Dennis Broe

Dennis Broe

Dennis Broe taught at the Sorbonne. His books include: Maverick or How The West Was Lost; Film Noir, American Workers and Postwar Hollywood and Class Crime and International Film Noir: Globalizing America’s Dark Art. He is a film and television critic for “Arts Express” on the Pacifica Network in the US, for Art District Radio and Television in Paris and for the British websites Culture Matters and Crime Fiction Lover. His latest book is Birth of the Binge: Serial TV and The End of Leisure.

from Trapped
Saturday, 20 April 2019 20:24

The noir novel: crime and corruption at the heart of the capitalist world

Published in Fiction

Dennis Broe reports from the Quais du Polar conference in Lyon, and discusses some examples of  noir novels which depict and criticise the environmental depredation and social inequalities which lie at the heart of the modern capitalist world

Noir fiction is distinguished from simple crime fiction by adding a darker element that often reflects a darker worldview than simply solving a crime. It has now brought more mainstream crime fiction into its orbit, and was on display again this year at what is probably the world’s top international convention of the form, the Quais du Polar at Lyon.

Polar is the French term for noir fiction, and is distinguished from the policier, which deals with the police investigation of a crime. The policier often has a more restricted worldview, where to catch the criminal ends all wrongdoing, while the polar suggests a world of perpetual crime and corruption, often referencing (and critiqueing) capitalism, directly or indirectly.

noir 6 we shall inherit the wind

Several countries were present and different areas and layers of corruption unfolded in the works of the authors from each. The festival honored Scandinavian noir, which most thoroughly incorporates a social critique with a crime investigation – seen in the Varg Veum novels of the Norwegian Gunnar Staalesen, and currently on series TV in the second season of the Icelandic director Baltasar Kormakur’s Trapped, both of which deal with what is viewed as the seat of corruption in the Nordic countries, the energy industry.

Noir sirens

The Anglo authors, American and British tend to conceive their work in narrower terms, as Manchester chronicler Joseph Knox described his book Sirens as a cry against gangland exploitation of women, while Chris Offutt and Ron Rash both center their crime novels on Appalachia, the poorest region in the country. Rash, a poet and novelist, spoke about how the destruction of the language has gone along with the destruction of the resources of the region and outlined his project of attempting to preserve regional dialect and thought in his novels.

Scandi noir

The noir novel, film and television series is now a major product of the Scandinavian countries of Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Iceland and Finland. Each has expanded the traditional British crime story or murder mystery to encompass a more global portrait of these societies, while adding the tougher and more class-tinged elements of the American hard-boiled novels by Hammett and Chandler.

All five countries ‘punch above their weight’ in the area of literature. Sweden, for example. is by population the 92nd largest country in the world, yet has the 8th most books translated into other languages, while Iceland, with only about 330,000 people, boasts a Nobel Prize winner in literature. Just as everyone in Los Angeles has a film script in the trunk of their car, everyone in these countries has a novel in their desk, perhaps due to the persistence of long winters where there is no light and often nothing to do inside but write. Iceland’s Ragnar Jonasson’s novels center on an isolated region in the northern extreme of that country and all have titles referring to this total blackout – Snowblind, Whiteout, The Darkness. Jonasson related that he writes in the long winters so that he can be outside during the summers where, in contrast, there is continual sunshine and no darkness.

Perhaps the origin of the use of the noir novel to tell untold truths about the society lies in the still unsolved death of the Swedish Prime Minister Olaf Palme, in 1986. Palme was a fierce critic of US domination, one of the first to recognize Cuba and other Third World struggles for liberation, and proponent of the non-aligned movement during the Cold War. Multiple theories circulate around his death and who would have reason to assassinate him, with the Millennium and Girl with the Dragon Tattoo author Stieg Larsson for a long time on the trail of the killer, and with cover-up rumours fuelling a notion that the Scandinavian democracies, famous for their welfare state and pacifist polices, have become corrupt servants of the global order.

noir 2 man who played with fire

Larsson’s notes have been picked up by fellow journalist Jan Stocklassa whose The Man Who Played With Fire: Stieg Larsson’s Lost Notes and the Hunt for an Assassin, written in the docu-fiction style of a Truman Capote or Norman Mailer, contains 30 pages of Larsson’s own writing. It supposedly goes some way toward exposing a conspiracy involving the Swedish far Right, and Stocklassa claimed at the conference that the murder will probably be solved in the next few years.

Scandinavian noir in its contemporary manifestations is often concerned with exposing tensions based on the collusion of foreign and domestic capitalistic energy interests who combine to plunder resources, pollute the land and profit from seemingly benign forms of energy that may have harmful effects – what we might call greenwashing. One of the most durably popular of these authors is Norway’s Gunnar Staalesen, creator of the Varg Veum detective series of 20 novels.

Varg means wolf in Norwegian, and Veum is nothing if not tenacious, as seen in We Shall Inherit the Wind where the detective doggedly pursues a murder that may have been committed to allow a global energy company Veum had confronted previously named Trans World Ocean or simply TWO to profit from the sale of land to build a wind farm. Wind power, which in the US would be a huge step forward, is debated in the book as instead being a form of energy that with its omnipresent whirling blades would dilute and plague sections of an untrammeled coastline, with hydropower being posed as a less intrusive alternative.

Norway is famous for – and wealthy from – its oil digging, which the book describes cynically as ‘the sunny side of life where it’s all fun and laughter and liquid gold from the North Sea’ and which is elsewhere depicted as ‘spilling CO2 into the atmosphere every day.’

noir 5 trapped season 2

The accompaniment to this piece is Baltasar Kormakur’s Trapped, whose second season describes the destruction of northern Iceland by the combination of a Reykjavik Interior Minister and what is called the American Aluminum Company. The effect of this combination is seen most elegantly in the elegiac end of one episode, where an Icelandic cop and a regional activist look out from above onto a lake strewn with the corpses of dead geese. This looting and raping of the environment by Capital is also seen in the series as fuelling right nationalism, in this case that of a secret group, the Hammer of Thor.

French noir

Noir 1 disko

French authors are also very taken with the European far north, as Mo Malo’s Disko focuses on the continual breakup of the icebergs, with an American climatologist found frozen in one of them, just before a global scientific truth-telling conference on climate destruction. The investigation occurs against the background of Greenland itself as an Inuit stronghold, still colonized by Denmark, which is anticipating an ever-easier path to the island’s wealth of natural resources as the melting continues.

noir 4 requiem for a republic

Colonialization in the French past is explored by journalist Thomas Canteloube’s first novel Requiem for a Republic. Canteloube works for the investigatory website Mediapart, which the US website The Intercept is partially modeled after. Here he exposes the involvement of present and past French leaders, including the right-wing Jean-Marie Le Pen, the Socialist Francois Mitterand and the Nationalist General de Gaulle in a secret and bloody war against the Algerian independence movement, the FLN.

noir 3 Piranhas

From Italy, Roberto Saviano described the hopelessness of Southern European youth, in the specific case of the areas outside of Naples where boys 10 to 18, emissaries of the drug trade, ride scooters and kill and be killed as if there is no tomorrow – and for many of them there isn’t. Piranhas, Saviano’s first novel, subtitled The Boy Bosses of Naples, is a recounting of the dead-end life in a country where unemployment for youth without a high school degree is 45 percent, as they struggle to carve out a life in a country where 30 percent of the wealth in in the hands of the top 10 percent.

American noir

Elsewhere on the American side, besides the regional Appalachian flavor and the New Orleans noir of James Sallis, whose Drive was the inspiration for the film of the same name, the festival premiered a documentary about Michael Connelly, known for his Harry Bosch series on Los Angeles, where he is interviewed by Olivier Marshal, a former French cop turned actor.

The film is a paean to the Los Angeles police, who Connelly apparently can’t praise enough either in actuality, in his Bosch books, and in a new series with a female cop, Renee Ballard, who patrols the city alone at night. The film seems to be blithely unaware of the racist and corrupt reputation of the LAPD. At one point, Connelly takes the French ex-cop out onto his balcony in the Los Angeles hills in a lap of luxury overlooking a city with intense poverty. He worries about not being able to write crime fiction with its social awareness, since he is now so rich.

The takeaway from the scene is not Connelly’s false guilt, but its illustration of the fact that authors who praise the power structure and remain uncritical of it are rewarded in an unjust society. It probably wasn’t the intention, but the film exposed the seamy side of an uncritical crime fiction written purely for profit, and which is simply a liberal, bourgeois way of cultural accommodation to the rampant destruction let loose by an increasingly unequal, capitalist world.

Call the wealthy to account! Serial incest in Game of Thrones and Taboo, and serious tax avoidance in the real world
Wednesday, 17 April 2019 16:02

Call the wealthy to account! Serial incest in Game of Thrones and Taboo, and serious tax avoidance in the real world

Dennis Broe finds parallels between the rich and powerful in the final season of Game of Thrones, and their modern-day equivalents in the real world

It’s wildly and devilishly seductive, glamourous, and the ultimate expression of unbridled passion. It functions as a key plot device driving the story in shows, purporting to give a glimpse into how the wealthiest live or lived. It is the new incest, brothers and sisters who break social bounds and seem entitled to because of their elevated position. Because of its prominence in the most prestigious serial series at the moment – Game of Thrones – and its appearance in what amounted to the best series of 2017 – Taboo – the implications of this plot device are worth exploring.

It’s crucial to note the absolute centrality of sibling love to Game of Thrones. No spoilers here but the entire saga of the breakup of the Stark family, whose wanderings in the Westeros wilderness make up the core of the series, is occasioned by the father Ned and the son Bran discovering the incest of the queen Cersei and her brother Jaime Lannister. It is the precipitating incident for the entire action of the plot. In addition, at the end of season seven, another incident of incest occurs, this time unpremeditated but casting a shadow over what has been presented as a meeting of characters whose purity is unquestioned.

Taboo

In the BBC series Taboo, the lead character, played by Tom Hardy, returns to 1830s England as a kind of more noir-ish Count of Monte Cristo, with a plan for revenge on the East India Bay Company. He’s a sort of prince of darkness or devilish outsider, and part of his nonconformity is his absolute unfettered desire for his stepsister, the only person he loves, with that desire seen not as forbidden as the title might suggest, but as sanctioned because of the pure nature of the character’s lust. He tells her in the opening that he will have her, though this pledge eventually drives her insane. Jaime and Cersei’s forbidden lovemaking in Game of Thrones is among the sexiest soft-core scenes of the series – that is, is granted a patina of seductiveness enhanced and made more titillating by its forbidden quality. In both series incestuous love among the very rich, rather than being frowned upon, is presented as fetish object of fascination.

There are two crucial points to make about the new incest. First, the seductive quality is possible because it seems to be taking place between equals – it is brother and sister love. The more destructive, yet more common forms of incest, father-daughter, mother-son, are not discussed since there the harm is more obvious. In terms of media presentation, for a long time the subject itself was taboo, though of course we know it has been a factor in all social strata, with Freud focusing prominently on the subject in the upper middle class of Vienna in what used to be called “family violence,” but is now being presented as sexy groundbreaking escapade.

bluevelvet

The topic was previously most often approached obliquely and is the subject of David Lynch’s most spectacular work. In Blue Velvet there is a scene where Jeffrey, hiding in the closet, observes his surrogate “parents” Dorothy and Frank in an abusive violent interchange that harks back to Freud’s primal scene where the child first knows that its parents make love, and which is replayed in Game of Thrones with Bran Stark’s discovery of Cersei and Jaime. Jeffrey then sleeps with Dorothy which results in an eruption of violence.

Lynch’s most explicit statement about the destruction caused by incest is of course the first version of Twin Peaks where the killing of the teenage prom queen Laura Palmer, the focus of the mystery of the series, is revealed to be the result of an incestuous coupling. But Lynch’s presentation of incest is critical of the destructive violence, psychic and physical, let loose by this uneven power relationship exercised by adults over still unsuspecting children. In GOT and Taboo the act itself is seen as pure meeting of equals, though this is seldom the case.

The second point may be more crucial. The incest presented on the two shows is lodged in the upper classes, the (as we would say today) one tenth of one percent. In Game of Thrones it takes place among the royals, the elite of the elite, which the series focuses on, with only glancing interest in the common people. In Taboo it takes place between the inheritors of the owner of a shipping company, with a baronial mansion. Taboo though does not just display upper-class privilege: it is also sharply critical of British capitalism, with its villain being the East India Bay Company, presented as a powerful rival to the state.

Incest among the lower classes is of course always frowned upon, and often the subject of jokes about inbreeding, seen as the background for a kind of primitiveness and backwardness that is part of the tissue of lower-class representation. On television this ranges from The Dukes of Hazzard to a more knowing comment on the misery of poverty in Justified. GOT emphasizes not only the off-handed sexy nature of Jaime and Cersei’s coupling, his famous line in dispensing Bran, “The things I do for love,” but also the melding of a new kind of power couple that by comparison make Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie seem like welfare recipients.

What is emphasized is not the secrecy of the couple but their lust for power. Jamie tells Cersei (in language I’ve cleaned up) “Curse prophecy, curse fate, curse everyone but us. Everything they’ve taken from us we’re going to take back and more.” And what is equally emphasized is the exclusiveness of the couple and their position above everyone else as Cersei later replies to Jamie, “We’ve always been together, we’ll always be together, we’re the only two people in the world.”

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What this last sentiment suggests is that the new incest in GOT’s allegorical past is an expression of the present-day upper strata of the upper class, which since they are so much richer than everyone else and since there are increasingly fewer and fewer of them, their mating choices are now limited and they are almost forced to keep it within the family. It’s a sign of their increasing isolation and withdrawal from the life of the planet, as sociologist Serge Paugam reports in a recent study of the rich in Rio de Janeiro, Delhi and Paris. He describes how the upper strata lock themselves in what are called golden ghettos, disdain taking public transportation, and in fact no longer frequent public spaces, preferring to take refuge in their highly securitized residences and send their children only to private establishments where they will never encounter those outside their class.

Recently the Paradise Papers revealed that for example, the family of the richest man in France, Bernard Arnault, which owns the luxury umbrella company LVMH which includes Louis Vuitton, Dior, and Mark Jacobs and has a net worth of over 60 billion dollars, shelters itself at a secret complex outside of London with covered swimming pools, private gym and separate quarters for guests.

They reveal corporations and their wealthy owners concealing wealth either illegally or operating on the edge of legality, in another analogy to incest. Le Monde economist Gabriel Zucman, in studying the revelations of these leaked documents, found that 600 billion dollars is transferred offshore each year by multinationals, with Europe losing one-fifth of its tax base, 60 billion euros, in hidden funds and with France alone losing 11 billion.

tax avoidance

Zucman declares that this secret tax avoidance is the principal motor increasing global inequality, with 10 percent of global wealth now hidden in offshore accounts. Since it is so secret the heightening disparity of income, which has been so much fretted over in recent years, is much greater than anyone had imagined. Clearly, the very rich are getting much richer and are keen to keep their wealth secret, hiding it from nation states not only to avoid tax but also because to flaunt it in public is to encourage a reckoning.

Further evidence of the incestuous nature of these relations can be seen in the banks narrowing their client lists, as HSBC’s Swiss bank which carried 30,000 clients with a combined net worth of 3.9 million dollars in pre-crash 2007, by 2014 carried only 10,000 clients, that is two-thirds less, but with almost double the net worth of 6.6 million.

75 percent of assets stowed in foreign countries are undeclared, which deprive governments around the world of taxes needed to improve the shared wealth of the nation and this crisis is particularly acute in developing countries where the need is greatest. The Lannisters and their contemporary equivalents are, in their interior enclaves, oblivious to the fact that their wealth is accrued at the expense of those most in need.

The solution according to Zucman harks back to the incest question, and that is public accounting. Today’s wealthiest corporations and leaders, sheltered in incestuous enclaves like Cersei and Jaime sequestered in their extravagant love nest at King’s Landing, must face the reckoning of those they have ruled over so unfairly since the global crash of 2008.

           

Uma Thurman at Series Mania
Wednesday, 10 April 2019 13:00

Serial TV: Platforms, Concentration and The Same Old Thing

Dennis Broe reports from the Series Mania festival, previews some of the new series due to hit our screens, and surveys trends in the ever-concentrating, hugely profitable industry of digital media

There certainly was mania, with over 60 series being screened, three days of industry panels, and with masterclasses (extended interviews) with Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s writer and Sharp Objects showrunner Marti Noxon and Uma Thurman presenting her new show Chambers, all at the Series Mania festival in Lille in Northern France last week. Series Mania has now become the leading international television gathering in the world and is staking a claim on being for television what the Cannes Festival is for film.

There was mania, but there was also anxiety as those in the European television industry readied themselves for the coming onslaught of the American streaming services which they greeted alternately as partners who would expand their options for producing series, or as moneymakers invading their market and against whom they could not compete.

DB sereismania

The streaming services (Netflix, Amazon, Hulu and the coming NBC Universal, Disney/Fox and Time Warner-AT&T as well as Apple and Facebook) have been challenged in various ways by governments, associations and unions. While the conference was underway the European Union passed a directive increasing the power of copyright holders affecting mainly print media, but perhaps applicable to television as well, which could aid local producers.

The directive was announced and celebrated by Pascal Rodard, Director of the French Society of Authors and Composers in a panel titled “Towards a New Balance Between Creators and Platforms.” Director Kaat Beels, of the Netflix series Beau Sejour, described a Danish work action against Netflix in which creative personnel were championing their right to be paid residuals from the streaming services, which tend to pay upfront and then build libraries as the main asset, which last in perpetuity and increase the value of the service – but the creators receive no more payments.

Howard Rodman, a former president of the American Writer’s Guild West, explained that the Guild had lost the right to residuals in the 1980s and 1990s on VHS/DVD sales and had subsequently staged one of the most important strikes in the history of telecommunications in 2008 when, after a 100-day walkout, Hollywood writers won the right to negotiate residuals with the streaming platforms. That power grew in 2017 when a threated strike forced the owners to increase residual rights by 15 percent.

Ominously, outside the festival the news was of profit accumulation being pushed within an ever narrowing concentration of players in moves to flatten the content of the streaming services in more of a big-tent approach, to attract wider audiences which would make these companies more like the networks of old. With cable services declining (subscribers in the US having gone from a peak of 100 million to 90 million today) the coming streaming services will grow more powerful. Last week, AT&T essentially forced out the heads of HBO and the Turner Networks and replaced them by an executive formerly from NBC, signaling that the coming AT&T/Time Warner service will move HBO and Turner from boutique audiences to more of a one-size-fits-all model.

The size and profit level of the existing services, particularly Netflix, is also daunting for European producers. In Britain, in order to compete, the BBC and ITV have formed a streaming service titled Britbox. However, the total funds available for production is around $184 million which is not small unless it is compared to the $13 billion Netflix spent last year. Both Amazon and Netflix promised increasing attention to telling local European stories but this drive toward what is becoming a streaming service buzzword – diversity – comes in the wake of a European law requiring that at least 30 percent of the product available on the streaming services come from European countries.

Perhaps the last word came from a European distributor who said that because of their global reach and budget, the streaming services were starting to treat European markets much like American television networks treated them in the 1980s and 1990s when their product was dominant on European screens.

Elsewhere Marti Noxon, who cut her feminist writing teeth on Buffy The Vampire Slayer, talked candidly about her career and her life and about the importance of putting imperfection on the TV screen. Her latest series is Sharp Objects, with Amy Adams as an alcoholic reporter who returns to her small hometown in Missouri to solve what might be the serial murder of young girls. Noxon described her own bout with alcohol, including an evening when she staggered out of an LA bar and passed out in her car in downtown LA without locking the doors, a scene that is replayed in the series.

Uma Thurman, however, was coy and tight-lipped about her life. At one point when asked if the working environment for women in studios was changing on account of Me Too, she dropped her guarded attitude for a moment and said that frankly the attitude had to change, that the environment couldn’t get any worse. But she quickly amended that to say more blandly that things were getting better. Her Netflix series Chambers premiering in late April, does though indicate a degree of self-awareness, presenting her tight-lipped, proper, Anglo-bourgeois mother as the terrifying villain of the series.

DB the red line

Opener of the festival was The Red Line, one small step for Serial TV but one giant leap for its highly conservative network CBS. The series, set around the Red Line metro in Chicago which crosses several race and class boundaries concerns a black-white gay couple and their black daughter. Noah Wylie of Emergency stars as a high school teacher left with grief that he is for a while unable to express after his husband is shot and killed by the Chicago police. The best thing about the series, and the radical element for the older audiences on CBS, is the way it normalizes a gay school teacher making him compassionate and sensitive.

The series claims to present a cross-section of the city but actually there is really only about two degrees of separation between its characters and it does not explore in real depth, as did say Steve McQueen’s Widows, the history of class antagonism in that city. It adopts the “everyone has their reasons” cop-out in exploring the lives of the city’s white police force, while ignoring the structural reasons for the long history of race and class tensions in the city. It doesn’t help that the most charismatic and interesting character, the Afro-American gay husband, is killed in the opening sequence; but the series may get a boost with the recent election of Chicago’s first black, female, openly gay mayor.  

NBC checked in with Manifest, about a plane that is lost for five years. When it lands its members both sport unnatural powers and spout religious mumbo-jumbo about the miracle that is happening to them, a sign perhaps of the presence of the conservative owner of NBC Comcast. The plane somehow breached five years in time while actually in network time 15 years have elapsed between this series and its forebear Lost. Minus the heavily religious overlay, the series unfolds as an interesting mystery.

One of the most garish series of the festival was Showtime’s, which is CBS’s sinister cable side, Black Monday about the events leading to the 1987 stock market crash. The pilot is co-directed by Seth Rogan whose protégé Adam McKay directed The Big Short, all of which raises the expectations that the series will be an exposé of Wall Street. Nothing of the kind though. Instead it simply wallows in money and its largely black cast headed by Don Cheadle makes it simply the minority version of the other Showtime hit Billions. Both series amount to “wealth porn” in an era in which inequality, especially for black workers, continues to grow.

DB Exit

The real exposé came in the form of a Norwegian series Exit, based on a fictionalized version of actual interviews with four financial magnates in banking, hedge-fund management, and investing. The financial violence they inflict on the society is mirrored by each of the four engaging in actual violence in the episode that centers on them including knifing a sex worker, beating senseless an annoying guest at a party, and kickboxing a passerby after a drunken spree. The lead character’s violence though is psychological, making his wife believe that she is the reason they can’t have kids by concealing his vasectomy. Exit was named best series in the Panorama, or Global, section of the festival by a student jury. The show is a tough-minded anti-Billions which no doubt benefitted from the student jury and it is unlikely that a more “mature” – meaning comfortably bourgeois – jury would have awarded the prize to this hard-hitting show.

DB folklore

Another top series was HBO Asia’s Folklore, created by Singapore director Eric Khoo, who claimed at the screening that “Everyone in Asia believes in ghosts.” Folklore is a horror anthology with each episode in the Asian language of its origin. The first episode from Indonesian director Joko Anwar, titled “A Mother’s Love”, is a kind of Babadook exploration of an itinerant mother’s cloying affection, while also situating her haunting within the context of the street poverty of Jakarta.

In the second episode, directed by Khoo, the series hits its stride as a Singapore developer conceals the finding of the body of a victimized young girl because it will reflect badly on the construction complex, and then pays the price as the girl rises and haunts the site. This episode was very good on the migrant Chinese and Malay workers in Singapore, themselves victimized by the developer as was the young girl. An antidote to the remaking of Singapore into a Hollywood shopping complex ala Rodeo Drive that was Crazy Rich Asians.

Funniest and most satirical series of the festival was British actor and co-series creator Stephen Mangan’s Hang Ups, a remake of Lisa Kudrow’s Web Therapy, that sparkles not only with Mangan’s deadpan and hilarious reactions as an online therapist – this veteran of the Showtime series Episodes really is the modern Bob Newhart – but also with the wit to suggest that even instant therapy in the online era may no longer be possible, because personality has been evacuated. In the era of instant attention and gratification there is no ego for a therapist to work with – as exemplified by one client who is only using the supposed insights in the therapy session to increase her online followers.

Eerie in a different way is the horror series Chambers, which resuscitates the oldest horror story possible – stitching the parts of someone onto another, and then having that person take on or be threatened by the donor’s personality. This is the theme of the German Expressionist Hands of Orlac, the ’30s Hollwood Mad Love with Peter Lorre and Eric Red's Body Parts. The previous versions though, tended to have the upper-class artist threated by a lower-class criminal. Here that situation is reversed and the reversal adds a completely new dimension to the tale. An African-American/Native-American high school girl is given the heart of another female student from a wealthy suburban Arizona family. She and the uncle who raised her are then in various ways threatened by the New-Agey, Sinona-type, parents of the donor and most creepily by Uma Thurman’s perfect but nefarious upper-class wife with a closet full of secrets. Keeping the focus though on the young girl’s struggle against the class enemy that now inhabits her makes this a series to remember.

DB chimerica

Just awful was the big budget Chimerica, from the usually reliable British Channel 4. The muddle-headed, trivial, and simplistic conceit of the series is that China lost its chance at democracy at Tiananmen Square in 1989, and the US is losing its democracy under Trump. China retains socialist characteristics and collectivist tendencies within an autocracy, while in the US the oligarchy is replacing a democracy in decline long before Trump finished it off.

The series, which validates the supposed ethics of an objective journalism – a laugh in itself given the recent CNN/New York Times debacle over Russiagate – concerns the efforts of a discredited photojournalist to find a witness at Tiananmen called The Tank Man, who stood up to the Chinese army’s rousting of the square. When they find him, his colleague claims breathlessly that what she can’t wait to ask him is, “what he was carrying in his bags,” a perspective that exactly characterizes the trivialization and distortion of the truth by Western media that this show seems entirely unaware of.

Equally confused is the big budget splashy Netflix French series Osmosis, about a brother and sister team of entrepreneur and programmer who claim to match their clients with their soulmate. The series focuses on how this match supposedly will fix the troubles of the modern world as one young test subject hung-up on porn believes finding his mate will cure his addiction.

Capitalism often proposes that psychological problems caused by the increasing tensions of growing inequality can be fixed with a pill, but here the fix involves big data’s claim to have mapped the world’s personalities. The series though obscures the massive surveillance that is needed to build such a database as Netflix equally obscures its own surveillance of its customers, which has been used to construct projects like this one.  

Serial TV, Digital Accumulation, and Distracted Working-Class Audiences
Friday, 22 March 2019 14:42

Serial TV, Digital Accumulation, and Distracted Working-Class Audiences

Dennis Broe outlines the thesis of his new book, Birth of the Binge, about the way the television series has developed more intrusive, abrasive and profit-generating ways of manipulating viewing habits, preparing some sections of the working class for digitally advanced jobs, and others for the drudge sectors of the service industries.

AT&T is moving big-time into the streaming service game, and as it does it is bringing with it a ruthlessness not previously seen, even in the annals of corporate television. Witness this now infamous exchange between the conservative Texas-based company representative John Stankey, now chief executive of Warners after the merger of the two companies, and then HBO chief executive Richard Plepler. It began by Stankey urging “stepped-up investment” in the jewel of Warner’s television and Plepler applauding him. But the interchange turned sour when Stankey then interjected, “Also, we’ve got to make money at the end of the day, right?” followed by his commanding the station, which supposedly helped begat the new Golden Age of Television, to dilute its product to reach a wider audience.

Disney, now completing its merger with Fox, plus Hulu, Apple, and Facebook are all in or about to enter the streaming service fray, to challenge Netflix and Amazon. New forms and distribution patterns of television, largely driven by the thirst for serial TV series, are pointing the way to novel and unexplored realms of narrative sophistication that may include more topics of social relevance in the series but also because the potential profits call for levels of addiction, and for increased monitoring, that in some ways dictate the construction of these narrative patterns.

My book Birth of the Binge: Serial TV and The End of Leisure details these contradictory impulses in the development of the serial TV series over the last three decades.

Streaming television has been seen as a radical means of putting power in the hands of the consumer, giving them a new autonomy so they can watch when and what they want, and are no longer captives of the minimal choices available from the television networks. Series, in this interpretation, are now tailored to individual viewers who mix and match and become their own programmers. The form of these new series is generally more narratively sophisticated as well, as season arcs which require viewers to track the series much more actively replace the one-and-done self-contained episode which is perpetually recommencing from the beginning.

That is the hype from the industry, and surprisingly from many television studies scholars as well. A look at the actual process though dispels many of these myths. This new wrinkle in the television industry is part of a general pattern of what French digital philosopher Bernard Stiegler terms hyperindustrialism, that is, the old ruthless patterns of accumulation are continued and advanced in the digital age of which streaming television is a part. Rather than decentralized modes of production, the streaming age is now featuring ever more tightly concentrated conglomerates as the recent wave of mergers indicates. Thus, content providers are merging as in Disney and Fox or production studios are merging with internet providers to monopolize traffic into the home – as in Time Warner and AT&T – or networks are merging with cable providers who then purchase satellite services, as in Comcast’s purchase of NBC and subsequent acquiring of a majority share in Europe’s leading dish service Sky-TV.

The leaders in this field, Netflix and Amazon, in line with what Shoshana Zabuf terms surveillance capitalism employ algorithms for tracking audiences’ every movement on the service and then turning that data into programs based not on quality or need but on these advanced metrics. There is a homogeneity in these targeted demographics that makes the traditional network programmers look like members of the most experimental avant-garde.

girlboss       new girl         

                                              Girlboss                                                                              New Girl

Thus on Netflix for example, there is the recently departed Girlboss (2017) – “She’s saucy, sassy” – and so was Zooey Deschanel six years earlier when the Netflix show’s prototype New Girl (2011–) first appeared. The Expanse (2015–) is warmed-over Battlestar Galactica with much less at stake than the fate of the galaxy and shorn of the 9/11 references. Stranger Things, with its children’s investigation of alien creatures, recalls E.T. (1982), The Goonies (1985), and with its focus on 1980s technology, Super 8 (2011). Sense8 (2015–17), with its multiple characters in a utopian futurist setting, is Cloud Atlas (2012) remade for streaming. Finally, Frontier (2016–), with fur traders in a bloody and savage wilderness, is The Revenant (2015), complete with its lead character in Leonardo DiCaprio pose, in series publicity.

the revenant       frontier

                          The Revenant                                                                   Frontier

The supposedly happy consumers of these new modes of distribution who can at last watch what they want when they want it are instead more likely, in the wake of the Great Recession in which this mode came to prominence, harassed, harried workers who are running from one job to another, then to school, and finally to a frantic moment or two not of leisure but of leisurality, a condition which makes a mockery of the old forms of workers’ gains before they were systematically wrenched away in the neo-liberal era and whose marker in the Great Recession was “the staycation.”

Workers in both industry and critical parlance though are only discussed as consumers, happy to be enjoying these new freedoms. What was formerly called prime-time TV, the family hours of 8 to 11 pm that marked the break in the Fordist era from factory production to leisure has now been replaced by a non-stop economy that Jonathan Crary terms “24/7”. Streaming TV providers, rather than promoting a new form of entertainment utopia, have made television available “on the go” as workers grab frantic minutes between engagements by watching on their mobile phones. These new forms of viewing are also offered by capital as a compensation for unmet needs. As the costs of health and education have increased 20 to 40 percent in in the period of the Great Recession and its aftermath, synonymous with the Golden Era of Serial TV, the costs of cell phones, toys, mobile accessories, computers and televisions have fallen 40 to 100 percent.

binging

Binge-watching

Finally the form has engaged its viewers using narrative devices – cliffhangers, sudden demise of characters, multiple characters and stories – that foster a new form of addiction that goes by the name of binge-watching, where viewers boast not of what they have seen but of the fact that they have watched entire seasons or series over the non-stop course of a weekend. Endurance now substitutes for pleasure.

These new modes of viewing where the sophistication of the storytelling is increased along with the drive to watch the next episode are also being employed, along with video games and the construction of commercial online communities, either to ready workers for the cognitive challenges of new, more digitally advanced jobs or, depending often on the class level of the viewer, to neuter them for zombification in the drudge areas of the service industry.

Nevertheless, there are a number of hard-fought gains that serial TV has won. First is a vanquishing of one the most dreary forms of television designed only with the bottom line in mind, reality TV, which a decade ago was still the dominant and which is now replaced with shows with narrative cohesion where the social environment, or storyworld, features prominently in the show’s construction and appeal. There is also a new veneration of the writer, the showrunner, always dominant in television but often unacknowledged.

Boyd and Raylan in Justified

Boyd and Raylon in Justified

In addition, the best of these series may critique the offline world that the series’ mode of distribution and narrative construction is attempting to efface. Thus, one of the great moments of Serial TV, the second season of the series about Appalachia Justified, builds its season arc around the dispossession of Harlan Country communities by a mining and energy company. The lead character, the federal marshal Raylon Givens, engages in truth-telling about the strip mining that will destroy the community as his doppelganger, the violent but brilliant Boyd Crowder, becomes a gun thug for the mining company.

The female company rep, who is from the area, wants to sleep with Raylon who refuses telling her “you know who you are.” The leader of the community, Mags Bennett – the always engaging Margo Martindale – at first defends the farmers, then sells them out to the company. The community members then start referring to her as Benedict, as in the Revolutionary war traitor, rather than Bennett, and her plan to leave the hollow, the valley, results in the extinguishing of her clan and her tragic Shakespearean death as she poisons herself with her own moonshine.

Birth of the Binge highlights these contradictions in describing not only this new mode of production and distribution but also through readings of key series in this period, including Silicon Valley, The Big Bang Theory, Modern Family, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Orange is the New Black. The book also functions as a reference work which charts this three-decade development and incudes a list of “100 Seminal Serial Series” and an index of the 160 series mentioned. Its project is to link the television series to its moment in the development of new more intrusive, abrasive and profit-generating ways of harvesting viewer habits and intentions.

Birth of the Binge is available here.

One Nation, One King
Monday, 10 September 2018 09:28

Class, gender and race issues: the Venice Film Festival 2018

Published in Films

Dennis Broe reviews this year's Venice Film Festival.

The top prize at the Venice Film Festival went to Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma, a black and white, long-take, masterpiece about class relations in Mexico distributed by Netflix. All of these factors will make it a challenge for the Hollywood Film Academy to award it Best Film, but here’s hoping that the Venice award and its prominence at the festival – where it was the overwhelming choice of both critics and public – helps its chances of success.

44320 Roma Alfonso Cuaron Film Still

My award for best actress goes to Yalitza Apparicio, the Indian non-actor who played the maid in Roma, alternating between warmth and affection for her charges and stoicism at their alternate contempt, neglect and appreciation of her. My best actor, along with the jury, goes to Willem Dafoe for his role as Van Gogh in At Eternity’s Gate, a film that refuses the recent ‘heritage treatment’ of the Impressionists (in French films about Renoir and Gauguin), opting instead for a concentration on a sentient depiction of the artist. However, it elides much of Van Gogh’s social import as champion of a disappearing peasantry.

the nightingale rev

A continuing story throughout the festival, after the march of 82 women on Cannes for the screening of a film by a female director, was the exclusion of female directors from the competition. Only one female director was represented in the official selection – Jennifer Kent, whose The Nightingale won third prize at the festival.

Festival director Alberto Barbara was criticized for this lack of representation, responding that the problem did not lie with the festival since female directors as a whole submitted a little over 20 percent of the films and represented about the same percentage of films in the festival. But it was pointed out that as perhaps the most important world festival, its choices could help alter this balance. Barbara refused a quota system but did sign up to a Venice Pledge, for increasing participation of women in all aspects of the festival.

Kent’s film, like her previous film The Babadook questioning the sanctity of motherhood, does challenge both male and colonial prerogatives, in its journey across an Australian landscape in the 1820s. In it, a righteous and embittered British officer sanctions the murder and rape of a Irish ex-convict’s husband and baby. The woman speaks and sings in Gaelic and is the nightingale of the film, seeking revenge on the handsome British lieutenant who has tortured her. She is joined in her quest by a young Aborigine, who, similarly, is called the blackbird. The most stunning effect of the film is of a landscape riddled with Aborigines, in chains or hung from trees, and infected with the constant brutality of the British colonizers towards the country’s native inhabitants, towards the Irish, and towards women.

The problem with the film occurs at the end, when the Irish woman and the Aborigine man stand in their own space watching the sun rise. The film refuses a sexual relationship between these two oppressed people, and unfortunately provides the perfect Identity Politics moment where each remains in their own space, with an unbridgeable distance between them, not acknowledging the common bond that their struggle has created.

With the exception of the ending – which also happened in a sudden benign transformation of a rampaging mother threatening her child in The Babadook – this is a tough, bitter film. It continues the current, noteworthy confrontation of Australia with its particularly cruel history in television series like Mystery Road.

The top five films for me were The Nightingale, Roma, American Dharma, the Italian film A Story Without a Name whose English title is The Lost Caravaggio, and the French film A People and Its King, horribly retitled in English, One Nation, One King.

There was a surprise appearance of Steve Bannon at the screening of Errol Morris’ phantasmagoric depiction of the evil that is Bannon, in American Dharma. Bannon, who is on a tour of far-right parties in Europe, was not invited as part of the delegation of the film. He seems to have slipped in and slipped out. Morris’s film comes after last year’s Venice stunner Wormwood, about CIA assassination, and builds on that monumental work.

The film ‘gives the Devil his due’, as the saying goes, incorporating film clips as Bannon explains films that inspired him, and has a confrontational interview with Morris. In the end a conflagration that demolishes the airplane hangar where the interview took place illustrates Morris’ contention that Bannon’s wish is simply to destroy. This is again an embellishment of the documentary using fictional techniques pioneered in The Thin Blue Line, and taken to an extraordinary level in Wormwood.

Morris compares Bannon to the Devil in Milton’s Paradise Lost, a comparison Bannon does not deny. In Morris’s The Fog of War, Robert McNamara, who helped plan the Vietnam War, seemed to use the film to burnish his legacy. Here, while acknowledging Bannon’s genius in returning white workers en masse to the Republican Party through messages of keeping out foreign workers and bringing jobs back home, Morris also ensures that the racism, hatred and white supremacism implicit in Bannon’s messages are also acknowledged.

The most telling moment is Morris and Bannon’s differing interpretation of the end of Orson Welles’ Chimes at Midnight. In the film, Welles’ Falstaff is betrayed by Prince Hal who assumes the mantle of power and turns his back, literally and figuratively, on his friend. That is how Morris sees it. Bannon’s interpretation is that Falstaff realizes Prince Hal must harden himself in order to rule. This could be Bannon’s own excusing Trump for cutting him loose from his administration but it also does reflect the fascist attitude that power is everything and ruling is all.

Two other films about Trumpism disappointingly fail to deliver. Fredric Wiseman’s Monrovia, Indiana is a supposed attempt to understand Trump’s supporters but is so focused on an institutional view of this slice of life in small-town America that it fails to generate much insight on anything.

On the other hand S. Craig Zehler’s Dragged Across Concrete with Mel Gibson and Vince Vaughn as bitter, resentful cops – Gibson’s 60 year old for never being promoted, mostly because he has a history of violent treatment of suspects – just ends up excusing their resentment by having them sacrifice themselves, instead of pointing out in what ways their resentment is warranted. The film goes soft and fuzzy on police violence and corruption, where fifties noir films such as Where the Sidewalk Ends or Private Hell 36 illustrated the full brutality of the police.

The antidote to this coddling was Roberto Minervini’s What You Gonna Do When The World’s on Fire, a tracing of paths of resistance in Mississippi at various levels of the black community in the wake of a police shooting. We get a tender story of one older boy taking care of another with his mother’s warnings that it is no longer safe to go out at night, a group that calls themselves the New Black Panthers that marches on neighbourhoods and confronts the police, and a saucy female bar owner, whose indomitable spirit even when her indebted bar is closed expresses the will of the community to survive under pressure. However, it is all strangely unaffecting and might have been better had it provided more background on the community as a whole and the racial power structure in the town.

peterloo

On the subject of working class revolt – and history itself was a powerful subject at the Festival – there was Mike Leigh’s talky, polite Peterloo about the organization and subsequent slaughter of the members of the largest mass gathering in history at the time, in 1819.

un peuple et son roi still 1

Far better was the French film One Nation, One King. This was about the French Revolution told from the point of view of the sans-culottes, that is, of the ordinary people who made and were often betrayed by the Revolution, while continuing to push it forward. The French film begins with Louis XIV washing poor children’s feet, comparing himself to Christ, and ends with the triumph of the king’s beheading, seeing this as a victory of the people over the emerging bourgeoisie, many of whom defended a king who had deserted the nation.

Peterloo begins with the clamor of Waterloo and a wounded soldier’s return to the factories of Manchester. The film details the endless debates of working class organizations in the wake of the French Revolution, struggling to find their voice. Unfortunately, what it also documents is the passivity that defines the English working class, who with all the numbers in their favour talked themselves out of arming for a potential confrontation in their rally for universal (male) suffrage.

They don’t even bring a knife to the gunfight, while the upper class lawmakers have no qualms about unleashing the soldiers on them, as the empire turns its full might on its own people, including the soldier wounded at Waterloo. The contrast in the two films, one about a people acting to make and enforce a revolution, and the other about a people tricked into arguing not about their grievances but about whether they should be peaceful or not while their rulers simply embrace violence, is extremely instructive in the history of the resistance of the two classes. But it also makes one film active and somewhat exhilarating, and the other passive and ultimately flaccid.

una storia senza nome still 1

Finally there was the Italian film Story Without a Name which in English is retitled The Lost Caravaggio. The film is, on the surface, a reflexive feature about filmmaking, concerning a screenwriter who uses a female ghostwriter. The script that the female writer is working on is also a major part of the film, and it concerns the actual theft by the Mafia of Caravaggio’s The Nativity from Palermo 50 years before, and the negotiation between the Mafia and the state for its return.

Here, a film about filmmaking, a kind of cliché after , is also about the way that in Italy truths can only be told in fiction and even fictional representation involves a certain amount of danger. Story is thus both a wily romance between the screenwriter and the resourceful female ghostwriter, and a film with a reflexive purpose other than that of the tiresome and somewhat dishonest focus on the process of an art that is becoming more and more commercialised.

Still from Sulla Mia Pelle
Friday, 07 September 2018 17:11

Fiddling While Rome Burns and Venice Sinks: the Venice Film Festival

Published in Films

Dennis Broe reports from the Venice Film Festival.

It was again extraordinarily hot in Rome this summer, so hot tourism really halts mid-afternoon to early evening. Meanwhile, the city of Venice continues to sink with the Moise project which is supposed to save it poised to go online, so to speak, next year but with much of the money to fund an enviromentally iffy project already depleted through acts of corruption that forced the last mayor from office.

The Venice Film Festival continues to be more spectacular than ever. In the wake of a retreat by Cannes into almost solely auteur film fare, Venice has made itself now the primary opener for Hollywood Academy Award Films, having premiered three of the last four Academy Award winners. It has defined its version of a film festival as a truly ecumenical platform for all types of visual media.

The festival boasts a more expanded Virtual Reality section this year, a continual incorporation of television, and an outlet for the film product of the streaming services Netflix, which has a number of films rejected by Cannes opening here this year including this year’s possible Academy Award winner and an absolute masterpiece Alfonso Cuaròn’s Roma and Orson Welles’ Other Side of the Wind. From Amazon it has Mike Leigh’s Peterloo, a depiction of working class slaughter.

the golem

At the same time, the festival has maintained its position as promoter of global auteur films, presenting restored films like this year’s stunning reclamation of The Golem from 1920 and promoting Italian film and directors, including this year Robert Minervi’s Black Lives Matter docudrama What you gonna do when the world’s on fire. The Venice Film Festival can now lay claim to being the most prestigious and perhaps the best film festival in the world.

It is difficult though not to be struck by the gap between the richness of the spectacle, where images are ever more luscious and enticing, and the seeming disintegration of the country around it. Two weeks ago the bridge in Genoa that essentially connects northern and southern Italy collapsed. Last week the roof of the church of San Giuseppe dei Falegnami located in the heart of Rome, in the Roman Forum, built on the site of a jail where Peter and Paul were supposedly imprisoned, collapsed, destroying part of the interior of a baroque church that had been restored as recently as 2012.

Infrastructure and cultural heritage are disintegrating at the same time the Republic is in danger itself of collapsing with Matteo Salvini, the head of the far-right League, and headline maker in the ruling coalition, continuing to evoke the iconography of a Mussolini in posing on vacation with a mug of beer, sequestering migrants, and trumpeting a meeting with Hungary’s far right pillar Victor Orban. The meeting and Salvini’s distortion of the immigrant question was met with a protest of tens of thousands in Milan, the country’s multicultural capital, and repeated when he appeared at the Venice Film Festival.

If one story this year is the rise of the festival itself, the other is the dominance of the streaming services and particularly of Netflix, which is using the festival as a launchpad for its film branch, having firmly established itself in terms of the quantity – if not the quality – of television series.

Traditional Hollywood opened with its Oscar and popular fare, namely Dreamworks’ First Man and Warner-MGM’s fourth remake of A Star is Born, with Lady Gaga more than ably conjuring up the ghost of Judy Garland.

First Man is an insipid, uninspired look at whiteness in space, or in the words of a criticism at the time, it’s “Whitey on the Moon.” Just like its director Damien Chazelle’s last Venice entry La La Land, becoming a restoration of the ultra-white musical after its stupendous opening evocation of a truly diverse Hollywood

In the director’s own words, the film focuses on the most boring of the astronauts, Neil Armstrong. Armstrong is played by an actor, Ryan Gosling, whose lack of emotional range is constantly alibied for by the American press, and on a boring topic that needs to be enlivened – which does not happen here.

Armstrong is asked, “Why go to space,” and the best he can do is mumble something about expanding our vision, with the film itself giving little of the feeling of both isolation and grandeur of space that was conjured in Alfonso Cuaròn’s Gravity.

This is Hollywood’s Best Picture entry but as such it’s flat and limp, possibly the last iteration of producer Spielberg’s ratification of the nuclear family, which here reaches its emotional nadir. The film was loved by the American critics who did their work in prepping it for the Oscar, but recorded a lukewarm reaction from the European critics. Perhaps this indicates also that the US landing of a man on the moon in these America-first days reads more as a feat of the empire that did not provide a giant leap for mankind.

gaga as garland in a star is born

The studio entertainment piece is the remake of A Star is Born, which does at least feature the divine talent of Stephanie Joanne Angelina Germanota, Lady Gaga, who is here brought back to her Italian-American roots and whose emotional song stylings enliven a film that is dead at its core.

The problem is her co-star and director Bradley Cooper, who grinds the film to a halt with an unconvincing addiction story and pithy sayings about “the business.” He is constantly telling Gaga to be true to herself though the film is a process of interpolating her under the sign of American Sniper Cooper’s more lax and lazy definition of an old-style heavy metal that denies for the most part Gaga’s actual roots coming, as Madonna had done before her, out of the New York transgender club scene.

The meta-story of the film though is Gaga’s success in remaking her career as mainstream film star, her evocation of Garland in the role, and her eclipsing of Cooper’s limited idea of popular music – though that is not enough to make this more than simply a story of success. The title of the song that unites the two and is supposed to sum up their relationship is “Shallow.” Nuff said.

Netflix has been the real star so far of the festival, with its film entries, something the streaming service is not known for, outshining the Hollywood studios. The streaming service facilitated the finishing of Orson Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind, a project Welles shot from 1971 to 1975, boasting a film within a film that is a mock European arthouse, plotless, scenic excavation, and a main film that presents in Robert Altman like ambient sound, well before Altman perfected it, the ramblings about art, life and the film business on the last night of an ageing director, in a Citizen Kane type scenario with the death shown to us at the beginning.

The film though too often circles back on itself and is not as trenchant as some of Welles’s sporadic work as actor in appearances that he also directed and wrote, such as his masterful cameo in The Third Man.

Police execution in On My Skin

The streaming service, which for its theatre logo, replaced the brand name and musical flourish—which were booed at Cannes two years ago-- with a simple “N,” also is distributing Sulla Mia Pelle, (On My Skin), the Italian film which also opened the festival. It is about the last week of life of Stephano Cucci, a drug dealer in Rome who was brutally beaten by the Italian police and who died from his wounds in a famous case that is still in the Italian courts.

The film centres on the almost mute sufferings of its protagonist as he is warned not to identify the source of the beating. It might have been better if it had also focused on how the family, led by his sister, were able to bring the Carabinieri to court.

On the opening night on the red carpet for First Man, Netflix was present also since it was the streaming service which brought to prominence that film’s co-star Clair Foy, in its series The Crown. Foy’s criticisms of the space race lodged from the point of view of the wife who waits are the best thing about that film, and she is a likely Oscar winner.

Roma the student slaughter

Finally, Netflix also distributes the film that is the triumph of the festival so far, Alfonso Cuaròn’s Roma, a lovingly detailed reminiscence of the director’s own growing up in the Roma section of Mexico City in the early 1970s. The film is a kind of 400 Blows portrait of the film director as a young man, as the boy goes to see a schlocky science fiction vehicle which will inspire his Gravity, and as the family takes a trip to the beaches of Vera Cruz that will become Y Tu Mama Tambien.

Roma is a gorgeous film showing the brutal destruction in agonizing long shot of students in Mexico City in the Corpus Christi massacre, and a fire that burns village land at New Year, watched by two American guests of the landholders who drink champagne while the peasants battle the flames in a scene that recalls Rules of the Game.

What makes it a masterpiece though is its viewing the family not from the young Cuaròn’s perspective but from the point of view of the Indian maid from Oaxaca. Her capacity for love, even of a family that alternately exploits and recognizes her, is shown in a stunning sequence where though she cannot swim she risks her life by wading in the water to save a boy and girl from the family who have wandered too far out in the waves at Vera Cruz.

At the core of Cuaròn’s memoir is the indignity of class relations in a Mexico which has, as he said in an interview at Venice, only changed for the worse since then. I should add that the Variety critic, who seemed to have no feelings for the maid or grasp of what the film was about, found Cuaròn’s “objectivity” tiring. The same critic flipped over the privileged whiteness of First Man, proving class and race prejudice put on the screen by filmmakers is readily validated by the critics.

Next week Dennis is back with the Coen Brothers uneven Western, Mike Leigh’s working class massacre, as elsewhere Errol Morris meets Steve Bannon and Frederic Wiseman meets small town America.

The Russian Pavilion
Thursday, 30 August 2018 10:41

Free Space: a place for creativity or a hollow marketing concept? The Venice Architecture Biennale 2018

Published in Architecture

Dennis Broe critically reviews the 2018 Architecture Biennale in Venice.

Free Space: A Place for Creativity or a Hollowed Out Marketing Concept

This year, the Venice 2018 Architecture Biennale, the once-every-two-year exposition of architects, architectural firms and nations, takes as its organizing principle the concept of free space. This is defined loosely by the curators as the generosity of the architect in working with nature’s gifts of light, air and gravity, to give shelter to our bodies and lift our spirits.

If this sounds like architechy speak, that’s because it is. The language is a way of ignoring the contemporary conditions under which an ever greedier capitalism forces and shapes the way architects work, often designing private spaces for the super wealthy or, as happened recently the collapse of the Genoa bridge, designing public spaces that don’t work.

genoa bridge

The curators, Dublin architects Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara, are guilty of their own obfuscation, adopting the concept of “the earth as client.” So, no more Mother Earth of the indigenous as summoned up in the Canada exhibit – now the earth itself is fit into the neoliberal framework of development, where all these natural ingredients are for sale. Clients of course can not only be satisfied, they can also be cheated, sued, and abandoned for other wealthier clients, so the concept doesn’t put the earth in a very good position – but does reflect the modern neoliberal ethos.

The concept Free Space in actuality suggests the limited amount of space left over after capital has had its way: what Bertolt Brecht called the nooks and crannies of capitalism. Neoliberalism is all about filling in those nooks and crannies, both physically through the marketization of land, air, and water and in mental space, through the colonization of consciousness.

Free space, rather than expanding, is being closed down by neoliberal capitalism, and that is a fundamental issue often not addressed in the Biennale. The Luxembourg pavilion did it best, noting that only 8 percent of the country was currently in public hands, the rest being private, and constructing a thin corridor in the middle of the pavilion taking up 8 percent of the space in the exhibition which the spectator walks down to give the sense of this confinement.

The result of this privatization is that architects, in order to best use the limited space left to them, must build upwards. So the pavilion is taken up with all kinds of ingenious building patterns which also in their own way are a cry for help and give a sense of how architects working in public spaces are confined.

The Biennale translates the concept of Free Space into several languages, and it is the Indonesian reworking of the concept that gives it a more dynamic and living aspect. Here, Free Space is defined as “a place for all.” Too often in the main exhibition, however, free space is simply jargon for a formal application of spatial principles that effectively excludes the social, political and economic formations in which the work is being done.

Again this year, as in 2016 with the earthquakes in central Italy, reality intervened and cured the neurosis, as Freud would say. Or in this case, exposed it. That is, in the middle of this wealth of architechy speak, the Morandi Bridge in Genoa collapsed. More than 35 people plunged to their death, and the city’s economy has been devastated, as the bridge links the city to the harbor and is a key to travel to the South of Italy.

The neoliberal idea of the state outsourcing to far more efficient private firms has been called into question. The collapse of what was seen at its inauguration in 1967 as the symbol of Italian modernity, a sleek structure that seemed to be light as air, was perhaps due to the use of reinforced concrete, a material that was thought even at the time to last perhaps 40 years, but not the 80 to 100 years most bridges are expected to endure.

Other Morandi bridges in Venezuela and in Sicily in have also either collapsed or are in danger of collapsing. The company the maintenance of the bridge was outsourced to – Autostrada, a subsidiary of Benetton, the streamlined clothes company which now looks much more mercenary than its projected image – has now had their communication devices seized by the prosecutor’s office. The prosecutor wants to know why the company ignored numerous reports claiming the bridge was unsafe, including one in September 2017 which predicted the collapse of pillars 9 and 10, which ere the culprits in the actual collapse.

The business press last week, in the wake of the anger of Italian citizens at the company and the government for its faith in neoliberal outsourcing, counselled moderation, urging people to not get too angry at the whole architect/state/corporate complex which led to the collapse – though 20 families of the victims banded together and refused a state funeral as a sign of its culpability.

Standard and Poor’s, rallying to the company’s defense, warned that a huge bill for the damages could wreck the company and forestall repairs to the bridge. The new populist government meanwhile, influenced by its far right front with the Northern League, was too preoccupied with holding migrants hostage to care.

Free Space as Ergonomic Real Estate in Switzerland

Needless to say, this complex web of issues was mostly absent from a Biennale that is desperately in need of expanding its reach beyond architechy speak, to address a populace that if they were engaged might be flocking to the show. As it is, the show is mostly for architecture students. Along with the neoliberal redefinition of no space as free space, the Swiss Pavilion which won the award as best national exhibition was a rounded “user-friendly” non-hierarchized house with sometimes tiny doors and rooms to accommodate all family members. The viewer in this so-called “free space”, however, is put in the position of real estate buyer, touring a house that is for sale. This is much more privately rented or bought space, rather than free space.

Similarly, with the at-first-audacious idea in the British Pavilion of the pavilion being entirely empty with an outside staircase leading to an equally vacant roof where 4 o’clock tea was served. Again, what was summoned up below was an unfurnished apartment, with the viewer treated as renter or real estate speculator. The view at the top was an imperial one of Venice – one former empire looking out over another.

There was also much left out that a more daring and less rigidly formal definition of free space might have encompassed. The French pavilion was about reclaimed urban spaces – reclaimed CentQuatre, a rap and cultural space that is overflowing with creativity. But the real story of French free space is the ZADs, the environmental zones of defense, one of which is currently being dismantled. These are examples of actual anarchist experiments in how to conceive new kinds of spaces formally and culturally, and there was not a word of these zones, which are located outside the state-corporate nexus.

Indigenous Architecture

Nevertheless, there was much to like. My prize goes to “Unceded: Voices of the Land”, the Canadian Pavilion turned over to First Nations, and about applying indigenous architectural principles to contemporary building. These principles begin with the idea that architectural form is inspired by the spirit of nature (picked up satirically outside the exhibition in Dalya Luttwack’s striated red iron plant, termed the first tropical mangrove in Venice, a result of displacement due to global warming). The indigenous pavilion reminds us that we all have a shared responsibility in regards to the land – the actual commons, not Client Earth.

The Russia Pavilion took up the ecological theme by validating the country’s romance with energy saving railroads. It included an imaginary film of a train trip to Vladivostok with the viewer watching out the window and the musings of famous Russian train travellers of the past, including not only Lenin and Trotsky but also Moma’s Alfred Barr, and the cultural theorist Walter Benjamin. Likewise, the Slovenian exhibit, a persistent fountain in a place where frequent floods occur, discussed that country’s relation to water, access to which is a constitutionally guaranteed right.

The US and Israeli pavilions, which were located next to each other, signifying their position of alignment as empire and chief client state, both had a thoughtful exhibit. The Israeli pavilion discussed the concept of Status Quo around the Holy Land, showing in matching videos how Jews and Muslims quickly set up and break down the shared space in Hebron of the Cave of the Patriarchs and the Ibrahimi Mosque. In these contested religious spaces, the exhibit argues, status quo is a way of maintaining equilibrium, although the exhibit elides the way that the status quo is being disrupted in the wake of Trump’s Jerusalem relocation of the US Embassy, and the new Israeli policy officially making Palestinians second class citizens.

The US Pavilion ,whose topic is Dimensions of Citizenship, takes a somewhat critical view of Trump’s anti-immigration and wall-building. It notes the similar geographical region around where Trump’s wall would go and documents the desire of the people on either side of the wall to cooperate. Elsewhere, a colonial aspect of the exhibition shows the US expanding into space mining, a part of the Musk and Bezos race to privatize space, in abrogation of a 1967 treaty prohibiting national appropriation of materials on other planets.

Belgiums reimagining of the EU

Both the Belgium and Greek pavilions returned to the concept of free space as that of the Greek forum, a place of free exchange of ideas. The Belgium exhibition simply recreated the forum in blue, with sound vibrations. It suggested that this return to an actual democracy in Brussels, the capital of the EU, was needed in light of the blatantly undemocratic way EU institutions and the European Central Bank now behaved. The Greek reconstitution of the forum was an ideal spatial reimagining of a university as more open exchange of ideas, against the current enclosure of the university as simply neoliberal thinktank.

Public housing as both success and failure was the subject of two exhibits. The Victoria and Albert Museum’s exhibit remembered Robin Hood Gardens, a public housing complex destroyed under Thatcher so that the area could be declared a free enterprise zone for more profitable development. The Star Apartment complex in LA, home to 102 homeless artists and city dwellers, with each apartment individually designed, was also the subject of an exhibit.

Finally, much developing nations’ architecture designated itself around the concept of informal space, with one Chinese exhibit noting how people’s existing spaces around laundries, gardens and urban growing might be maintained. An Egyptian exhibit suggested that if in slums the problems of sewage and clean water were solved, the people’s housing would be beautiful.

This is not a shirt

Finally, an architecture firm presented an exhibit of Bangladeshi women using their own sense of creating abundantly coloured garments to clothe themselves, and sell them, instead of working for pennies for global corporations. This critque of commodification was called “This is not a shirt”, and it also replicated the tiny shacks these women live in with newspapers for wallpaper, with a television as their only solace and sole piece of furniture. Their free space must be carved out of taking back their own means of making a living.

This is Bro on the Art World Beat reporting from the Venice Architectural Biennale. I’ll be back next week with a report on this year’s Venice Film Festival.

Fenix
Tuesday, 10 July 2018 18:25

Scandi Noir Comes of Age: The Best of European Television

Dennis Broe reviews some recent European TV series.

The EU itself may be breaking apart over the question of refugees as the 28 – now 27 – try to hammer out an immigration policy essentially driven by the far right, which is making hay on exaggerating this issue, since Europe has already clamped down on the migratory flow which is significantly reduced since 2015.

Meanwhile, however, European television is alive and well with co-productions and cross-border collaboration increasing. All this is being led by the Scandinavian countries, who are shedding their particular brand in the world market, which is Scandi Noir, or series about a tough male or female cop returning to a rural or northern bleak setting often where they grew up to pursue a murderer or the kidnapper of a child.

The form is tried and true – see The Killing, Midnight Sun, Jordskott – but Scandi makers of serial series are now retaining the mystery or thriller aspect, but branching out to deal explicitly with key social and economic problems in their societies. This deepens the mystery and strengthens the conspiratorial aspect of the work in a way that might – but probably won’t – serve as a model for U.S. series.

These observations are drawn from the just completed Serie Series conclave outside Paris in the chateau city of Fontainebleau. The conference was presided over by the erstwhile and dedicated curator of what is becoming a very popular website in Europe and elsewhere, “Walter Presents.”

The site originates from Channel 4 in Britain which is, along with Arte in France, probably the public station that is the most progressive commissioner of film and television series in the world. The site is a free listing of its master Walter Iuzzolino’s choices of the most interesting European series in a variety of genres. He is sort of a one-person Netflix algorithm who chooses series based on fascinating but popular concepts and not – as in Netflix – on what will attract the most new subscribers. It’s a great place to watch new series.

DB conspiracy of silence

Walter pointed out that European series had gotten somewhat straightjacketed into the quirky, local police detective genre and hoped they would soon escape that bind. Scandi TV makers then illustrated that this was indeed happening. Conspiracy of Silence for example uses a Count of Monte Cristo tale of revenge about a Swedish arms runner now trying to make up for his past transgressions who goes back to Sweden to find his former co-arms runner is more engaged than ever in the trade.

Sweden, which is generally associated with pacifist endeavours like the Nobel Peace Prize, is the 11th leading manufacturer and global pedlar of weapons. Perhaps, though, this is less surprising when you recall that Alfred Nobel’s money came from gunpowder. The series details how imbricated the society is in an industry that attempts to muzzle the press and that, as in the U.S., spreads its wealth into every electoral district and in that way corrupts legislators.

Elsewhere a Swedish-Finnish series, now in production, The White Wall, inspired by the documentary Into Eternity, takes up the subject of the storage of nuclear waste, since the refuse of atomic plants is said to contaminate the environment for 100,000 years. This is a major issue especially in Finland where the sites are often located. The series, set in Sweden by a Finnish showrunner, has a kind of Lost aspect to it as miners discover a mysterious locked vault that seems to radiate mystery and catastrophe. The series is being shot in the deepest open pit mine in Europe where the actors themselves with have a taste of the experiences of the characters.

Finally, there is State of Happiness which is the second Norwegian series to take up the subject of Norway’s oil fields in the North Sea, which had brought prosperity to the country, with the oil fund invested in only environmentally sound enterprises and with the contradiction growing sharper every day between where the money comes from and the progressive purposes to which it is being put. This is also the subject of a Norwegian sitcom titled The Oil Fund.

State of Happiness at first takes a positive view of oil drilling returning to 1960 when Phillips Petroleum like all the Anglo-British oil companies declares the area dry and is retiring. The show in its first seasons details how oil is actually discovered and how it comes under public control, pointing out that the U.S., one of the least efficient drillers of oil, is one of the few countries that considers the natural resource to be private. Later seasons though will deal with the environmentally devastating effects of a fund that has enriched all Norwegians.

Also now starting to circulate around the globe is Home Ground, a kind of female Friday Night Lights about a woman soccer coach in a men’s premier league in Norway. The series doesn’t skimp on the soccer, but its subject is mainly the multiple layers of prejudice the coach experiences at all levels of society as she attempts to infiltrate a male enclave.

On the psychological front – while retaining a deep involvement in the social – is the Icelandic series, now in production, The Minister, about a manic-depressive leader of the country. At the presentation in their pitch the series creators asked “What would it be like to have a crazy person as your ruler?” Everyone in the U.S. now knows the answer to that, and the writers revealed that in season one the prime minister would be manic and in season two depressive, which may be an accurate description of Trump’s first and coming second term in office. Iceland has it on TV: the US is living it.

The conference also featured Danish scholar Ib Bondebjerg talking about European televisual cooperation and co-productions, which most often involve public television, the biggest player in European TV. The most fascinating aspect of his study showed Germany in the centre of European production, as a country that mediated on the one side between the Scandi countries of Iceland, Finland, Sweden, Denmark, the Dutch territories of Holland and the Northern or Flemish Part of Belgium and, on the other side, France, Spain and Italy.

Language is also a factor in Germany’s centrality, since there is a linguistic relationship between Scandinavia, the Dutch area, parts of Switzerland, Austria and Germany. The other similarity in the Northern hub of television is that all of these countries use English as a second language, a factor that binds them but that also opens them up to penetration by the American streaming and television services.

DB clashoffutures

A transnational series which garnered a good deal of attention were Clash of Futures – or Ken Burns meets the apocalypse. The series, with six countries producing, details through dramatic recreations, diary readings and found footage, the disintegration of Europe in the years between the two world wars, 1918 to 1939. It’s a smaller budget series on a big topic with the found footage often substituting for what in U.S. TV or films would be fictional recreation, a sort of ingenious use of existing footage to present the sheen of a much more expensive series.

In general the better funded, more dominant British series were disappointing. A Very British Scandal with Hugh Grant and Ben Whishaw is a comedy of errors set in the 1970s, where a minister attempts to assassinate his gay lover to silence him. Grant looks like an anaemic Patrick McGoohan and Whishaw, who is always interesting, is served much better in the far more substantial London Spy, a series with actual political teeth to it, now on Netflix. Likewise, the coming World on Fire recounting World War II from the German and English perspectives sounds in comparison like a paler version of Clash of Futures.

banking disrrict

On the brighter side were two series now starting to circulate that both boasted excellent first episodes. Banking District is a Flemish-Swiss co-production set in a pristine, gleaming and dangerous Geneva about a private banking family feeling the heat from the Obama Administration, which after its giveaway to U.S. bankers then went after the secrecy of the Swiss banking industry to recoup its funds.

The pilot, extremely well-written, details the downfall of the lead banker, the family’s connection to the mob, the backbiting within the family for power and how its outsider members, – the black sheep sister who had refused to work in the industry and her whistleblower journalist ex-husband – begin to unearth the family’s secrets. The pilot focuses on the change in the sister and brings her sharply into focus in a way that bodes well for the rest of the series.

DB Fenix

Fenix is a Dutch-Belgium co-production that manages to expertly put a new wrinkle in a cop/drug wars series. The pilot episode focuses on a kidnapping with a special prosecutor and a drug lord trying to have the drug lord’s stepdaughter returned. The series is filled with gritty, tough locales, and in its look and seediness recalls Flemish film noirs such as The Ardennes, about the hollowed-out lives of what looks like Belgium’s Appalachia, and Dark Inclusion, Hamlet in the Antwerp diamond district.

The series manages a turn at the end of the pilot which utterly shocks and makes us realize that Fenix is indeed the Dutch word for Phoenix, as in rising from the ashes. I won’t add more except to say that it is the most startling and one of the best constructed pilots of the year which at its end utterly throws the series in a new and unexpected direction.

You can watch more coverage of Euro and global television on my show TV on TV available at the Art District Television website, http://artdistrict-radio.com/page/tv-on-tv-on-art-district-tv-30.

Cannes 2018: Best of the Rest
Monday, 28 May 2018 18:38

Cannes 2018: Best of the Rest

Published in Films

Dennis Broe gives us his Best of the Rest from Cannes 2018.

All the other critics have gone home but I’m still on the Croisette, the Cannes Boardwalk, sweeping up after them. This week I’ll finish my Cannes reporting with a look at the best of the three other competitions: Directors Fortnight which generally features newer directors; Un Certain Regard for more established directors; and Critic’s Week, generally for directors new to the festival. These are films that will be released throughout the year that can easily get lost in the Hollywood and American Independent glut. Keep an eye out for them because though deserving they are likely to be the films that if they get reviewed at all get stuck on, for example, The New York Times page of eight reviews.

In general the Director’s Fortnight, not officially a part of the Festival and begun the year after Godard and Truffaut closed Cannes in 1968, tries to be more of a breath of fresh air. Its choices tend as much toward the social as the aesthetic, whereas Un Certain Regard is more staunchly and purely aesthetic and its choices are sometimes harder to swallow or sit through.

This year the Directors Fortnight had a distinct Latin and South American flavor as did the original program in 1969, awash with the aesthetics and social consciousness of Latin American revolution. The 2018 films tended to center on indigenous peoples and many of the better films at the festival were about the damage being done to native customs more in line with nature.

Before we go to that, I do need to add that there was a calling out of the critics as well at the festival in this year of MeToo. It occurred around the screening of Girls of the Sun, a film about a squadron of Kurdish female fighters engaged against ISIS. This was the film where 82 women mounted the steps of the Palais to urge the industry to employ more women. The film was directed by directed one of only three female directors in any area of the festival and the reviews afterwards, by mostly male critics, roundly panned it. Several of the women in attendance then denounced the reviews as indicating that the ranks of reviewers needed to open up also.

This reminds me of moments in both comedy and rock and roll when women needed to call attention to the fact that their humor and ways of making music was different rather than not funny or not listenable. Female comedians and female bands have both gained in attention and both fields have been the better for it. Michelle Wolf is currently perhaps not only the fastest rising but also the funniest and most politically astute practitioner of contemporary comedy. Hopefully next year there will a swelling in the ranks of female reviewers as well.

Here are four of the best films outside the main competition followed by a review of some of the others.

 woman at war

Woman at War – This onscreen extension of MeToo about an Earth Mother battling global energy companies in Iceland opens with a razzle-dazzle sequence with this lone warrior with bow and arrow bringing down a power plant. Hala is a choir teacher by day but an environmental activist by night attempting to keep Rio Tinto and Chinese developers out of Iceland’s rural highlands, one of the last bastions of nature in Europe. This is the real Wonder Woman who battles for justice for the world’s climate victims. The film’s concluding segment has Hala visiting the Ukraine to adopt a girl orphaned by a war that is seen as having unleashed untold natural devastation on that country, a war provoked by U.S. and NATO aggression in the region. Aiding her in her quest are on-screen musicians and Ukrainian folk dancers whose music is a cultural echo of the natural life Hala is sworn to protect.

 canneds gentleindifference of the world

The Gentle Indifference of the WorldBonny and Clyde in Kazakhstan in a film whose title is a quote from Camus. The title is facetious. The world the film describes is far from gentle and, rather than indifferent, it is cruel, as a young girl is sent by her mother from the country to the city to be betrothed to a rich man to settle the family’s debts. She is accompanied by a village compatriot who loves her and becomes a kind of guardian angel. What they encounter is a world where businessmen and gangsters look and act alike. After multiple deceptions, the duo takes to the road in the film’s strongest sequence in a desperate bid for freedom that both recalls and outdoes the final scene of Bonny and Clyde. This is a bitter but enchanting look at the region and the coming of neoliberalism to it.

 cannes the snatch thief

The Snatch Thief – This film noir from Argentina about the motorcycle getaway driver of a purse snatching duo, which might have been better titled The Motorcycle Thief, is a reminder that Argentina has an expert history as a creator of crime films with doomed heroes from the 1940s and ‘50s. The thieves drag an old lady with them as they make off with her pocketbook which disturbs the driver Miguel who then slowly insinuates his way into the victim’s life with the two becoming intertwined. The film features shots framed in the 1940s Hollywood style with the thief in foreground watching Miguel’s righteous father in the background bidding for the affection of his son, “choker close-ups” of Miguel facing off with his partner who wants him to continue his life of crime, and a sense of foreboding affecting the lead as he attempts forgiveness in a perilous way. The film with its low-caste characters is also a look at the other side of a suffering Argentina that its right-wing market-oriented government is bent on denying.

 birds of passage

Birds of Passage – Yes this is Scarface in Columbia with its tale of the rise and fall of a drug dealer in the North of that country in the land of the Wayuu Indians, but it is also so much more. Directed by the team that created The Embrace of the Serpent, about the encounter of a German “explorer” and the last of an Indian tribe, this follow-up is about a similar theme only writ larger. It details the 20-year history of the tribe’s involvement in selling and shipping marijuana and what it adds to the typical gangster film is an acute awareness of the ways the greed, violence and customs of the West penetrate and ultimately destroy not only the gangster capo but the tribe as well, as one by one the customs that had allowed it to survive are surrendered to a substitute thirst for material goods. We watch collective pride be replaced by vengeance in a way that deepens the gangster genre while delivering all the expectations of that genre based on the lead dealer’s rise and fall. This is Narcos from the Columbian perspective which both quotes that series--in a parallel scene where the police stop the drug runners not to imprison them but to make sure they get their cut—while also outdoing the Netflix vehicle in its inner understanding of its subjects.

Two other films also dealt with Latin American turmoil. Los Silencios, The Silences, is a kind of passionate plea to end the war in Columbia between the government and right-wing paramilitaries and the revolutionary group The FARC. The film is actually many movies in one, about a refugee family fleeing the war trying to get access to Brazil, about the remote island they arrive at somewhere between Peru, Columbia and Brazil at the gentrifying moment that it is about to be overrun by a casino, as well as a coming of age film of a young girl, perhaps the strongest moments of the film. The Brazilian director Biatriz Seigner appeared before the film appealing to the audience to take a stand against the false imprisoning of Lula, the Workers Party Candidate, who is, even from his jail cell, leading the presidential polls. She also said that Kleber Mendoca Filho, the director of Aquarius, a film with Sonia Braga, who at Cannes in 2016 had called attention to an earlier legislative coup against then president Dilma Rousseff, was forced by the neoliberal Temer government to give back the grant he had received as punishment for calling attention to the coup.

Elsewhere The Dead and Others follows a young Amazonian Indian family while a heavy air of loss by the father for his father hangs over him and threatens to overcome him. The family goes to the nearby town to work to raise money for the burial and there is a heartbreaking scene where the father for his own reasons at the moment refuses to return with his wife and son. The recounting of the attempt to live in their own way and the tenderness of the family is excellent but the constant tarrying with the dark side of the lead character feels like an extraneous western imposition.

Another kind of indigenous wandering takes place in Tenet or The Charge, a film from Serbia that recalls the 1999 NATO bombing of the country and that opens with a display of shock and awe as the skies are ablaze above a lone truck gliding though the night. The film focuses on its driver who cannot listen to the radio because NATO satellites have jammed the signal and who risks his life on the road in a way that recalls the truck drivers’ hauling dynamite in Wages of Fear. There is an air of sadness about the film for the breakup of Yugoslavia and particularly the Serb partisans’ opposition to the Nazis that the farce of the NATO invasion in the Kosovo war only mocks.

Finally there were two horror films that left their imprint on the festival. The better of these was Borders from Sweden written by the author of Let the Right One In, a socially critical vampire film. Borders introduces a new type of monster with its own carefully calibrated rules while focusing on a female customs sniffer with a face not even a mother could love, which is one of the questions of the film, and an apparently missing tail. Much of the film is absorbing as it questions our tolerance for the other, but finally it succumbs to what it is questioning with one of the monsters seen ultimately as terrifying other while the second moves to become a more liberal part of the society, that is, becomes acceptable because she tames or sheds her otherness.

Die, Monster, Die on the other hand, is an Argentine film without the soul of The Snatch Thief. Its overflowing of bodily fluids from all cavities is simply an example of Art Splatter, as Noel Carroll once described more aesthetic examples of the genre as Art Horror. It adds up to little and in its gross out effects make it seem more like a Master’s Degree highlight reel designed to get the director Hollywood recognition once he jettisons the pretentious existential overlay of who is and isn’t a monster. Oh well, there’s room at Cannes for blatant careerism also.  

This is Bro on the World Film Beat Breaking Glass and winding up my coverage of Cannes 2018.

Cannes 2018 vs. Cannes 1968: What a Falling Off Is This!
Monday, 21 May 2018 18:53

Cannes 2018 vs. Cannes 1968: What a Falling Off Is This!

Published in Films

Dennis Broe's final report on the hyperspectacle which is Cannes 2018.

I would like to begin this Cannes Festival wrap up with the opening of At War, a film about the immolation of the French working class, which is an apt quote from Bertolt Brecht for these media-induced apathetic times: “It’s possible to struggle and lose but if you don’t struggle, you’ve already lost.”

Now to the hyperspectacle. The dust has settled, the prizes are bestowed and Cannes 2018 is in the books. The American trade papers subjected the festival to consistent attacks with The Hollywood Reporter suggesting, as one of its “Five Reasons why Cannes is no Longer so Relevant”, that there are not as many billboards along the Croisette or Boardwalk for American blockbusters. The Festival is having problems but lack of billboards championing masterpieces like Cars 12 and Fast and Furious 27 are not among them.

Hollywood boycotted the festival, perhaps figuring that Venice, which is closer to nomination time, works better for highlighting Academy Award fare. On their side, the French cinema owners also closed ranks, threatening to fire the Cannes director Thierry Fremaux if he again allowed Netflix films, which do not open in French cinemas, in the main competition.

Foreign profits

Fremaux, whose natural disposition is more ecumenical, then returned the festival to arthouse competition only, but without Amazon and Netflix, two of the main American producers currently of independent fare. The open war that broke out at Cannes is really the expression of a competition between Hollywood/Netflix and the rest of the world. Foreign profits are now more crucial to the Hollywood/Netflix bottom line and when the studios and the streaming services took their toys and went home they wanted to make it seem like the sandbox would then collapse, though both were highly active in snatching up films in the Cannes market.

That aside though, many of the films this year were problematic. They often began well but succumbed to various faults. The Godard film was a milestone, but the Lars von Trier and Jia Zhangke films were both lacking. Two Italian films, Happy As Lazzaro and Dogman have wonderful first halves, then seem to succumb to the same malaise that is afflicting the country as a whole, which this week saw the first far-right party take power in a Western democracy. Blackkklansman, which did win the second prize at the festival, is the best and worst of Spike Lee. Under the Silver Lake begins in Hitchcock/David Lynch ecstasy in its perceptive presentation of capitalism’s compulsion to erase mystery and wonder from the world, but then substitutes lazy Hollywood pseudo-philosophizing for critique.

Nevertheless, there were films to like and a top five in and out of the main competition. They were:
- Yomeddine, an Egyptian road movie that is a tour through a brutal neo-liberalized Egypt;
- Cold War, a unexpected complex examination of both sides of that conflict;
- The Image Book, Godard’s masterful indictment of and paean to European civilization and its troubled relationship with the Arab World;
- The Spy Gone North which begins as a Cold War missive itself then morphs into a revealing look at the powers on the peninsula wanting to maintain the war; and
- At War, Stephane Brize’s penetrating examination of what may be the last stand for French workers losing their place in the globalized capitalist economy.

There were also films not to like. Two of these were: Solo: A Star War’s Story, where we find out how Hans Solo met Chewbacka and a whole lot of other things we didn’t need or want to know in Disney’s attempt to push the franchise well beyond oversaturation, and On the Road in France, a cross country trip by May 68’s Daniel Cohn-Bendit. He is now a Macron backer, and his grilling of the workers he encounters about how they can be more productive and relevant is a very Macroniste take on a French working class which now must justify its very existence.

The best

First the best. Yomaddine is better and more trenchant than most critics here thought. An ageing leper in rural Egypt, whose wife has just died, goes on a quest with the boy he has adopted to find his long lost parents who had dropped him at the colony. What he finds though is an Egypt full of corruption, competition and greed as the police shackle him, fellow travellers steal from him and his family at first shuns him – in short a trip though the American backed Al-Sissi dictatorship which betrayed the Arab Spring.

Hope though comes from social outsiders and outcasts including the Muslim Brotherhood member who escapes from jail with him, three cripples, including one a former truck driver run over by a drunken scion of a wealthy family, who re-instill his confidence, and the boy Obama who will not forsake him. A chilling scene is his watching a cruise ship at night in his first time gazing at the Nile from his perch next to his beat-up mule-drawn wagon with the Egyptian elite streaming by and partying in the face of and oblivious to his misery.

Godard believes in the power of images and in their constant juxtaposition and The Image Book somewhat akin to Elegy of Love, Film Socialisme and his 3-D Goodbye to Language simply overwhelms with his quoting and mixing of films from Johnny Guitar to Vertigo. He also quotes art, Delacroix for example. The film mixes works of creation of Western civilization with footage of napalming and massacres in Vietnam, atomic explosions, and devastation of the Arab World. The overall impact though in this case is not the celebration of the images as in his Histories of Cinema but a sense that the image culture which Godard loves/hates is complicit in the destruction and devastation that the West has unleashed on the rest of the world.

This festival’s other masterpiece is Polish director Pawel Palinowski’s Cold War, an instant Oscar contender for Best Foreign Film. The film, which covers a decade in frayed European relationships because of the Cold War, is shot in resplendent black and white. The monochrome approach catches the drabness of the Eastern bloc, but also in more high contrast the glitter that is not gold of the West, and particularly Paris.

The film explores the way the aspirations of artists – here star-crossed lovers, a singer and an composer/accompanist – were similar in the Second World to the First World, with the performers from the Polish countryside wanting to get to Moscow instead of New York and London, and with divided Berlin as their meeting point. The Cold War of the title also refers to men and women but that conflict between the two leads takes second fiddle by the end to the way they can find no peace on either side of the socialist/capitalist curtain and are eventually consumed by this war among peoples who were more alike than different.

Cannes 2 At War

The presentation of Stephane Brize’s At War received a 15 minute ovation at the end. The film details the way that French workers at a factory, who were promised work for five years and who gave back hours and wages after two years, find out that the German owned company, which is making a profit, is going back on its word. It is closing because it can reduce wages even further by moving to Romania.

The film premiered the day after Oxfam announced that of the leading industrialized countries French businesses returned the greatest share of their profits, 68%, to shareholders who simply pocketed the money, a factor which is revealed in the film as also driving the plant closing. The film concentrates solidly on the attempts to resist the firing of the factory workers with little psychologizing of his characters in a way that keeps it focused on their economic plight. The only problem was the overemphasis on one worker, played by Vincent London, one of the only professional actors in the cast, but miscast in a film whose subject was the collective group of workers. This character though does come finally to expresses the near hopelessness of workers caught in the global corporate capitalist vice, and the ovation at the premiere seemed to be as much for French workers themselves as for the cast, crew, and film.

Cannes 2 the spy gone north cannes

The Spy Gone North, a taut espionage and suspense thriller, begins in promoting the Cold War itself as a South Korean spy dressed up as an entrepreneur attempts to ferret out in the 1990s whether the North is constructing atomic weapons. Strangely, that task is forgotten in the film’s much stronger second half, as it details the ways that military men on both sides want the buildup to continue and in the South the way the intelligence service was used to attempt to sabotage the election of a peace candidate. The films feelgood ending affirms a friendship between the spy from the South and his corresponding contact in the North validating the will of the people on both sides for peace.

Cannes 2 blackkklansman

Not so good

Now to the problem films. Blackkklansman, like its bombastic title, is a narrative that too often stays at the level of style in this story of a black police officer in Colorado in the 1980s who helped infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan. The presentation of Stokely Carmichael and the black liberation rebels is superficial sloganeering and the celebration of police informants, here both black and white, hews too closely to the current Democratic Party strategy of celebrating the FBI’s investigation of Trump. Be careful what you wish for and who you are celebrating.

The strengths here are Spike’s mixing of materials and use of documentary including:
- the magnetic presence of Harry Belafonte telling a story of a 1916 lynching intercut with the Klan’s watching of the film The Birth of a Nation;
- Alex Baldwin’s impersonation of a Grand Klan wizard in the opening using Trump phraseology;
- the closing montage which highlights the resurgence of right wing street violence at Charlottsville; and
- a transcendent dance sequence in a black club to the Cornelius Brothers and Sister Rose’s “It’s too late to turn back now.”

jie zhangkes Ash is Pure as White

Jie Zhangke’s Ash is Pure as White has another miraculous performance by his muse Zhao Tao in a film about three phases of contemporary China’s transformation into a freewheeling, profitable, but less communal, economy and society. Her performance recalls first her role as ingénue gangster's moll in Unknown Pleasures at the moment of the country’s initial capitalization, then as female action figure from A Touch of Sin as here she saves her gangster boyfriend and takes the rap for him, as wronged wife in Still Life in its critique of vast expansions such as the Three Gorges Project which shows up in the film as a place. Here, she is swindled by a would-be entrepreneur, and finally as gambling parlour elder which recalls her struggles to triumph over a hard life in Mountains May Depart. The problem is we have seen it all before and though this adds to Zhao’s luster as perhaps the greatest actress in the modern cinema it does not add so much to Jie’s work or deepen his concerns.

Two films which initially appear promising but then end up vacant are Lars von Trier’s House That Jack Built and the actually more ambitious and penetrating film by It Follows director David Robert Mitchell, Under the Silver Lake. House was von Trier’s return to Cannes after being ousted for a previous provocation.

The film begins as a characterization of the American male as that of a serial killer. It’s an orgy of male violence against women and the kind of film, even as critique, that perhaps the MeToo movement will change so that we get the other side of this violence, and indeed 100 people are said to have walked out at the premiere.

It then descends into a parable of the artist as serial killer with Matt Dylan/von Trier as Dante visiting hell accompanied by Bruno Ganz’s Virgil, and at this point becomes simple, meaningless and offensive provocation, citing Albert Speer as tortured artist. It’s a far cry from von Trier’s better work, which had cast a penetrating gaze on the American psyche. House is the violent companion piece to the equally lifeless Nymphomaniac – von Trier has managed to make two boring films about sex and violence.

Cannes 2 under the silver lake

Under the Silver Lake begins very promisingly with hints of a mystery in this gentrified capital of Los Angeles hipdom, as an out-of-work slacker attempts to solve the disappearance of a girl who lives next door, as in Rear Window. He follows her friend in lush travelling shots via Vertigo, only this time as farce in a paddle boat; acts like Jeffrey in Blue Velvet in his claim that there is a mystery he is trying to uncover; and watches at one of the numerous parties he attends a whispered version of “To Sir With Love” that recalls the “Crying” sequence in Mulholland Drive.

The film’s enlightened conceit though, is that while Lynch and Hitchcock explored genuine social and psychic mysteries, late capitalism has destroyed the idea of mystery and replaced it with nothing but brands. The slacker Sam in a conversation with his nominal girlfriend after having sex, during which they watch celebrity news, talks about the first magazine he masturbated to and then asks his actress-friend what was her first – not her first lover or first person she had sex with, but the first image she masturbated to. She answers that it was a character, a logo, on a tube of tooth paste, a double remove from human experience. Where Hitchcock had the Raymond Burr character in Rear Window as a murderer, Sam spies instead in the window of the missing girl, the landlord looking for the rent. The film does eventually dissolve into a haze of ramblings about pop culture, as the so-called solutions to the mysteries become more and more trivial, actually unintentionally illustrating its thesis that what is meaningful in culture has been destroyed by profit mongers, unfortunately that includes the latter half of this film. The real secret of Silver Lake - the gentrification that has moved Hispanic peoples out of the area and replaced them with hipsters - is elided in these pseudo-solutions.

Problems also beset two Italian films, both about the contemporary issues plaguing that country. Dogman has an astounding performance by Marcello Fonte as a dog groomer in a forgotten, left-for-dead, suburban wasteland somewhere in Italy. Fonte is the new Dino Risi, the Italian everyman actor of the 1950s. Only where Risi was a conformist who somehow managed to do the right thing, Fonte’s character is a decent man who is drawn into a net of violence as his way out of the poverty facing the country’s small business class. The opening sequence where he is gingerly washing a vicious bulldog is recapitulated in the film with his relationship with a local thug Simone, who is Mussolini-like in his brute violence. The film though in the end succumbs to that violence and can find no other way out.

Happy As Lazzaro exhibits director Alice Rohrwacher’s gift for recalling the ‘50s golden age of Italian social comedy, especially in its opening serenading of a young girl by a villager, seen not from his perspective but from the jaded view of the girl’s older sister. The film is about the village enslaved and in debt to a contessa who does not inform them that their medieval sharecropping relationship has been outlawed in modern Italy and who claims they are better off enslaved.

The second half purports to be a fable about how these times continue in the present but by the bumbling of the peasants in the modern world instead simply illustrates that what the contessa claimed about them needing their own domination is true.

A similar problem besets the Japanese film Shoplifting, which won the Palme d’Or as best film. A gang of loving misfits live by pilfering but form what the film contends is a better family unit than the more traditional one, adopting a girl who is beaten in her supposedly more loving, upwardly mobile family structure. Ultimately though the film does not sustain its critique and ends up taking it back, by showing that the outsider family is as morally bankrupt as those it seems to oppose. Wonderful performances highlighted by Ando Sakuro, the wife of the lead character, who is alternately carefree, seductive and maternal.

Patriarchal capitalist culture

Finally there is the documentary Whitney, which opens with shots of the Newark Riots and places its subject Whitney Houston in the middle of the riots where she grew up. The film details her rough schooling and abandonment by her mother Cissy Houston, who was on the road with Aretha Franklin, her father stealing from her, and her husband Bobby Brown beating her and leading her further down the path of drugs. It also details her remarkable vocal ability nurtured in her gospel background, her energy, and the way her voice and the famous kiss at the end of The Bodyguard with Kevin Costner, a relationship with a white man in which the black woman has the upper hand, was a point of pride for the black community.

Unfortunately, this type of tell-all film can easily degenerate into its own form of exploitation. The moment where a friend reveals that Whitney was molested – and then pauses and reveals by whom and we find it’s a celebrity molestation – feels simply designed to sell the film rather than to get to an inner truth about the singer. Her desperation was indeed there from the beginning in her first mega hit “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” where the next line is “with somebody who loves me.” She searched her whole life to find that somebody, did not find them, and the search in all the wrong places and her pumping up by the male dominated, profit-seeking celebrity machine, combined to kill her. Like so many other black female singers, she was a victim of patriarchal capitalist culture.

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