questions. One is, given the series’ consciousness of itself as aging 25 years, does the unconscious or how does the unconscious age? The second is, what is the impact of the digital age on the unconscious, or rather, do we have any unconscious left or are we all simply preordained images mixed in a consumer morass that is now our minds? A New York section quotes Andy Warhol’s Empire as a watcher of the now digital skyline of the city is then punished for his watching in a way that suggests we are all now couch potatoes perhaps awaiting our comeuppance.

Though Top of the Lake attempts to map the battlefield of contemporary male-female relations three other films at the festival do it better and with less ambiguity. First is Sophia Coppola’s remake of the Clint Eastwood film The Beguiled with wounded Union soldier Colin Ferrell rescued by a Girl’s School near the end of the Civil War and which we heard a clip from in the opening of the show. Four different ages of women within the school all become enamored with the soldier with this remake told not through his eyes, as is the Don Siegel original, but through theirs.

This is a coming-of-age film for director Coppola, awarded the best director prize at the festival, where the past as in Marie Antoinette is still not really the past, but a screen on which to project post-feminist struggles, but here those struggles and the women’s ability to fight back and to form a collective is what is emphasized in a deepening of the post-feminist position.

Second in this fight-back line is the remarkable Indonesian film Marlina, The Murderer in Four Acts by Mouly Surya, a combination of the rich heritage of Indonesian folk tale and the visual and iconographic heritage of the 1970s Sergio Leone Italian Spaghetti Western. The landscape for this tale of a woman set upon by thieves who steal her property is the flat arid Old West plains of the island of Sumba, far from the usual tropical rainforest that is the image of the country. Marlina, triumphs over the men in a way similar to that of the triumph of the Girl’s School in The Beguiled but that is only the beginning of her tale which features equally the awakening of a pregnant companion along the way, all in the face of the inert figure of Marlina’s mummified husband, no help in confronting wanton male energy in a cruel landscape where the human scale is reduced to a single horizon line in shots that betray the majesty of a director emerging onto the world stage.

DB3 cannes the villainess

Finally, there is the wondrous bloodletting of the South Korean epic, screened as a midnight film, The Villainess, which first depicts the savage fighting skills of its gang-trained female assassin, then tames and domesticates her as she moves to a legitimate position inside a government security agency and falls for one of its operatives. Finally though, betrayed by both the agency and the gang, she exacts her revenge in a death-defying armored car sequence before being taken by the police as the last shot closes in on her smile as she is cuffed, the smile seemingly her excitement at the power she wields rather than the more simplified satisfaction of revenge.

I would like to continue my coverage of Cannes 70 with a tribute to the range of films the festival screens. In one day I first saw An Inconvenient Sequel, Al Gore’s follow-up 10 years later to his Academy Award winning doc on climate change. In the decade between, Gore has become, not embittered, but sharper and more direct in his message, pointing out that there are now places in Africa where because of the increased pestilence caused by the heat which promotes the Zika virus women are being told to wait two years to have babies while in the U.S. for the same reason pregnant women are warned not to visit Miami where Gore explains the flooding coming from the melting of Greenland may sink that city faster than Venice. He identifies the fossil fuel industry as the villain and though still guilty of consorting with known Democrats like Chuck Schumer does point out that his heritage, where his father opposed LBJ’s War in Vietnam, is from a time when Democrats had both a heart and a spine.

Next, on the same day, I saw in the Cannes Classic Section African director Med Hondo’s Soleil O, the first restoration by The African Project, partially funded by George Lucas and introduced onscreen by Martin Scorsese which will eventually restore 50 African films from the Golden Period of the 1970s and 1980s. Hondo one of the key African directors in that cinema’s revolutionary period was a student in France and the film observes French racism firsthand in its main narrative while a remarkably prescient opening pantomime has African warriors fighting each other for the approval of a European general. They all collapse in a heap in front of the wily brigadier and he smiles as divide and conquer, employed now more stridently than ever on the continent, works wonders.

Finally, my day concluded with the already discussed Villainess, which begins with an opening montage in subjective camera, that is, we see not her but only what she sees, of her blades mowing over the gang of men who oppose and mock her. The first time we see that this talented assassin is a woman is when she looks in a mirror, echoing The Lady in the Lake, a Hollywood 1940s noir which uses this technique. The audience claps at the carnage she exacts similar to a male assassin who becomes known as the killer of 100 in Tashio Mike’s Blade of the Assassin also screened at the festival. This time though, the destruction is engineered by a woman as a tour-de-force settling of accounts for a whole cinematic and actual history of male violence against women. A truly remarkable day at a festival which really did contain multitudes.

In the griping section though I will say that security which last year in the wake of the Bateclan Paris attacks was spectacular and showy, this year was omnipresent and constantly invasive. A team of experts managed to detect and deactivate the threat posed at one point by my double chocolate muffin, instructing me that I could not go into the Palais with a weapon like that, and so I had to eat it outside. And of course, as in the wider uses of the security state, fighting terrorism could conceal and rationalize any number of other restrictions which cannot be questioned. I was told I could not take my computer into a screening which seemed to have much more to do with piratage and recording than with a security threat. Even The Hollywood Reporter could not but be struck by the way the heavy presence of the police in what has become an armed state contrasted sharply with the supposed “freedoms” being lauded on the red carpet of filmmakers to pursue their personal whims and fantasies.

I will conclude with three French films that were in various ways less than meets the eye. The first was Rodin which like five years ago’s Renoir falls into the stultifying genre of the French Heritage film, which as opposed to its British cousin validating empire, validates the Republic through its artistic preoccupations. This film has a bit more going for it than Renoir with Vincent London, so good in 2015’s The Law of the Market, as the brooding 40-year old sculptor about to embark on his grandest creation, The Gates of Hell. Unfortunately, it often dissolves into Rodin’s sexcapades and historical myth as when he tells “Paul”, Cezanne that is, to stay true to himself and Cezanne falls to his knees and kisses Rodin’s ring which even if true has a very false ring to it, substituting artist star-finking for a socially complex recounting of the events.

Francois Ozon’s L’Amant Double, on the surface a Hitchcockian tale of a woman who falls for two opposite psychoanalyst brothers, is unfortunately really just 100 Shades of Grey, more erratic than erotic thriller which doesn’t ultimately make much sense even as the tortured images of its obsessed heroine. Fleshy, fashion photography disguised as psychoanalytic fable.

More insidious but also more interesting was Markala, a documentary shot in the Congo about a charbonnier, that is a villager who cuts down the mighty baobab tree and turns it into charcoal briquettes which he loads on his bicycle to make and make us feel the long and arduous trip to town to sell at an African market, part of the oldest market system in the world. The cutting down of the tree and the journey in a neo-realist style are well told, but there is a tendency by the French director to fetishize the African customs with the film ending in a religious frenzy which the French camera observes somewhat disdainfully with the film unable to penetrate the culture or to view it as anything but exotic. At the screening the director Emmanuel Gras called his five white French compatriots onstage where he celebrated his filmmaking and finally got around to thanking his Congolese lead, not at Cannes, “without whom this film would not have been possible.”

Duh! That’s like Elvis Presley “thanking” Chuck Berry and Little Richard without whom his ripping off of a more authentic culture would also not have been possible.

This is Bro the World Film Beat Breaking Glass and signing off from Cannes 2017. I’ll be back with a recap of best of the films in the festival beyond the main competition.

Cannes 70
Wednesday, 31 May 2017 19:12

Cannes 70

Published in Films

Dennis Broe has offered to undertake the arduous task of reporting on the Cannes Film Festival this year for Culture Matters. Here is his first report.....

Bonjour from Cannes 70. The venerable film festival, the largest in the world, turned 70 this year and perhaps is showing some signs of age, since not only is the festival changing but the whole pattern of film distribution, of which the festival is a part, is changing as well. That fact was highlighted by this year’s Cannes Crisis, and the festival’s biggest story. No it’s not that Nicole Kidman is in four films this year. It’s that Netflix, the evil streaming service, the red devil from Los Gatos, its California headquarters, has two films in the main competition: films which in most counrties including here in France are going directly to Netflix just after the festival closes and will never open in theatres. Thierry Fremaux, the festival director, choosing simply on what films would make an interesting selection, chose Boon Joon Ho’s Okja and Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories as eligible to win the Palme D’Or, the Cannes first prize, the most prestigious award in the world for arthouse and auteur cinema.

The choice then created a sensation. French theatre owners launched a protest against the two films being included on a platform that circumvented theatrical distribution and in response Fremaux then said that never again would films that will not have theatrical distribution be part of the Cannes main competition. This year’s jury president, the Spanish director Pedro Almodovar, then announced at his Cannes press conference that he did not think it appropriate that films that do not open in theatres win the Cannes prize, essentially disqualifying the two Netflix entries.

Will this position hold? It’s doubtful, Amazon also has a film in the competition, Todd Haynes Wonderstruck but that is getting a pass because it will have a limited, just to qualify for awards, opening in theatres. It should be said that Okja, the better of the two Netflix films, will open in theatres in the U.S., Britain and its home county South Korea, but these are mostly day and date openings, that is, the film will open the same time in the theatres as worldwide on Netflix. Again, these openings are not about getting the film seen in theatres but rather about having it qualify at awards time in the three countries: the idea being that a limited theatrical run, though a bit costly, could pay off later in the movie season by generating increased cultural capital for the company through these awards.

Is Netflix truly evil? Well, they are part of FANG, the infamous quartet of Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google whose profits in the last quarter have themselves equalled the profits of the remaining 496 members of the Fortune 500. Amazon is doing to retailers what Netflix is attempting to do to local film industries: level them. However, the approach taken at Cannes seems shortsighted. Punishing Netflix for distributing worldwide across their network and not opening in theatres is not the answer, since it will not stop the company. The answer, as the French ingeniously realised with Canal Plus decades ago, is to tax Netflix or require it to pay a fee for showing its content. Canal Plus, the French pay per view service, has a deal with the French government which allows it to be able to show films in a reduced window of 10 months after they open instead of the usual 3 years. In return for that concession the company pays 15 percent of its profits to subsidize French and global cinema. Its film producing arm Studio Canal is responsible not only in France but around the world for producing some of the most progressive films on the market. A deal like that needs to be worked out with Netflix where some part of their profits can be reinvested locally, here in French film, in return for them operating in the country. Instead we have the Starbucks phenomenon where American companies make huge profits in the European markets and quarter themselves in places where taxes are the lowest, in Starbucks case in Holland, simply taking and not returning.

That said, the Netflix entry Okja is the best film I’ve seen at the festival, a kid’s ecologically minded, anti-capitalist fable by to my mind the world’s leading director, the South Korean Boon Joon Ho who has already given us one of the most socially situated serial killer films, Memories of Murder, the anti-imperialist horror film about South Korea threatened by a virus hatched in American labs The Host and the impassioned plea locating social stratification at the heart of global warming in the action thriller Snowpiercer. Okja co-produced by Tilda Swinton, in a true blending of East and West, opens with Swinton’s tour-de-force on stage presentation as corporate inheritor Lucy Mirando of her supposed rewriting of the sins of her factory belching father on the site of the factory as she announces her company’s new image as clean agribusiness proponent manufacturing a superpig, that under her breath she concludes, better taste pretty f—ing good. The pigs are distributed across the world and we meet the little girl Mija who raised the now full grown Korean pignocerous a cuddly being that is a miracle combination of CGI and full-scale suit designed by the creator of the creature in The Host. There follows two exciting action sequences one involving Mija on a cliff and the other with her tracking Okja to Seoul and hanging off the top of the truck the Mirando corporation is using to reclaim her pet. In the finale though Boon Joon Ho foregoes the King Kong running wild in New York sequence to instead focus on the slaughter and mutilation of the genetically altered animals in a way that dialectically merges ET with Killer of Sheep, Charles Burnett’s indie film about the psychological damage the everyday grind of a slaughterhouse inflicts.

Okja is a hypersmart combination of global and local moving from the mountains of South Korea to the digital mecca of New York which nevertheless disdains the Dreamworks and Disney media showing off consisting of hyper-referential and unsatisfying cultural jibes in place of actual heart and social politics which Okja has aplenty. It is also in its respect for the little girl’s relation with the animal and her peasant upbringing which allows her to remain honest in the world of New York media which is everywhere about corrupting her local affiliations and which also affects her grandfather, a comment on the relation between Netflix and local cinema. The Mirando corporation, which first seems benign in the form of Lucy, but which then turns much harsher in Lucy’s ousting by her totally bottom line oriented sister, also played this time by a tight-lipped Swinton, is itself a kind of Netflix, selling a benign version of entertainment and concealing a lust for profit and slaughter, in this case of local artists, who it is everyday supplanting. So, Boon Joon Ho is subtly biting the hand that feeds and distributes him.

The Netflix logo was booed initially at the press screening and the booing continued not at Netflix but because the screen was only about two-thirds visible to the balcony audience which hooted until the film restarted. Asked if this might be deliberate sabotage of the Netflix screening, Boon Joon Ho remarked instead that the technical glitch allowed the audience to re-see the first 10 minutes which is jam packed with a recounting of the former evils of the Mirando Corporation, which are the past evils which have led to the now sanitised corporate image of tech companies. He was very happy the audience got to see it again. Asked what he thought of Almodovar’s statement eliminating the film from winning the Cannes top prize, he simply proclaimed himself in awe that Almodovar would be watching his film.  Co-producer Swinton replied that they did not come to Cannes to win prizes but to deliver a very canny and ultimately savage criticism of corporate destruction of the environment, in this case of animals that might have a larger impact if it opened worldwide on the Netflix platform. In sum, an altogether winning performance both on and off-screen by Boon, Swinton and the filmmaking crew which in the end valued the film’s social message above what alongside it looked almost like petty gripes by a film industry clinging to its established patterns of profit.

Joon Ho’s and Swinton’s clear-eyed anti-capitalist commitment stood in sharp contrast to another film directed by the usually equally clear-eyed Vanessa Redgrave called Sea Sorrow about the refugee crisis in Europe. The film starts out strongly, interviewing an Afghani who explains he started crying when American soldiers entered his home, and in response they killed both his mother and father. But then the film drops all questioning of what created the crisis, where refugees are primarily from Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, all countries which the Western powers have decimated and instead becomes a mute plea to let a few more refugees into Britain. The film seems to go out of its way to offend no one but in so doing becomes a fairly mundane liberal hand-wringing exercise about an issue that Western media give a good deal of preachy lip service to while never analysing the problem at its Western colonial core and thus never suggesting what actually might be done about it.

Far better by the way is the Martin Scorsese exec-produced A Ciambra directed by Jonas Carpignano who was at Cannes two years ago with Mediterranea, a distinctive immigrant film which focused not on the African trip across that sea but on the difficult interaction, once arrived, with Italian locals. This film, shot and conceived in a starkly realistic style, concerns a Roma, a gypsy boy’s bitter coming of age and his relation with a Ghanian, Khoudas Seihan from the previous film, who befriends the boy Pio but whose friendship he must balance with the demands of his own clan, a rung just above the Africans, and the pressures of the dominant Italians who police the ethnic hierarchical structure. It’s a kind of multicultural updating of Scorsese’s own Mean Streets with a preadolescent De Niro.

The second best film in the festival I have seen is Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Loveless, a fairly scathing critique of Russian and indeed capitalist consumer society as it plays out in a post-socialist, post-gangster economy Russia where the corporate ethos has become normalized. Like his academy award winning last film Leviathan, this film opens with desolate country shots of a bleak Moscow winter. The film traces the self-absorption of a father who worries that his breaking up with his wife will affect his sales and marketing job and the wife whose California-obsession with fitness leaves little room in their life for their son who subsequently disappears. They return to the wife’s mother, a signifier of old Russia, referred to by the husband as “Stalin-in-a-skirt,” but that road is closed. This is a new take on the disappearing child, the favorite trope of serial TV series these days, where the focus is only mildly on finding the child and more determinedly on how the consumerist hedonist and competitive lifestyle of the parents has engineered the boy out of their lives. A shot of him concealed behind a door in tears as the adults claim he is better off in boarding school is an extremely striking depiction of their own callousness as is the ultimate lack of resolution of the dramatic question and the reappearance of the initial bleak winter landscape which is the actual emotional content of the lives of the parents now with other partners who have substituted material comfort for genuine satisfaction.

DB2 cannes western

Another excellent examination of the global and the local is Western from German director Valeska Grisebach, which details the spirit of colonisation with which a German crew and especially the foreman, building a hydroelectric dam, treats the Bulgarian inhabitants of the nearby village. The main protagonist is an ex-mercenary, as he says a Legionnaire, who, having served in Iraq and Afghanistan, disdains violence and conquering and attempts to forge relations with the villagers. The foreman on the other hand projects contemporary German economic might as in direct relation to its Nazi past, claiming that “we were here 70 years ago, and now we’re back.” The film in dealing with the inhabitants of Europe’s poorest country refuses the easy labelling of their peasant organizational structure as “mafia” and instead highlights their collective customs. The legionnaire ultimately himself and despite himself begins to exhibit a more domineering manner and the film leaves open the question as to whether these cultural patterns can be transcended.

An astonishing film that details the leaving behind of the Chinese workforce as that country struggles towards manoeuvering its economy toward a more high tech orientation is Walking Past the Future about a family of peasants living and having helped build the modern coastal industrial city of Shenzun with its new gleaming corporate skyline. The parents of the young woman Yang Yaoting are getting old and are both told their services are no longer required in their factory jobs. They move back to the countryside in a reverse migration that is not unlike that of African-Americans in the last decade moving back to the South. But there they find their village communal land has been confiscated by an agribusiness boss who claims it is all legal because he has the correct papers and who quickly fires the family for again working too slow. Yang returns to Shenzun where she is the subject of a new kind of 21st century human trafficking. To earn money to provide her parents with an apartment for their retirement, she takes part in medical tests which pay better than her equally dangerous job in a microchip factory which requires that she wear a blue suit and facemask to deal with the radioactive materials. In this new form of prostitution, she, after her best friend has died trying to perfect herself with plastic surgery, falls in love with the procurer of the test victims, essentially, in the scenario of this new form of biomedical exploitation benefitting big pharma, her pimp. He also hides behind the legal charade of signing away consent since Yang desperate to save her family has little choice but to concede. The film is a bitter indictment of the lengths this new economy will go to exploit and then to discard its workers.

Worst film of the festival so far was the out-of-competition opening Arnaud Deplichin’s Ismael’s Phantoms, a misogynist, colonialist hyper-indulgent piece about a French director, Matthew Almaric, and the two women who inhabit his life but who for him function merely as muse’s for his so-called art. Charlotte Gainsborough is underused as the director Ismael’s current lover while the always wonderful Marion Cotillard returns from the dead to briefly breathe life into a film that retrogressively celebrates the director’s Peter Pan syndrome as a mark of genius. The director’s film within a film, nominally an espionage thriller, has the look of a much better film than that about the childish artist but it too then succumbs to being, as are the two women, essentially figments of his artistic imagination. The espionage film begins by reminding us of the kind of skillful quoting of Hollywood the French New Wave directors used to do, being unable themselves to manage a blockbuster budget. However, it ends up as a projection of the director’s ultimately mundane problems and finished by being far less instead of the intended far more than what at least in television storytelling has achieved a higher, meaning more complicated, intricate and social, level of storytelling than this film can even imagine. By the way sprinkling references to James Joyce, Melville and Hitchcock, rather than deepening the examination of creative genius, in this context, simply shows us what lesser company we’re in at the moment.

The other Netflix film The Meyerowitz Stories is an attempt by director Noah Baumbach to claim the mantle, in detailing the lives, loves and generally lack of passion of New York’s cultural elite, of a new Woody Allen. Alas, he succeeds. The film is a well observed but ultimately pointless depiction of one of Baumbach’s failed artists, this time a declining patriarch, Dustin Hoffman, an unsuccessful sculptor who has visited his resentments on his two sons, Adam Sandler and Ben Stiller. What has happened as Baumbach approaches Woody status is that the satire, which in say The Squid and the Whale could be devastating, is now settled into a kind of nostalgic recollection in tranquility that blunts the humor to the point that even delayed entry of the almost always funny Ben Stiller cannot save it from its tepid heart which like its lead character often fails to beat.

Peaky Blinders
Friday, 23 December 2016 22:04

Dennis Broe's Top 10 TV Series in 2016: Hyperconglomeration, Seriality and Sameness

Published in Films

Professor Dennis Broe offers his Top Ten TV series of 2016.

Last year at this time it was a pleasure to report that the Comcast-Time-Warner merger had been halted. In this year of the Trump corporate giveaway, it is sad to watch the Charter-Time Warner merger approved so that essentially two companies Charter-Time Warner and Comcast control cable access to the American home with the result that the Charter Time-Warner cable rates rose immediately and transport speed slowed. It is also sad to report that the miracle of OTT (over the top) television watching where viewers cut their cable cord and stream from a variety of sources is beginning to look simply like the process of readying TV watchers to pay for what was in the old days free TV.

The streaming services and particularly Netflix, the most successful among them, meanwhile have begun to look and program like the television networks of old. Netflix inundates its subscribers with new series, however, the repetitive and knockoff quality of its average series are, rather than suggesting the utopia of a new Golden Age of Television, instead harking back to the “vast wasteland” of network TV and to cable’s 900 channels with nothing to watch.

Nevertheless, it was a stellar year in Global Television for the advancement of the serial form of storytelling as showrunners consistently used the form to explore social and class tensions in the past and the present. The serials chart in a sublimated way, through complex narrative patterns, the inequalities and injustices that they were only too well aware of in dealing with the corporate ethos of their own industry.

Top 10 Series

Strange Empire – As so often in television, the best series do not last, which is no reason not to honor them and this Canadian Broadcasting Corporation Western tracing the attempt of three women to shake off the masculinist shackles of the West on the Montana-Canadian border was cancelled after a stunning first season that kept getting more politically intricate as it detailed the economy of a mining town where the owner consigned women to prostitution and men to wage slavery. A must-see. 

Mr. Robot – Maintained consistently the air of menace hanging over the corporatization of the virtual world we are now co-inhabiting with our other lesser reality, but never quite matched its opening salvo with the supposed paranoid bursts of two generations of conspiracy theorists. Christian Slater, in his reworking of his ‘80s teen persona as harbinger of the awfulness of corporate mind control in Heathers and Pump Up the Volume, merges literally with the superb Rami Malek’s Anonymous-styled hacktivism to produce a contemporary critique that was as much global corporate truthtelling as conspiratorial rant.   

Rebellion – Best series of the year hails from Ireland and charts the events leading up to and following the 1916 Irish Rebellion in Dublin, as the Irish consensus to fight the imperial First World War for their British Masters broke down. The most remarkable and liberating part of the series is its intense focus on three women engulfed in not only British domination of Ireland but also in Irish antagonism to their defining themselves as equal partners in the struggle.

Peaky Blinders – This British indie series is far more than the usual American gangster rags to riches tale. Set in Birmingham in the 1920s, it details the coming to prominence of an Irish gang whose ruthlessness was forged in the World War I slaughter that leaves its members traumatized. Swimming in the same sordid pool are labor agitators ready to lead a working-class rebellion, the budding Sein Fein Irish independentists, and a jealous Irish Protestant Cop, Sam Neil in the role of his career as the hand servant of a Winston Churchill who wants to destroy the whole lot. Gripping period drama. The noir version of Downtown Abbey and not for the squeamish.     

The Americans – Best years, those confronting the all-out Reagan Russian paranoia, are perhaps behind it as this series about US-Russian Cold War tensions in the 1980s told through the eyes of a married Soviet spy team, has attempted to increase the tension in the domestic area by involving their pampered, rebellious but ultimately boring daughter Page in the intrigue. Still though, the smartest American series about the moral costs on both sides of Reagan’s upping the ante in an American attempt to win the Cold War.

Ripper Street – This Amazon/BBC series set in the poorest section of Industrial Revolution London in the decade after Jack the Ripper surprised by never focusing on the serial killer aspect of the Whitechapel district and instead concentrating on the class tensions unleashed by both American and British ownership interests, the actual serial killers, who saw the slum residents as expendable. Fifth and final season again brought back the specter of the Ripper only to resolve that never-emphasized plot line in a way that stayed true to the concentration instead on the social fabric of the neighborhood.

Silicon Valley – The funniest comedy on television is also the most biting satire as not only the supposed moral high ground of the tech industry is skewered as it becomes more nakedly a collection of simple gold digging enterprises but along with it the neo-liberal ethos whose upside of entrepreneurial energy is constantly being contaminated by its now more dominant downside of massive wealth accumulation. Mike Judge in fashioning a minutely detailed study of one industry’s evolving corruption has equally fashioned an allegory of the way the television industry works as well as the way artists as a whole, represented by the Pied Piper start-up unit, constantly both rise above and are drowned by the waves of the corporate tsunami that engulfs them.

Night Manager – This BBC/AMC series while yes being an entertaining actor’s throwdown between The Hollow Crown’s Tom Hiddleston as everyman outraged by corporate barbarity and House’s Hugh Laurie as clandestine arms dealer concealed behind philanthropy and boasting stunning Mediterranean sets is also as with most John LeCarre adapted work a recounting of how difficult it is to get justice for corporate wrongdoing in both a government and business world where money dictates morality. So much better than its evil twin, the corporate patronizing Showtime actors duel Billions where Paul Giamatti and Damien Lewis simply wallow in their own sordidness which the series admires.

Rectify – Sundance’s first original series very much brings an American independent film sensibility to television in the way this series, about the prejudice of a small Georgia town toward a supposed wrongly accused murderer set free after 19 years, lets its characters breathe in imbuing television seriality with an ease in emphasizing small moments and a deliberate thinness to the intrigue that focuses on minute character development in understated ways. As a critic pointed out, one episode ends with two of the characters literally watching paint dry and the moment is resplendent. Well-developed portrait of small-town prejudices that in the year of Trump we know have, far from being transcended, become ascendant.

Jordskott – This Swedish series, about a cop from Stockholm who returns to her natal town and to the forest surrounding it where nine years before her daughter had disappeared, is a kind of The Kingdom meets Top of the Lake mystical investigation into the destruction of nature by capitalist enterprise and the mysterious ways Nature fights back. The title itself without a corresponding word in English indicates a throwing or pummeling of the earth and in the guise of a police procedural this is what the series explores. Best, as it is termed, Scandicrime series of the year. Now being purchased widely and will be coming your way in 2017.

Honorable Mention

The Romeo Section  -- Canadian spy series by the magnificent Chris Haddock, though too much American influenced after his stint on Boardwalk Empire, still recalls his spy masterpiece Intelligence, a systematic dismantling of the idea that the security state was installed to protect us. This series pulls its punches and too much romanticizes its intelligence operatives but is still a gripping reminder of the former series.

Trapped – Icelandic noir about gang imported murder in the midst of a blizzard in a remote town that is about to become a booming global port. On the strength of this Hollywood hired Baltasar Kormakur to direct Everest but they missed the boat in that the detailing of the town’s growing corruption is the strength of the series, not the director’s ability to handle snow.

11.22.63 – J. J. Abrams’ television return had James Franco as a time traveler set on thwarting the Kennedy assassination as a pretext for exploring facets of the Kennedy Legacy and of the conspiracy surrounding the assassination. More comfortable than gripping but still welcome renewal of traditional liberal television for the streaming TV era.

Midnight Sun –French/Swedish co-production starring A Prophet’s Leila Bekhti as an inner city, or French banlieu, cop sent to Sweden’s far north to investigate the death of a French citizen in the land of the indigenous Sami or Laplanders which also houses European defense installations and mining companies, both of which could be involved. Nice combination of Scandicrime with French banlieu values in an intriguing co-production.

The Break – Belgium noir that in its detailing of the concealed racist small town sentiments behind the murder of an African soccer player could not be a more timely exploration of how anti-immigrant feelings erupt into violence in a Europe where immigrants far from a burden on the economy are a desperately needed work force to combat the growing expenses of sustaining the continent’s aging population. Spearhead of a noir resurgence in the economically devastated Wallone or French portion of Belgium.  

 

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