Dennis Broe

Dennis Broe

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

Exposing the Culture of Corporate Capitalism: Bro On The Global Television Beat
Tuesday, 04 February 2020 12:08

Exposing the Culture of Corporate Capitalism: Bro On The Global Television Beat

Dennis Broe introduces the first instalment of Bro on the Global Television Beat, a new series of TV criticism that covers the best in streaming and Serial TV programmes for British and U.S audiences

Episode 1: Steven Knight’s A Christmas Carol: Dickens in the Age of Neoliberalism

Steven Knight is one of the best writers in the Serial TV era. However, the creator of Peaky Blinders and the even-better Taboo had seemed to regress with See, his Apple TV+ series, a gimmicky post-apocalyptic highly masculinized show depicting a pre-feudal world where everyone is both blind and warlike.

Much more to the point and a return to the capitalist savagery of Taboo is his latest effort. It’s his version of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, a BBC production, available in the US on FX. The tale has been softened so much in recent retellings and in repeated holiday broadcasts of Capra’s watered down version It’s A Wonderful Life, with Jimmy Stewart’s confused and curmudgeonly Scrooge, that it had lost all pretenses to laying bare the old man’s greed, which has been replaced instead by a bumbling lack of conscience that if restored would make him whole.  

Scrooge the banker and asset stripper

That’s not this Scrooge, called Ebe, business shorthand for Ebenezer. He is not old but in his prime, and we understand through the course of the three episodes how this buyer and stripper of companies, much like today’s hedge fund managers and investment bankers, acquired his wealth by penny-pinching his employees, as he orders his accountant Cratchit to put in a full day on Christmas Eve, one of the few times Cratchit spends with his family.

Much worse in his climb to the top with his now deceased partner (the show begins with a young, impoverished boy urinating on the partner’s grave) is their cutting corners in their businesses, resulting in a mine disaster and a fire in one of their factories, each killing many of their workers. Scrooge and his partner’s only concern is how to avoid liability, that is, any chance of being sued.

Scrooge

This is on the social level. On the personal level, we learn “Ebe” has in his past humiliated and sexually abused Cratchit’s wife, played by an Afro-British actress, in a way that suggests the colonial abuse that was a feature of a British empire propelled by slavery –  still a covert feature of the empire in the 1840s, when the show takes place. We also learn that the personal source of this evil was Scrooge’s own sexual abuse as a kid, sold by his father to a boarding school headmaster in exchange for free tuition.

Everywhere on Serial TV these days there is this dark interpretation of the traditionally glowing stories dredged from the ‘50s or early ‘60s, eg in DC’s Titans where the teenage superheroes and their older teachers struggle with sadism, alcoholism, and a broken down family structure. The neoliberal age of precarity is a meaner age than the recently passed Fordist era of guaranteed incomes and pensions, and there is a resulting strain on all kinds of social relations picked up on contemporary TV. It’s impossible even to do a teen superhero show, in comics once the most innocuous of genres, that will attract an audience without taking up the pall that is cast over the lives of this current generation.

In A Christmas Carol Steven Knight, as he did in Taboo with the villainous British East India Company, takes us back to a more savage era of capitalism, that of the rise of the industrial economy fueled by men like “Ebe,” whose only morality is money. Today we have the same mentality but the greed has a smiling face.

If you think the Scrooge tale is outdated, consider Trump’s cutting food stamps in 2019 just prior to Christmas. Or, in France, Macron’s provoking of a strike by proposing to drastically cut the pension system which forced many workers to spend their Christmas holiday on the picket line instead of home with their families. His retort to this cruelty was to ask for a truce, at the exact moment when the strike, now a limited weapon at best, would have maximum impact, claiming that he, the impoverisher of working people’s families, was a family man himself and their friend. Trump and Macron are Scrooges in Armani suits, but no less cruel for their effect on their own working-class, immigré and now middle-class Bob Cratchits.

Revolutionary love

Dicken’s version was too sentimental at the end, and in Knight’s retelling Scrooge repents but is not forgiven by Cratchit’s wife. Not all ignominy is redeemable. Knight does point also to the liberal reformism that was also part of Dickens’ worldview. Scrooge is told that love is the answer, in this case meaning the way that those oppressed by the system endure, and as such is the antidote to revolution. A stronger way of saying this, and of breaking out of the left neoliberal bind where the solution is to put a plaster on the wound, is instead to maintain that changing or overturning a cruel system is to practice love.

For the most part though, Knight’s exquisite writing and Guy Pearce’s unrelentingly hardened Scrooge rewrites and updates Dickens, while reminding us that the wheels are turning backwards. In this more vicious era of capitalism, naked greed over ever decreasing resources returns us to an earlier no-holds barred era of corporate Scrooges – only now with the might and weight of government fully behind them.

Exposing the culture of corporate capitalism

Knight’s updating of Dickens to critique contemporary capitalism is reminiscent of part of Alfred Hitchcock’s corpus – the shows he supervised and directed in the 1950s anthology series Alfred Hitchcock Presents. The master would dryly introduce and conclude what he referred to as “our story tonight,” often insidious critiques from the inside of 50s America, all ending in a bitter twist and some calling attention to a society whose repressed contradictions could not but come to the surface. Three stirring examples of the latter, all of which Hitchcock directed, are Lamb to the Slaughter, Breakthrough, and Poison, all available on YouTube.

In the first, Barbara Bel Geddes, who also appears in Hitchcock's Vertigo, is a fastidious pregnant housewife who when she announces that her baby to be is a boy, is met by her cop husband’s demand for a divorce, and he literally turns his back on her, telling her he has met someone new. She slays him with a frozen leg of lamb and then in the most delicious way possible watches the police dispose of the evidence with a contented look on her face.

Breakdown has Orson Welles’ mainstay Joseph Cotton as a heartless businessman who complains when an accountant he has fired to cut costs has the audacity to be angry at him. The corporate manager terms this a breakdown. Driving home from his Miami vacation, on a backroads detour he becomes the victim of a prison crew accident, paralyzed and unable to speak but narrating to us his plight as he is assumed to be dead. His contemplating being buried alive causes his own breakdown in a way that allows him to feel what the accountant, suffering a similarly symbolic fate, was going through.

Finally, Poison set on a plantation in the Asian tropics, is a nasty half hour as the owner with a possible poisonous snake on his belly under the covers sweats in front of his co-owner. His partner, who wants both the business and the other man’s girlfriend to himself, tries to convince the beleaguered victim that he is delusional, that this is just the effect of delirium tremors from the alcohol the partner has been forcing on him as a way of getting control of the company.

Like the other episodes, this one exposes the ruthlessness of a society based on competition, control and confinement, with Hitch gleefully overseeing this critical mayhem and 1950s audiences tuning in rabidly each week to see the underbelly of the society exposed.

 

Red Vienna: the architecture of socialist hope
Wednesday, 08 January 2020 14:25

Red Vienna: the architecture of socialist hope

Published in Architecture

Dennis Broe tells the story of Red Vienna

Europe’s zero interest rate is being used to further hollow out its major cities. Those people owning capital in cities such as Munich, Berlin, Paris and Amsterdam are borrowing at no cost and buying up apartments that are then being used as tourist rentals, in partnership with Airbnb and other accommodation services.

Along with this trend goes steadily rising rents which mean that working and ordinary middle-class residents — nurses, teachers, social workers — can no longer afford to live in the cities and now must commute to work from far outside. This is also a global problem, with the rents in California now so high that residents are leaving not just the cities but the state, in order to find affordable housing.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Vienna is a city that is still livable, it has a tourist interior with increasingly higher rents but affordable housing just outside, and an extremely efficient system of public transportation which makes commuting easy. The design for this type of housing is to be found in the city’s history and particularly in the period 1919 to 1934, called Red Vienna, where first Socialists and then Social Democrats were in power. Their main project was the construction of not just public housing but also complexes such as Karl-Marx-Hof, still standing, that were cultural centres as well.

Karl Marx Hof

The 100-year anniversary of the movement is being celebrated in the city with two exhibitions at Karl-Marx-Hof and at the Wien Museum MUSA opposite the city hall, both of which call attention to this building feat. When the exhibition toured New York, it was met with overwhelming enthusiasm as architects and city planners flocked to see how Vienna in a previous period had made progress on a problem that is supposedly top of Mayor Bill De Blasio’s agenda. The social theorist Karl Polanyi described the period as one where “a highly developed industrial working class…achieved a level never reached before by the masses of people in any industrial society.”

In 1918 after the disappointment and destruction of World War I, as part of the fall of the Habsburg dynasty, Austrians won universal suffrage and women for the first time were allowed to vote. The government elected by this new constituency was a socialist government which made the eight-hour working day legally binding, introduced unemployment insurance, and began to address the city’s housing crisis, where the poor and many workers lived in unheated, tuberculosis-infected, overcrowded shacks.

Building began in earnest in 1925 and by 1933 64,000 apartments had been constructed in complexes that were not just apartments but spacious living facilities that also boasted gyms, swimming pools, kindergartens and green courtyards. By the end of the period one-tenth of all residents lived in low-rent facilities — costing in some cases only 4 percent of their income —that were dubbed palaces of the proletariat. The most magnificent of these was Karl-Marx-Hof, with its 1300 apartment complex, referred to as the Workers’ Versailles.

The public funds came from a combination of a housing tax, a luxury tax and federal funds. This degree of public housing also discouraged speculation. The infrastructure for this building, including a railway which could transport workers easily across the city, was laid in place under the administration of the infamous Karl Lueger, whose modernization also included a strong anti-Semitic component.

Otto Wagner Subway Station Construction

The most famous architect of the period of the construction of the ring surrounding the inner city was Otto Wagner, who after building many of the bourgeois homes turned his attention to subway construction and to a plan for green suburbs with workers’ homes surrounded by parks. Wagner’s work is currently on display at City of Architecture in Paris, which emphasizes his contribution to the greening of the city.

The Karl-Marx-Hof was designed by Karl Ehn, a student of Wagner’s who is said to have designed over 2700 different workers’ apartments. The structure stretches almost three-quarters of a mile and included gardens, a children’s school, large laundries and libraries. Also part of this building movement was a gigantic pool at Amalienbad, in a nearby district referred to as a temple of hygiene with its glass roof, Roman bath and showers with clean water – a first for workers.

Amalienbad Pool Vienna

The twin ideas of space and education guided kitchen construction so that a former tenement kitchen with a woman ironing on what was also the cutting board for cooking, all the while tending to five children at her feet, was replaced by a spacious kitchen with a large dining table that also functioned as a study table for the working-class mother, now receiving an education.

First the Socialists, then the Social Democrats lost power. What ensued were pitched battles in the street in what is referred to as the Austrian Civil War. The most famous of these was at the Karl-Marx-Hof as workers retreated into their housing complex as both the last bastion and the focal point of their achievement. They were shelled and bombarded by a combination of the Austrian army, police and fascist militias heralding the beginning of what was called Austrofascism, which ran parallel to Hitler’s movement in Germany. The date of the battle is commemorated by the naming of the plaza as 12 February square.

After the Nazi invasion in 1938, the name of the complex was changed, but in 1945 its original name was restored and the reverberations of the period have influenced subsequent building. An exhibit in the Vienna Architecture Museum on The Cold War and Architecture explains that there were four different views for reconstructing the city after the war, proposed by each of its conquerors. The Russian proposal centered around state buildings and power facilities, designed to stress their monumental character. The French, following Corbusier, proposed vertical modernist housing. The Americans wanted to build luxury hotels, with pre-fabricated housing for everyone else. But it was the British Labour Party model of a 'green garden' movement, stressing the need for workers to live away from the congestion and pollution of factories, that the Viennese favoured. The legacy of Red Vienna has bequeathed to the city a suburban workers’ space that is still both green and affordable and that hopefully will be able to withstand new onslaughts of speculation.

An Elephant Sitting Still
Monday, 23 December 2019 15:10

The Decade of Asian Cinema: Top Ten Films of 2019  

Published in Films

Dennis Broe reviews the best films of 2019

This is the end of the decade, and it is worth noting that the two most consistently outstanding directors of the last 10 years are both Asian. They are China’s Jia Zhangke and South Korea’s Bong Joon-ho, whose film Parasite is the movie that best describes class struggle in this year of global street challenges to the power of the rich.

Jia’s films A Touch of Sin, Mountains May Depart and Ash is Purest White recount the at times devastating effects of China’s economic Great Leap Forward on ordinary Chinese and Bong’s films Parasite, Snowpiercer and Okja deal with various aspects of the degradation of the natural and social world as a result of the profit motive. This have also been outstanding films from the Philippines, Taiwan and the emergence of Indonesian film. There is indeed an Asian pivot in Global Cinema, which accompanies the economic strength of the region.

A second major trend is the impact of the streaming services, as this Thanksgiving Netflix challenged the major studios with its own blockbuster release, Scorsese’s The Irishman, on the eve of the holiday, as well as now operating the Paris cinema in New York, a formerly venerable outlet for foreign and independent distributors, as a showcase for its films.

A.O. Scott in The New York Times debated himself and resolved that it is better to see movies in the cinemas, but continually rising prices and the fact that working people hardly have either the time or the money to indulge a movie habit means that the streaming services will advance. One absolutely negative effect is that, as we saw with Disney locking up the Fox Studio back catalogue so its films could not be shown, and with each of the streaming services now teaming with a former studio, repertory houses will suffer and a great deal of the history of the cinema will now become privatized, under lock and key, only viewable online and after paying the subscription price of the streaming service.

The third major trend is a continuing one, noted here each year, and that is the refusal of distributors to even pick up foreign films, so that the American market remains solidly Hollywood with some American independents and a trickle of foreign cinema. There are no plans to distribute almost half of my Top 15 films and thus in the Age of Trump American provincialism proceeds apace in a way that moviegoers are not even aware of.  So let this Top Ten also be a plea to let the films be seen.

Top Ten

Parasite

Parasite – Rest of the Top Ten is in no particular order but this is clearly the best film of the year. Bong Joon-ho’s three-part epic reverses Marx’s take on the class struggle, viewing the interactions of a down-and-out and a wealthy family in South Korea first as sit-com, then as farce, but ultimately as tragedy. Bong uses the devices of the popular cinema – this is part Home Alone, part slasher film – to drive home his point about how the ever growing wealth gap is destroying this society. Will Hollywood have the guts to give this overwhelming critic’s favorite the Academy Award? Or will they at the last moment instead pivot to the commercial as happened last year when Roma, another obvious choice, did not win Best Picture.

Meryl Steep in The Laundromat

The Laundromat – Steven Soderberg’s Brechtian take on the Panama Papers and the problem and grief caused across the world by tax shelters features a multi-dimensional Meryl Streep whose final role is as herself, as she steps out of the fiction to raise her hand and call for action against these schemes which impoverish governments and make the rich richer.

Nina Wu ­– Taiwanese film, to be released early next year, on a very MeToo topic, the torture and fracturing of the consciousness of an actress by both her male overseers and the industry as a whole in this Asian version of Mulholland Drive.

Gathered around Dr. Strangelove in Adults in the Room 

Adults in the Room ­– Currently no distributor for this Costa Gavras film that like The Laundromat uses a variety of devices to illustrate the way the European Union, and in particular a German financial representative as a contemporary Dr. Strangelove, strangled both Greece and the Syriza party as both attempted to carve an alternative path out of the austerity imposed on the country by the EU.

High Flying Bird

High Flying Bird – Netflix-sponsored sports film, again directed by Soderbergh, about the perennial topic of the exploitation of the black body in sports, in life and in the history of America. The auteur turn here though is not by the director but by the writer, Tarell Alvin McCraney, whose dialogue sizzles and bursts with the complexity of the ins and outs of contemporary basketball and the attempt by black agents and athletes to make the sport their own.

Capital in the Twenty-First Century – By far the best documentary of the year, this multilayered look at the history of the growth of the income gap and the persistent power throughout history of the 1 percent is based on Thomas Piketty’s book of the same name, with Piketty as co-screenwriter. But the film is more than simply a regurgitation of the book. In the way it interweaves doc footage, images, and the expertise of various non-orthodox economists it suggests the triumph of films like Inside Job. Only this film has been utterly ignored and without help will die an inglorious death.

Oleg – A touching look at the way Western Europe exploits its Eastern half in this story of a cook who quits his native Latvia for Belgium, where he is quickly and rudely dismissed from his job, then courted by a gangster whose lifestyle and values are emblematic of the neo-liberalizing, everyone out for themselves, West. A powerful ending has Oleg turning his back on this crass commercialism, while a female friend of his remains confined and victimized by it. No US distributor!

A Hidden Life – Terrence Malick’s quietest film yet, about a conscientious objector in the backwoods of Austria before and during World War II. It opens with the idyllic pastoral simplicity of Days of Heaven, then proceeds to the horrors of war of The Thin Red Line and The New World. It’s about keeping your moral compass in a world where all around you have lost their heads, in this case in the Nazi onslaught – and perhaps the way an American intellectual experiences life in the age of Trump.

Bacurau

Bacurau – A Brazilian film, released in the wake of Bolsonaro’s victory. It’s a sharp genre pic that utilizes sci-fi and the western to discuss the global inequalities between North and South, or the US and Brazil, as well as in that country between the Afro-Brazilian North and the Euro-financial South of San Paolo, as its hit squad preys on a small village until it rises up to thwart this conquest. Opens in the US in early January.

The Invisible Life of Euridice Gusmao – Another Brazilian film, and that country’s nominee for Best Foreign Film, which bills itself as a “tropical melo.” And indeed it is an old-fashioned melodrama set in the patriarchal Brazil of the 1950s, even as that phenomenon, in the form of Bolsonaro’s boisterous militarism, is currently reasserting itself. The film is literally about sisterhood, that is two sisters parted by a ruthless father, one of whom finds an independent path, meaning and forgiveness in the Afro-Brazilian life of the favela.

Honorable Mention

 Sorry We Missed You

Sorry We Missed You – This Ken Loach film is about a crucial topic – life for workers in the gig economy – will be distributed in March in the US. The film charts the slow auto-destruction of a family as a result of the precarious labor of the wife and the husband – he with an Amazon/Uber type delivery company, she working in social care – which goes under the name of entrepreneurship and “freedom”.

It Must Be Heaven – No distributor or US release date for Palestinian director Elia Suleiman’s wry reflection of life in his native Nazareth, and in Paris and New York. Suleiman’s droll observation, part Jacques Tati/part Buster Keaton, presents Paris as both open runway and site of the branding of luxury, and Paris and New York as armed camps in an increasingly militarized West, contrasting with the warmth and humanity of Nazareth.

Blow It To Bits Second best documentary of the year with as yet no US distributor, about the reaction of French workers to the closing of a tyre factory, after they had already taken pay cuts because the company had promised to keep it open. A film full of fear, resentment and finally anger at how the workers were used. Directed by Lech Kowalski whose most famous film, D.O.A., about the early days of Brit and American working-class punk, is a similar bitter rebuke to the powers that be.

an elephant sitting still still

An Elephant Sitting Still – Chinese look at the inner lives of outliers of an industrial town, each with their own kind of desperateness, by a very powerful director who then committed suicide but not before leaving a striking portrait of a society embracing the capitalist “everyone for themselves” ethos and going awry.

An Officer and A Spy – Polanski’s film has been blacklisted, and has found no distributor in the Anglo-capitalist world. The director’s past actions are beyond reprehensible, but the film is not simply about his persecution complex. Its detailing of the French military and legal cover-up of Dreyfus affair lays bare the secretive power structure of the elites that is still in place in today’s Macron government. A Dreyfus for our times and a film that deserves to be seen and argued about rather than simply repressed.

Two other films from past Top Tens were released this year and should be mentioned, Columbia’s Birds of Passage, which effectively uses the tropes of the gangster film to chart the coming of the profit motive to an indigenous community and The Nightingale, an Australian film that recounts British settler brutality in that country as it impacts both on its indigenous Aboriginal population and on Irish women forced to emigrate.

Five Worst Films

 It’s not that they’re so terrible. In truth, most of these films are just horribly over-rated.

Marriage Story – Noah Baumbach’s last film The Meyerowitz Stories with its infernal patriarch was insufferable. This one, about the breakup of a marriage is just about sufferable, but I still prefer the funny and satirical Noah Baumbach of The Squid and The Whale to the serious, “complex” Scenes from a Marriage Ingmar Bergman Baumbach. There is also a fundamental incongruity in the treatment of Adam Driver’s husband, who never admits his part in the destruction of the marriage, yet both husband and wife are treated as equally responsible.

Joker – It has no redeeming social value but what does distinguish this entry is that is an openly fascist film released by a major studio, Warner Bros. It’s a hack-Scorsese pastiche of Taxi Driver and King of Comedy that sees collective action as mob rule and suggests the need for a strongman, a Trump, A Bolsonaro, a Duterte, or a Batman, to tame the anarchic lead villain and clean up what it presents as the filth of the streets. 

Ad Astra – Promising first half as Brad Pitt’s astronaut goes up country in a militarized outer space of the near future. He’s seeking his Kurtz in a Heart of Darkness/Apocalypse Now narrative that unfortunately doesn’t pay off, as the Heart of Darkness turns out to be a bland void and the wonder of space becomes just another backdrop on which to project a highly simplified Oedipal struggle, not even as sophisticated or resonant as that of Star Wars.

Martin Eden – Jack London’s original novel didn’t work and neither does this too-faithful copy. It mixes the self-taught trajectory of a poor boy in Naples who becomes a writer with a critique of celebrity in a capitalist regime, as the successful writer then becomes an insufferable bore. The mixing of the two is simply confusing to audiences who are asked first to root for and then against the protagonist. Even worse is the mixing of several different time periods, which include turn of the century Italy, Italy in the 1930s, and the present, making for a sloppy and nebulous no-time in a device that reads simply as lazy set construction.   

The Lighthouse – Beautifully shot in vibrant black and white, with a screenplay that recalls Melville in its density by the promising director of The Witch. In the end though, this tale of a lighthouse keeper torturing and then being tortured by his protégé is just so much male craziness. Let’s call it Moby Shtick. No amount of wizardly effects or supposed critique can conceal the fact that this is just one more tired display of a fascination with an exhausted patriarchy, especially reprehensible in a year when that impulse is so directly being questioned.

500 programmes and nothing to watch: Top Ten TV series of 2019
Wednesday, 18 December 2019 20:52

500 programmes and nothing to watch: Top Ten TV series of 2019

Dennis Broe reviews the best TV Series of 2019

I could not fit all the series I liked this year into a Top Ten so I have what amounts to a Top 30 best series in global television. At first glance this might indicate that series are improving but let’s not be so hasty. In the US alone, not to mention worldwide, there were nearly 500 series produced in 2019 on network, cable and streaming services, so the fact that there are a rising number of watchable and even quality series is more a product of the number of series as a whole increasing.

Peak TV

We have gone from what used to be called the Second Golden Age of Television, which in truth may have finished around 2004 with the period’s ending marked by the demise of the HBO series Deadwood, to what is now referred to as “Peak TV.”

tv Peak TV

The name denotes a phenomenon where the market, as happened with oil, is glutted, and one has to dig down much deeper to refine or find a watchable series. Yes, there are more quality series but there are also more mediocre series with the vast majority being simply unwatchable, just niche series with a very limited appeal or pre-packaged rip-offs of previous series or movies. In the supposedly quality era of streaming TV we are actually getting closer to the phenomena of cable, that is 500 channels, or in this case series, with almost nothing to watch.

Streaming Services

That is the first major trend, saturation or peak TV. The second of course is the rise of the streaming services, with Netflix and Amazon now joined by Disney+ and Apple TV+ and with NBC Universal, titled Peacock, and AT&T Time Warner, titled HBO Max, still to come. A wave of consolidation accompanied these behemoths with Disney buying Fox, AT&T absorbing Time Warner, CBS merging with Paramount Viacom, and, finally, Comcast, one of the largest cable companies in the US, also now owning NBC and buying Europe’s leading satellite company Sky. The goal in many of these mergers is to both create original series and lock up movie studio back catalogues, so that the service provides a seemingly endless array of product.

The other unstated goal of these conglomerates moving online is to use serial TV as a way to harvest data on users and sell the data to advertisers, so that advertisers are paying not only to advertise on the streaming service but also for data collected by the service. Hence, AT&T, the conservative company from Dallas, on merging with Time Warner bought a company that allows it to send targeted ads to all devices and Disney+ contracted with Publicis, a company which is already adept at collecting data from TV sets and selling it without the viewer’s consent. So, the movement now allows these entertainment complexes to become full-fledged members of the surveillance economy, and converts the “freedom” of Serial TV into a device for creating and manipulating consumer interest, and then spying on and harvesting it.

A word about my particular bent in terms of series TV and in general. Manny Farber, way back in the early ’60s, wrote a crucial essay on the difference between Elephant and Termite Art, Elephant Art being big-budget, “meaningful” art with a socially uplifting purpose and Termite Art being low-budget, degraded, prickly art with no apparent redeeming social value. He might as well have been saying bourgeois art which caters to an upper-middle-class taste versus working-class art, enjoyed by the masses and discounted by the critics. I am almost always on the side of Termite Art. On TV this would be the Nancy Drews, Burden of Truth, In the Dark rather than the Elephant Art of Succession, The Morning Show, and Billions/Black Monday

tv Succession       

The other trend is that this year saw the first wave of post-MeToo series come down the  pipeline and the prognostication is positive. Female leads in Stumptown, In the Dark, Proven Innocent, Burden of Truth and Nancy Drew generally were part of a formula that produced series that were nicer, less violent, and more social and political than previous series with male leads. This was apparent for example in the difference in two series on Apple TV+, the more patriarchal, typically apocryphal Mad Max-like See and the more matriarchal, looser and more quietly questioning the persistence of the colonial social order of Dickinson.

 I should add also vis-à-vis my Top Series that a successful series is one that gets on the air, not necessarily one that has a long run, since so many of the best series are cancelled quickly, with cancellation in a commercial medium generally having little to do with the quality of the series.

Top 15 TV Series

 tv homecoming

Homecoming – Much more than a Julia Roberts vehicle, this Amazon Prime series, originated as a podcast which made for an extremely tightly constructed half hour, the equivalent plot-wise of most hour series. Robert’s slowly coming to grips with a corporate-induced amnesia shed light on, and was one of the few series to tackle, the nefariousness of Big Pharma as the opioid crisis persists.

Bad Banks – Season One of this German-Luxembourg series, now airing on Hulu, with Season Two soon to come, boasted one of the most outstanding pilots beginning with a run on a bank and flashing back to the financial crimes that led to that collapse including millennial bankers cheering wildly at a California earthquake, which resulted in their profiting from a financial instrument that pays off on catastrophes.

Bob Hearts Abishola – Much better Chuck Lorre series than the Elephant-like The Kominsky Method. This touching on-again, off-again courtship and romance solidly rooted in the day-to-day conflicts of its female Nigerian hospital nurse and male Detroit small business owner, has its share of embarrassing stock sitcom characters (Abishola’s aunt and uncle, Bob’s sister and brother) but the leads, and especially Folake Olowofoyeku’s Abishola, aided by the writing of Gina Yashere make this an extremely heartwarming series.

Bloody Vienna – BBC2 mystery series, likely soon to circulate on BBC America, that maps the reactionary anti-semitism and stifling militarism of post fin-de-siecle Vienna as well as its grappling toward modernity in its Secessionist art at the dawning of psychoanalysis. Both are embodied in the young Freudian Max Lieberman who aids a working-class Austrian detective by employing this new science of the mind to solve crimes that originate in the repressed atmosphere of the upper reaches of the Austro-Hungarian empire.

Who is America – Sasha Baron Cohen’s one-season wonder on Showtime in which he inhabits four characters in Candid Camera-like situations but exposes the innate racist and violent nature of the actual American personalities he catches being themselves. The best character is his Israeli officer Colonel Erran Morad whose own militarist impulses allow those of the Southern Old Boy subjects he encourages to emerge on screen.

Jeux d’influence – or Game of Influence, now broadcasting on Amazon Prime. This French series lays bare the disastrous effects of lobbyists who in this case are aiming to keep a cancerous agricultural product, based on Monsanto’s glyphosphate, on the market. It’s a well-told Zola-esque view of the industry, its farmer victims, and the politicians of all the legislative parties, who, knowing the product is murderous, delay banning it, just as in fact Macron’s government has done with the actual product.

Proven Innocent – Fox, the network where all good series go to die, broadcast 13 episodes, then cancelled this show about a female attorney who fights to free unlawfully jailed victims of the Chicago criminal justice system and in so doing exposes the inequities of that system. This is the antidote to the more conservative procedural Cold Case since here the back case is about proving the defendant innocent. A marvelous complete in itself 13-episode arc also ties the original murder, for which Rachel Lefevre’s attorney was imprisoned, back to Kelsey Grammer’s prosecutor, now running for attorney general who persecutes her, with the show linking the actual guilt to the post-Citizens United world where unlimited money furthers unjust candidates.

Folklore – HBO Asia series based on the fact that as its creator Singapore director Eric Khoo says “Everyone in Asia believes in ghosts.” But, the catch, in this marvelous horror anthology from six Asian countries, is that, unlike Jordan Peele’s Twilight Zone, which took a while to become relevant, this series right off the bat combines ghost stories with the actual horror of ordinary people’s lives on a continent where the disparity between rich and poor is vast.

Back To Life – Airing on Showtime, this is a second stunning and funny series from alumni of the too-soon-departed satire of the television industry Episodes. Following Steven Mangan’s Hang Ups, Daisy Haggard’s series about a woman sent to prison for murder returning to a town that rejects her is a bittersweet version of Rectify, but here the humor and the pathos is more direct, as Haggard proves herself first a marvellous comedian, then a marvellous actress.

tv Grisse

Grisse – Another HBO Asia series, this one condensing 200 years of rebellion against the Dutch in a province of Indonesia into a single uprising that employs the iconography and attitudes of a Sergio Leone Western to make its point about Dutch colonial brutality amid native resistance and compliance.

Nancy Drew – One of the year’s outstanding pilots as we find out that the CW’s contemporary Nancy Drew, is not at all your mother or grandmother’s female detective. Nancy’s mother died of pancreatic cancer, her father is a not-to-be-trusted scheming lawyer who defends the rich in this coastal New England town, Nancy’s African-American boyfriend served time for manslaughter and there are two murders in the town of its leading wealthy daughters, one of whom still haunts the area. The difference between the dream world of the original and the far tougher world of the Veronica Mars present is what lends this series its frisson.

Burden of Truth – CW again in a trend that is seeing American and Canadian production companies collaborating, meaning Canada’s more critical social democratic spirit fuses with American neoliberal television to create more socially relevant series. In this case Smallville’s Kristin Kreuk stars as a corporate lawyer who secedes from her father’s scurrilous corporate law firm to battle over two polluters causing brain damage to their children and data harvesters. Couldn’t be more relevant and utterly overlooked by mainstream critics.

Chambers – Netflix cancelled this series after one season and again critics despised it for being muddled in its presentation. In truth, the series, though sometimes a bit obscure, was not at all unclear about its sharp class presentation of the distinction and potential menaces to its Native American/African American heroine living in a trailer by the upper-middle-class Sedona type patronizing couple who employ Me Generation healing tropes in their mansion to attempt to coopt her. 

The Mandalorian – Best post-original Star Wars creation. This tight, terse horse opera about a bounty hunter with a heart operating in the nether spaces in the time after the empire has collapsed, that is after the end of the first trilogy, takes up the question of how life is lived in the wake of a shattered evil empire, a question the US may be facing at the moment as its imperial reign comes to an end.

Late Night with Seth Meyers – Not strictly a series but perhaps the funniest show on television and best of the late night hosts. Meyers’ humor, in his “In The News” and “A Closer Look” segments almost always with a political or social point, is the sharpest in late night, though lately he has gone overboard and is sounding a little one-note on impeachment. Along with him is the funniest person on television, Amber Ruffin whose segments “Amber Says What” and with Jenny Hagel “Jokes Seth Can’t Tell,” all of which can be watched on YouTube, constitute the most precise take anywhere in American media on the inequality of black-white relationships in Trump’s America.

Honorable Mentions

tv Damnation

 Damnation – USA, now-cancelled, series currently on Netflix about the effects of the depression on an Iowa farming community, featuring a scene where farmers intimidate bankers at an auction to get their foreclosed property back, right out of King Vidor’s film made during the Depression, called Our Daily Bread.

 In the dark – This series about an alcoholic blind girl becoming a detective brings the feistiness of Jessica Jones to network TV, with a Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Scooby Doo-like group replacing Jones alcoholic isolation.  

 Killing Eve – Two seasons now of this intriguing are they or aren’t they lesbian relationship, spy thriller, with television’s most compelling female lovers since the two combatants on Zena Warrior Princess.

 Stella Bloomquist – Icelandic series, available on Viaplay, about a sexually liberated female lawyer who wades into and runs afoul of the patriarchal power in the upper echelon of her world as she defends the marginalized of that society.

 Floodlands – Dutch-Belgium series about a nebulous border area between the two countries with a female Euro/African detective investigating the traumatizing of a young African immigrant and in so doing exposing prejudice on both sides of the border.

tv Godfather of Harlem

Godfather of Harlem - Chris Brancato’s best entry since the first season of Narcos boasts superb performances by Forest Whitaker’s wily gangster and Giancarlo Esposito’s sleezy Adam Clayton Powell, but what raises the series above the usual mobster fare and gives it its moral fibre is the revolutionary presence of Nigel Thatch’s Malcolm X.

 Dickinson – This life of the poet Emily Dickinson utilizes the Sophia Coppola/Maria Antoinette school of history as respecting the period details but making ultra-modern the language and music, so that Emily complains when asked to fetch water from the well that “This is such bullshit” before doing her chores over a rap montage. Best episode is her own championing of the environment while finding Henry David Thoreau a crass opportunist. 

X Company – Too quickly cancelled Canadian series, streaming on Netflix and Hulu, about a bevy of male spies behind enemy lines in World War II, led by a Jewish female who burrows deep within the Nazi hierarchy as the series moves over its three seasons from France to Poland to Berlin and as she extracts her own revenge on the worst of the calculating murderers of her people.

The Loch – Above average Brit detective series, now streaming on Amazon Prime, featuring a female detective in charge of her first murder investigation in Scotland’s Loch Ness, with the monster emerging at the end not as horrific otherworld creature but as the embedded evil of the region’s patriarchy.

 Cloak & Dagger – USA series from Marvel about a male/female black/white friendship between two teens each with their own power and both plagued and tramautized by the corporate malfeasance and police brutality that mark their town.

C.B. Strike – Based on the series of novels by J.K. Rowling, this noirish detective show features an intriguing, professional relationship between its seasoned and cynical private investigator and the female assistant who wants to break into the field herself.

Requiem – BBC series streaming on Netflix about the haunting of a young female cellist after her mother’s suicide which seamlessly but in a sophisticated way mixes the psychological and the supernatural.  

tv Mystery Road

Mystery Road – Australian series streaming on Acorn TV featuring Aaron Peterson’s Aboriginal detective here teamed with Judy Davis’ tough local cop as they investigate both the murder of a young girl and Davis’ white settler family legacy which pollutes the town and perpetuates the brutality and inequality which marks the country’s history.

Ozark – Netflix series whose second season, with the hardening of the Laura Linney character, could not match its first but which still refreshingly concentrated on the financial nuts and bolts of money laundering in a part of the country long left for dead.  

 Stumptown – Cobie Smulders as an alcoholic, sex-addled war vet slowly turned private detective as part of her recovery process in the darker recesses of Portland. The town’s teenage drug pushers ,under stress in the competitive quest for college entry grades, mirrors the problems of the country as a whole, while providing a female take on those problems.

Five Worst  

 The Morning Show – Perhaps the worst show of this or any season. This Apple TV+ “blockbuster” manages to waste the talents of its Two and A Half Comedians (Reese Witherspoon, Steve Carell and Jennifer Aniston) by taking the silliness of morning television seriously, portraying it as deadly accurate journalism at a time when the actual news media is more frivolous than ever and when an Episodes-like satire would have made this a show to remember.

Succession – The Rupert Murdoch clan as King Lear. What a falling off is this, in HBO’s entry in the “wealth porn” genre. The Financial Times noted the show had no likeable characters but still fascinated us, meaning that while more people now despise the superrich that is no reason not to continue to be obsessed with their every move. Equally yucky is Black Monday, the African-American version of this phenomenon which originated with Showtime’s Billions where self-serving material gain is the only value.

Tin Star – Tim Roth as an ex-British cop in the Canadian West pursued by his demons and inflicting them on his family. A repulsive character whose detecting method is to simply exert violence by beating suspects. A hero for these times perhaps, but not the hero we need.

Dollface – Supposedly feminist series starring the superb Kat Dennings as a woman quickly dumped and trying to return to the world of female friends. Sounds good in theory but on the ground, takes the powerful in-charge, working-class, waitress from Two Broke Girls and transforms her into a weak and whimpering relationship buffoon.

Secret City/Deep State – The first is a promising Australian series with Fringe’s Anna Torv as an investigative reporter boasting a dark conspiracy theory visual overlay that unfortunately is undone by its rampant and exhausting anti-Chinese sentiment. The second has no redeeming social value in a Fox Sky TV produced series that is not about undemocratic Western intelligence operations as its name implies but is instead a cheering section for a black ops team tasked with assassinating Iranian scientists, making Trump’s prelude-to-war gesture of merely cancelling Obama’s nuclear pact seem humanitarian. A new low even for Fox.

Note: You can find out more about the ins and outs of contemporary television in Dennis Broe's book Birth of the Binge.

Elections, Coups and Tax Evaders: Venice Film Festival Wrap-up
Tuesday, 10 September 2019 16:59

Elections, Coups and Tax Evaders: Venice Film Festival Wrap-up

Published in Films

Dennis Broe files his final report from Venice Film Festival

Outside, police at the Venice Film Festival massed for a climate march that saw demonstrators swarm around the red carpet demanding action on climate devastation globally – and in Venice in particular, where oversized cruise ships are destroying the lagoon. Inside, the jury was meeting to award the Golden Lion for best film.

An Officer and a Spy

What they essentially achieved was a coup. Roman Polanski’s An Officer and a Spy was by far the best critically received film of the festival, and led a poll of Italian and international critics by a wide margin. But the Lucrecia Martel jury, after Martel had already denounced the film but then claimed she was impartial, voted instead to hand the prize to what amounts to an openly fascist film, Warner Bros. Joker, with its utter contempt for working-class discontent seeing it as only the expression of an unruly mob and its indirect calling for a strong man, a Batman, as the only way to stop the villain’s anarchy.

The win at Venice thus clears the path for that film to advance to the Academy Awards now with the prestige of the Venice Film Festival behind it. Before the festival it was only being talked about as a best actor vehicle for Joaquin Phoenix.

The danger of people expressing themselves

This coup at the film festival contrasts sharply with a remarkable expression of democracy, a free election, that took place in Italian politics recently. The 5 Star Movement was about to enter a coalition with Italy’s PD party, whose left-neoliberal policies, particularly in the Matteo Renzi grouping, ally it most closely with the Blairite Labor faction in the UK and the Joe Biden Democrats in the US. This party is everything 5 Star claimed to be against, so in order to form the coalition they put it to a vote of their members on their website Rousseau, and the membership gave the go-ahead for the new government.

This move to more direct democracy comes the same week as the Italian business press featured a glowing review of a book, published in the elite headquarters of Cambridge titled The Will of the People: A Popular Myth. The paper’s headline described the book as denouncing “The danger of the popular referendum.” And indeed everywhere there is a “danger” of people expressing themselves as the revolt against corporate legislators advances. The vote this week was part of the Italian people’s thirst for participation.

Returning to the festival, it is important to point out that the attack on Polanski was waged primarily by the two organs of the American film industry – The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. The Hollywood Reporter in its festival lead attempted to smear the festival as “completely tone-deaf about issues related to #MeToo”, while Variety claimed in its review that Polanski’s film on the Dreyfus affair was primarily his attempt to present his side of the rape and child abuse allegations, and ignored almost completely the political import of the Dreyfus case. The Hollywood studios, along with the rest of the US may be facing a severe recession as well as the challenge of the streaming services, and one way of meeting these challenges is to diss the competition.

Polanski is one of the finest European auteurs. The film cost $28 million, high for European production, and has sold well at the festival to the rest of the world. So to knock down the film, attempt to quarantine it and to impugn the festival, a primary site not only of Hollywood Oscar hopefuls but also of the other two levels of European and global auteurs and independent production outside the US, does serve a purpose for US studio interests. This use of a very narrow application of gender politics – in some ways the only acceptable politics in the US mainstream – is similar to the US labelling Huawei a security risk when the company’s major crime is to have developed 5G faster and cheaper than the US competition. The Italian critics seemed to recognize this attack and gave it by far the highest rating of any film at the festival.

The best, the worst and the in-between

Now to the best and worst films of the week and of the festival. The Italian film Martin Eden, based on the Jack London novel, attempts to use a number of Brechtian devices, including a displaced time frame, that do not work and only seem like cheating the audience. The better use of these devices is Steven Soderbergh’s The Laundromat which employs a whole range of clever effects to tell the complicated story of the slippery line between tax avoidance and tax evasion reveaed in the exposure of The Panama Papers. The initial sequence, featuring Gary Oldham and Antonio Banderas as the lawyers who head the firm which created dummy companies around the world, is a mock 2001 opening, showing how cave people moved from money as barter to money as credit and thus paved the way for financial capitalism.

Meryl Streep in The Laundromat

Meryl Streep, in ageing middle America mode though without the menace of Big Little Lies, is resplendent as a victim of these shenanigans, who reveals herself also to be a different character instrumental in destroying the agency and finally addresses the audiences as herself, raising her hairbrush in the Statute of Liberty pose and urging action. Why was the lawyers – one of whose parents came to Panama fleeing Germany in mysterious circumstances right after World War II –and their firm exposed? The two lawyers answer that the ruin of the Panamanian offshore firm drives more customers back to the American onshore tax havens of Joe Biden’s Delaware, Wyoming and Nevada. Surely the best Hollywood piece to deal with finance, and maybe the best Hollywood film since The Big Short.

A truly remarkable film in the main competition, one of two female-directed entries, was Babyteeth by the Australian Shannon Murphy, downgraded by several critics because it is a tearjerker – that is, it uses the emotional tropes of the woman’s film to make its point. This story of a teen dying of cancer who falls for the vitality of a young drug dealer is a heartfelt examination of how Western capitalist society is overcome by drugs, as each character in the family, except the dying teen, uses drugs to medicate their unfulfilled life. The father is a psychiatrist, that is another kind of drug pusher, who prescribes to keep his wife pacified and his wife, who wanted to be a pianist, becomes a pill-popper instead.

This is the situation that together the girl and the drug addict boyfriend help to remedy. He gives her the will to live and she opens the family’s eyes and her addict boyfriend’s eyes about how they fail to show up for her death and their own lives. Murphy admires Andrea Arnold and the boy-dealer Toby Wallace is a natural presence and everything Shia LaBeouf – in a similar role in Arnold’s American Honey which he ruins by his star turn – is not. There is not a wrong move here and the coda, where we find out the true wisdom of the dying teen as she in a sense leaves a living will, is a stunningly emotional scene.

Sole

A film to watch out for is Sole, an Italian movie about two dead end millennials. One is a young man whose ‘profession’ is jacking motorcycles and the other is a Polish girl who is pregnant and must sell her baby in order to stake her claim to Western Europe. It’s a sad fate for both and accurately describes the world many are left with. In the end the film, which finds hope in the fact that they have found each other, is as tough as nails in its approach and does not skimp on the sacrifices each must make to survive. A final scene where the girl’s anger at the unfairness of this world erupts, and boy listens, demonstrates that working-class solidarity still exists but today is bought at a much higher price.

Tony Driver

The docudrama Tony Driver recounts how its central figure, who transported immigrants over the US-Mexican border, now wants to return to the US after being deported to Italy. The Italian section, with Tony mostly keeping to himself, is less interesting but the film swings into gear when Tony returns to Mexico to try to go over the border, meeting others like him who dream of crossing or have crossed and are now exiled. The style of the film, especially the second part, is that of a reality TV series, but what the film accomplishes is to turn that banal and listless form on its head and view the world from the vantage point of the people those on Cops and America’s Most Wanted arrest. The film, and its endearing hero, points the way to new possibilities for that ossified form and the way it might be used to combat Trump’s racist labelling of immigrants.

Shakespeare says family is everything!

The pro-war, which thinks it is anti-war, Netflix film The King based on Shakespeare’s Henry the Fifth cycle, instead of spotlighting the pleasures inherent in Hal’s meanderings with the lascivious Falstaff before he becomes king, concentrates on Henry the ruler waging successful war on France, with Falstaff dying valiantly on the battlefield.

The King

A surprise coda at the end does not make up for the film’s persistent warmongering. There is a scene, I kid you not, where the French king actually says “family is everything,” turning the great bard into a Hollywood hack. What a falling off is this!

The Chinese film Saturday Fiction has Gong Li initially in passive/seductive 5th-generation, a la Red Sorghum and Raise the Red Lantern, mode but finally coming out of her passivity to be a 6th generation action hero a la A Touch of Sin as she mows down the fascist invaders in Shanghai on the eve of Pearl Harbour. The transformation takes a while but in the way it suggests Casablanca, in its black and white partly classical style, finally transforms her into Ingrid Bergman with a machine gun.

Finally, mafia expose journalist Roberto Saviano was everywhere, exec-producing Sky, Canal Plus and Amazon’s TV series Zero, Zero, Zero based on his book about how the global cocaine trade is what undergirds the world’s economy, and mixing with the Italian director with whom he is in a direct line, Francesco Rosi, the subject of a documentary explaining Rosi’s lifelong interest in exposing the link between government, big business, and the mafia in The Mattei Affair, Hands Over the City and Lucky Luciano. Seek out these films if you’ve not seen them.

Dennis's highly idiosyncratic awards

Best 5 Films: The Laundromat, Sole, Babyteeth, Adults in the Room, An Officer and A Spy

Babyteeth 1

Best Actress: Eliza Scanlen, Babyteeth

Best Actor: Pasquale Donatone, the subject of Tony Driver

Best Director: Shannon Murphy, Babyteeth

Best Script: Scott Z. Burns The Laundromat

Best Documentary: Citizen Rosi

Best Restoration: Out of the Blue directed by Dennis Hopper

...and the Culture Matters Award for the best film reviewer goes to......Dennis Broe.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Venice Film Festival
Tuesday, 03 September 2019 16:16

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Venice Film Festival

Published in Films

Dennis Broe reports from the Venice Film Festival 2019

Cover-ups, exaggerated accusations, and payoffs, all in the first week of this year’s festival, and this all took place off-screen. The major story of the festival so far, and it was made a major story because of the American press especially Variety and The Hollywood Reporter, was the attempt to smear the festival as misogynist and blind to issues of women’s abuse and women’s rights. Especially for inviting Me Too bete noirs Roman Polanski, accused of having sex with a minor, and Nate Parker, once accused of rape; and for only featuring two female directors in the competition.

The actions of neither director are defensible, but the question is how long must each pay for their crimes and must they never be allowed to make films again? Polanski’s is the tougher case because he has gone on to have a distinguished career in Europe. His film at the festival, An Officer and A Spy, about the Dreyfus case, is an important indictment of the French intelligentsia and army bureaucracy as both anti-semitic and as lying manipulators of public opinion – very pertinent today to the torture of Chelsea Manning and Julian Assange. Nate Parker, a lesser filmmaker whose The Birth of A Nation was itself overblown and manipulative, saw his film die at the box office, and then could not get funding in the US for a second film and had to seek funding abroad.

The lack of female directors

Alberto Barbera, festival director, has taken a strict aesthetic line – claiming that he chooses on the artistic merits of the film – on both the inclusion of the two directors and the lack of female directors in the festival as a whole. It’s the same line he applies to films released in the cinemas or films by streaming services, with Netflix and Amazon both strong presences here after each was blacklisted from Cannes because of the French cinema owners. The Polanski film deserves to be in the festival main competition, though jury head Lucrecia Martel claimed contradictorily that she both would not have selected the film because Polanski was the director, and that she would be an impartial jury head when it came to deliberating on the film.

Barbera points to the fact that only 24 percent of the films submitted for all the categories were by female directors and that the same percentage in the festival as a whole are by women directors, which by this criteria means the problem lies outside the festival and is a part of overall financing in what is still a male industry. However, it is possible that the festival could lead the way in spotlighting female directors and in that way encourage more chances to be taken, instead of defending its choices by invoking what amounts to a quota system.

The other point though is that by focusing so strongly on these two cases other cases are ignored. The fanfare around director Haifaa Al-Mansour’s The Perfect Candidate, about a Saudi Arabian woman who runs for office, which many critics felt upon seeing the film was undeserved, has served the political purpose of whitewashing the Saudi regime at a time when the country is attempting to move heavily into film production. The kingdom announced at the festival the March 2020 opening of its own Red Sea Film Fest, headed by a former Sundance programmer, lending further legitimacy to the project, and no doubt swayed by the deep pockets of the Saudi Oil Fund.

Mansour’s film serves as a public address announcement for the Saudi dictator Mohamed Bin Salman’s claim to be modernizing the country through making token gestures such as allowing women to drive, featured in a sequence in the film. However, the country this year has beheaded 134 people in public executions, continued a war in Yemen it organized and which is waged largely against women and children, and heightened tensions in the region by its blockading of its neighbor Qatar.

Al-Monsour, who makes pithy statements to the press along the lines of “art should always prevail and be given top priority,” is being hailed at the festival while others are condemned. It is interesting to note that while Polanski’s more direct attack on French institutions is deemed unshowable, directors like Martin Scorsese whose Wolf of Wall Street, a film fascinated by investment bankers’ bad behavior and partially financed by these same Wall Street investors, was given a free pass and nominated for an Academy Award.

The good, the bad and the ugly

Ad Astra

Which brings us to the good, the bad and the ugly of the first week of films. A major disappointment was the sci-fi film Ad Astra by director James Gray, whose first success, the gritty noir Little Odessa, premiered at Venice. Gray is back this time with a big budget Best Picture hopeful, with a pulse-pounding opening sequence as Brad Pitt’s astronaut plummets through space, and a presentation of space as simply the projection of earth’s unsolved problems in a sequence that features piracy on the moon. The whole thing though unravels in the second half when the astronaut travelling upriver in this Apocalypse Now gloss searches his lost-in-space father, Tommy Lee Jones, and finds in the heart of darkness an ultimate blandness. The film, through its trite redemption and surpassing of the father theme, belied by the astronaut’s murder of a crew that was exactly like his father, manages to trivialize the Oedipus complex and make it seem like just so much Hollywood sloganeering.

Noah Baumbach’s last film The Meyerowitz Stories was unsufferable, a wallowing in a patriarch’s destructive foibles. His latest, Marriage Story, about a couple going through a divorce is, well, sufferable. It’s all the angst you want, or can stand as two very complex and privileged people torture each other alone and through their lawyers, the best of which is played by Laura Dern, whose monologue about the misogyny inherent in Jesus’ origin story is a high point. The other stunning moment is Adam Driver, the husband’s, rendition of “Being Alive,” the finale of Company which he sings/acts in a rendering that elicited applause from the festival audience. This is Baumbach’s Bergman moment, his Scenes From a Marriage, but he was always better when he was funnier and a bit more honest – here the husband lets go but never admits that it was his selfish behavior that caused the breakup – in films like The Squid and The Whale.  

Joker

The ugly was a film that will be nominated for a Best Picture award, The Joker, the origin story of the DC villain and Batman’s arch nemesis, with a masterful performance by Joaquim Phoenix that received a standing ovation at its Venice premier. The film, unlike the Heath Ledger Joker in The Dark Knight, at first concentrates on the social elements of ‘70s New York (Gotham) with the city going bankrupt, awash in garbage and rats, and its mental patients being turned out on the streets. Joker looks like Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and is utterly fascinated with his King of Comedy, enlisting that film’s star Robert De Niro and attempting to go that film one better in its assault on a TV talk show. Joker though it also summons Network in its exasperation is not only despairing but fascist through and through, in its representation of a crowd as merely an angry mob whose presence and anarchic threat calls for a law and order strong man – a Trump, a Bolsonaro, a Salvini – as Joker calls for the return and a new franchise beginning of Batman to save Gotham. Yuck.

An Officer and a Spy

The good includes the Polanski film, An Officer and a Spy, criticized for being too matter of fact in its portrayal of deeply ingrained French anti-semitism, and especially among the elite and the military in the coordinated persecution of the Jew Dreyfus. Dreyfus was an innocent man who the military would rather convict of treason than reveal the actual spy, in that way reaffirming that the purpose of the army is as much about maintaining internal order as external conquest and defense.

The dictatorship of the banks

Seberg

Another laudable film was Amazon’s Seberg, which focuses on actress Jean Seberg’s, (Kristin Stewart) persecution by the FBI for her support of the Black Panthers. You’re not paranoid if they really are pursuing you, goes the old adage, but this film maintains that in Seberg’s case they both were pursuing her and she was paranoid, or grew to be so. The film certainly has some problems, including a narrow-minded focus on the actress’ mental torture by the Cointel program which in the end probably contributes to her suicide – but also pales behind the systematic slaughter of many of the Black Panthers. Best part of the film is its explicating the way that the FBI was, and probably still is, engaged in not just a surveillance program but one that actually sought to inflict mental damage on its targets.

Adults in the Room

Finally, there was Costa-Gavras’ Adults in the Room, his return to the Greece of his homeland which was the subject of the film that launched his career, Z. That film dealt with the Greek dictatorship and this one, based on the events around the Syriza party’s election and challenging of the austerity program that had devastated the country, deals with a different kind of dictatorship, that of the German banks. Their representative in the film is a wheel-chaired head of the German Central Bank Wolfgang Schauble, whose maniacal chant ‘You must repay the debt’ and refusal to allow Greece to leave the debt trap set for it by the French and German banks ,makes him a Doctor Strangelove for the era of financialization.

The film follows the book by Syriza Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis, and highlights the way that the European high-level political and financial institutions are not about promoting but rather about neutralizing any democratic movement from below. In the film the Greek people continue to push for a return of their sovereignty and dignity and the European institutions answer by refusing to look beyond the accounting ledger, shown in a fantasy sequence that begins as a democratic debate but ends in an animation where these numbers fill the screen.

Next week: Sole, a wonderful Italian working-class film and The Laundromat, Steven Soderbergh’s fictional account of the corruption exposed in the Panama Papers.  

The only way out is together: The Venice Biennale and Late Capitalism
Tuesday, 03 September 2019 15:31

The only way out is together: The Venice Biennale and Late Capitalism

Published in Visual Arts

Dennis Broe reviews the biennial festival of contemporary art

May You Live in Interesting Times is the title and organizing principle of this year’s Venice Biennale, year curated by Ralph Rogoff, head of the Hayward Gallery in London. Mr. Rogoff is now an officer in something called The Order of the British Empire, though many of the best pieces in the show are blows against the idea of a (white, masculinist, colonial) empire. An exception was the British Pavilion which made its colonial subjects (audience) stand in line for a half an hour in the Venetian heat and humidity to have their own private viewing and in the process seeming to affirm the idea of empire.

The phrase itself, employed across the political spectrum from as far left as Brecht and as far right as Hillary Clinton has seemed to reference an ancient Chinese curse, though there is a bit of orientalism in that explanation since there is no trace of the phrase in Chinese. It all comes down to the meaning of the word interesting. The more astute artists in the exhibition translate “interesting” as horrible, blood-curdling, perilous, while others seem to reaffirm Rogoff’s catalogue description of the phrase as “complex”. These interpretations come dangerously close to reaffirming a virtual utopia, or simply wallowing in the chaos that the combination of climate disaster, impending global recession, nuclear war and continual appropriation of more resources by the wealthiest have wrought. The catastrophic meaning of interesting seemed to prevail in the real-world politics of Italy, as yet another government collapsed during the exhibition – though the phoenix if it rises from the ashes will have a more progressive drift – and in the face of this wanton destruction the stock market went up.

Kerri Upsons Dollhouse

Kaari Upson's Dollhouse

Rogoff did a splendid job of organizing his curated part of the exhibition, often juxtaposing or combining elements that heightened their effectiveness. So, art world breakout star of the exhibition Kaari Upson’s eerie full-scale dollhouse, which she had rampaged through destroying the furniture, and which shows her video with herself in grotesque doll costume with blotchy, smeared red lipstick, is paired with Mari Katayama’s images of herself as a Japanese doll, belied by the fact that she has lost both her legs so that she appears in photos with the stubs or her prosthetic legs appear amid the eroticized stockings and other accoutrements of the trope of the Japanese human doll. Both do a splendid job of making us gasp at the image of the woman as toy for male desire.

Elsewhere, Rula Halawani’s sodden black and white images of walls and enclosures built by Israel since 2000, which in their sad bleakness suggest images of the earlier Berlin Wall, link to Teresa Margolles’ stone wall, with barbed wire and bullet holes depicting the enclosed structure in Juarez, which has the highest murder rate in the world. Women, of course, are disproportionately victims of the violence.

Works and walls

Shilpa Guptas ominous gate

Shilpa Gupta's Ominous Gate

Both works and walls are much in abundance here, criticizing the global right-wing resurrection of borders. They are perhaps summed up by two more abstract but equally powerful installations. Firstly, Shilpa Gupta’s large mechanical door with spikes on top, that bangs shut and revolves from one side of a wall to another, slowly breaking down the wall in the process, with the sound and the image stressing the violence of the border. Secondly, Sun Yan and Peng Yu’s giant robotic arm, taught 32 different movements all of which end in the arm sweeping what looks like blood on the floor, perhaps the result of not only mechanical systems of walls and surveillance but also suggesting the blood that is the residue of the drive toward automation, as more and more workers lose their jobs.

Martine Gutierrez

Martine Gutierrez

Women’s installations were the most powerful in the exhibition, with US Trans Latina artist Martine Gutierrez enacting a kind of post-colonial Cindy Sherman. She places herself amid dummies that she has constructed framing, black and white scenes of the exploitation and exoticization of non-white women. The most striking of these are of her as maid in what might be a Cuban Batista resort, and anther showing her rising out of the water at the feet of a suited man with black polished shoes. It’s a pose that eroticizes her, but she has a masterfully cunning look on her face and thus transforms the moment into a trans-gender transgressive seizing control of the situation.

Alexandra Bircken

Escalation

My prize for best overall work goes to the Alexandra Bircken’s stunning Escalation, a series of ladders reaching to the sky and intercrossing on the way up with hollowe- out black figures draped over the ladders, or hanging from them like so many corpses, victims of the ever increasing drive to get ahead – the human waste in the accelerated competition for ever growing quarterly profits and increase in Gross Domestic Product.

Climate crisis

The climate crisis was everywhere, and many of these presentations centered around either the questioning or the reaffirming of the Anthropocene, the melding of man and machine as the virtual world merges with our world. Christine and Margaret Wertheim’s intricate coral reefs constructed of yarn showed in their complexity how nature thwarts in the multitudinous shapes of the reefs the more rigid rationality and logic of Euclidean geometry, which they diagrammed on a board next to their colorful concoctions.

Even more to the point, Irish artist Jimmie Durham, who body of work was honored in this year’s event, displayed the maimed but proud heads of animals tortured on the bodies of industrial pipes or electrical wiring. It emphasized the growing number of species that are becoming extinct as the race to exploit the world’s resources heats up, and as Trump and the Pentagon are trying to claim Greenland’s mineral wealth as their own – while the Amazon burns.

This year the curated exhibitions outshone the national pavilions in the Venice Gardens, the Guardini, but two especially strong works stood out. The first was Chile’s Hegemonic Museum, a truly remarkable work by Voluspa Jarpa that attempts to trace in four rooms histories of colonial expansion and exploitation.

Western rogues galley Chilean exhibit

Western Rogues' Gallery

The first concentrates on the upside-down hanging of the DeWitts in Holland who challenged the place of the Dutch East India Company, and pushed for a more democratic state. This is followed by maquettes, tiny models of a vicious attack on women who demanded their rights in the Vienna uprising of 1848, part of a wave of revolutionary activity in that year. The next room is a taped opera whose verse is Western men singing “Blessed be the whiteness of my skin” and “I cannot own slaves and love them too” while a chorus of non-Western peoples, women and children answers these sentiments. A final room contains redacted official documents tracing the CIA’s involvement through operation Glaudio in not only interfering, but overturning the results of the 1948 Italian election, finishing with an illustrated three-dimensional rogues’ gallery of Western violence. An exemplary tour-de-four of an exhibit.

The violence underlying capitalist life

This was topped though by the outstanding country pavilion, my prize for best and honoured by the Biennale jury as well, Belgium’s Mondo Cane. It’s a dog’s world indeed but that is not apparent as at first sight as the exhibition looks to be a celebration of different aspects of the orderliness of bourgeois life in its idyllic mannequins of a knife sharpener, zither player, minister and town crier, each making their own sounds. The text accompanying the display tells another story as the knife sharpener – all these are based on actual characters – is at night a Sweeny Todd monster, whose knife could cut off the legs of a horse.

The town crier, whose thin moustache suggests Hitler, is actually crying an off-color, bigoted joke and the musician is based on a character wanted for mass murders. Circling them are three jails which house the overtly violent or repugnant or rebellious members of the town such as the rat lady, a harbinger of death. The exhibit is an exceptional exposing of the violence that underlies all aspects of the repressed normalcy of capitalist life.

I have to question the meaning of reflection which the British Pavilion posed. Kathy Wilkes’ series of somnolent works suggesting a solemn and sepulchre-like female interiority were allowed to be viewed only by 15 visitors at a time, though the pavilion accommodates far more. That meant long lines in front of the exhibition in order to guarantee this privileged moment of a privatization of the experience. The work was in a way a standard YBA (Young British Artists) aging into more conservative maturity, but the idea that reflection must be done in private, that the group reflection the Biennale everywhere else encourages is somehow false or wrong, is one worth challenging.

The best exhibits this year were critical works that were meant to be shared and thought about in their public context, not fetishized as some wholly private revelation. We are long past the days when salvation in the actual dystopia the exhibit elsewhere so well describes, can be achieved by individual contemplation. What May You Live in Interesting Times says implicitly in its overall impact is that the only way out of the impending doom humankind has created for itself is together. And perhaps together, we may yet transform “interesting” meaning terrifying into “interesting” meaning abundant.

Class and Culture in Los Angeles: Fear and Loathing in the City of the Angels
Monday, 19 August 2019 15:44

Class and Culture in Los Angeles: Fear and Loathing in the City of the Angels

Published in Architecture

Dennis Broe excavates the contradictions of class and culture in the architecture, art and culture of Los Angeles

Race is the way class is spoken in America, as Cornel West wisely pointed out, and that is especially true in the sprawling multi-cities that comprise Los Angeles. Money is the other way that class is constituted, regulated, and enforced. Both race and money are used to segregate this city of multiple contradictions and rigid, though often invisible, boundaries and barriers dividing one class from another.

Language, living quarters, and mode of transport are some of the ways class structure is imposed and this is visible in the architecture and layout of a city that was developed with no real centre, but rather an endless sprawl that grew up wherever the next profitable real estate market appeared.

As Mike Davis points out in what is still the best book on LA, City of Quartz, LA was the only major American city that lacked an industrial base – that is, a city mired in illusion and an illusory consumer and entertainment economy. Downtown LA did finally by the 1940s establish an industrial base including becoming a textile centre, but then Ronald Reagan stripped that base and promoted its migration to Asia in the neoliberal era of the 1970s, before becoming president and applying this principle to the country as a whole.

The mural district in Downtown LA

The mural district in Downtown LA

Entire areas are continually remade as Downtown – whose motto is now “Live, eat, play in DTLA” – once the financial heart of the West, became a ghost town by the end of the 1950s and was then in the 1960s and 1970s inhabited by the Hispanic and particularly Mexican populations as Anglos fled to the suburbs. This section is being reclaimed, gentrified, as the sons and daughters of those who fled move back to this left-for-dead area, now become an arts centre, and begin ousting its Hispanic inhabitants as property values rise. This recolonization is marked by the transformation of what were once peasant markets into trendy, shi-shi eateries serving the latest craze “avocado toast” with names that transform ordinary breakfast into a rarefied and eroticised meal such as the currently wildly popular franchise “Egg Slut.”

There are whole sections of the city, particularly in the Mid-City and South Central areas where Spanish is the dominant language. Those areas are among the city’s poorest, with many of their homeowners struggling to survive by supplementing their day jobs by at night ferrying the city’s upper middle-class elite, as Uber drivers. The poor ride buses, once referred to by the Anglo population as “shame trains,” but which today are being talked about as a source of public transportation which may allow the city to cut down on its pollution.

The boundaries between neighborhoods, enforced by real estate prices, are so rigid that a most common question is “Where do you live?” since the answer will determine one’s socio-economic status. If there is an incongruity in the answer, i.e. the person seems to be for example a bohemian living in a rich district, the second question to determine status is “What do you drive?”

This is also a city of class-based contradictions, with its class structure embedded in its cultural life and marked by division in its approach to monuments, museums, sports centres and even its symphony orchestra.

The Mission Mural

The Mission mural

This is starkly evident in two murals in the Olvera Street section of the city, itself a kind of tourist and cleansed celebration of the Mexican population complete with a clothing and trinket market and “authentic” restaurants. At the top and heart of the street is a mural depicting the “Mission” view of Hispanic culture with the Padre blessing the animals, a feast traditionally celebrated on the street, while the brightly garbed Mexican peasants, in a colour depiction that resembles a Disney animation, kneel in humble adoration of the benevolent Spanish preacher.

America Tropical

America Tropical mural

This view of California as spiritually sustaining its Hispanic population is undercut however by a nearby mural titled America Tropical, painted in 1932 by the famous Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros. The mural deploys a triptych construction within the same frame to show at the centre – in traditional religious iconography the place for Mary, God the Father or Jesus – a Mexican worker crucified, with the American eagle perched above him, haughty and oblivious to his suffering. To the right are two armed Mexican peasants readying themselves to fire on the conqueror. To the left is a mass of tangled industrial pipes that resemble tree trunks and that represent the transformation of a natural space into a for-profit, capitalized space.

After its well-publicized opening this mural was quickly painted over, that is “whited out” – particularly the section with the armed Mexican peasants – and Siqueiros was deported. It is an accurate depiction of the Mexican struggle in the US, and was somewhat restored by the Getty Foundation, but can now only be seen from the roof of a museum dedicated to its origin with the colours now washed out unlike the perpetually bright colors of the far more visible “Mission” mural, with its docile peasants.

Getty Villa

Getty Villa

A striking aspect of museum life in LA is that of the four major museums – the Getty, Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), UCLA’s Hammer and The Broad – three are privately owned, with the Getty collection far outweighing the public LACMA offerings. Both feature a kind of Noah’s Ark approach to art history, that is, one of each kind of major painters and movements, but the Getty is a more supercharged turbo-Mercedes ark, featuring three to four of each kind compared to LACMA’s public, more impoverished Toyota, with barely one of each. Plans to construct a museum quarter around LACMA have been criticized because due to the dominance of car culture, there is no safe place to cross the street for access to the multiple museums.

Museum culture also raises the idea, central to the city, of illusion. The Getty Villa this summer is displaying articles from the city of Herculaneum on loan, because the Villa is a reconstruction of the city near Pompeii which was levelled by the Vesuvius volcano in 79 AD. The striking aspect of this recreation is that the oil magnate Getty, once the richest man in the world, had the money to rebuild the Roman city so that his vision of the city is now more “lifelike” than what one sees in visiting the actual ruins outside of Naples.

Equally, Downtown LA is filled with abandoned, once palatial, movie theatres that are now only rented out for occasions such as Oscar parties, while one former restaurant functions only as a rentable site for which Hollywood period restaurant scenes are staged. This all pales into insignificance behind The Grove, in West LA near Beverly Hills, which is an artificial neighbourhood that boasts high-end products, anchored by The Apple Store. Its false recreation of neighbourhood complete with trolley recollects in tranquillity quaint non-virtual ways of being such as pedestrian blocks, a former sign of working-class solidarity, and their artifacts: “newsstands,” “movie theatres” and, that most vanishing breed destroyed by Amazon, “book stores.”

Most touching in terms of monuments is a simple obelisk at the corner of Lincoln and Venice, marking the site where Japanese-Americans were herded into transports taking them to concentration camps at the onset of World War II. The purpose of the plaque is to preserve the memory of this painful incident so that it will not happen again, even as a former camp at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, is now being used as a detention centre – i.e. concentration camp – for immigrant infants separated from their parents. The contemporary television series The Terror, now in its second season, centres around the deportation.

Dodger Stadium

Dodgers Stadium

More prominent than museum culture in LA is sports stadium culture, with the baseball team, the LA Dodgers, having one of their finest seasons. A number of games have virtual expressions, like a YouTube broadcast of a mid-day game against the St. Louis Cardinals, which the Dodgers won thrillingly in the last out. Here too the spectacle, itself a palliative in a city awaiting, as is the rest of the US, a looming recession, is always mixed with commercial gain. When the organist played the traditional baseball theme “Take me out to the Ball Game,” the neon video streamers displayed all of the various Coke products so that Coke supplanted the song’s more ancient “Buy me some peanuts and crackerjacks.”

Stadium building with its subsequent displacement of often poorer populations in the surrounding area is accelerating, especially in Inglewood, soon to be the site of the football Rams stadium, housing 70,000, and the basketball Clippers arena. There is a section of Inglewood known as the “Black Beverly Hills,” home in former times to musical luminaries Ray Charles and Tina Turner, which now may be on the stadium chopping block, as LA also gears up for the 2028 Olympics.

The creation of the Dodgers stadium was the initial massive stadium land grab in the heart of the Chavez Ravine Latino community. In the 1950s it was constantly expanding and needed additional housing, which was proposed by the mayor but was red-baited at the time and declared an un-American socialist solution. This failure to develop the land allowed the Dodgers and the city to claim it. Inside the stadium are photos of the bulldozed and levelled land, portrayed as barren and remade as the site of a majestic ball park. In the combination of Dodger stadium and the remaking of downtown LA’s Bunker Hill into a corporate site, now overlooking or “looking down” on the city, over 12,000 residents lost their homes.

Dudamel and YOLA

YOLA with Gustavo Dudamel

To end though on a note of resilience, this summer also saw the continuation of the Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles (YOLA), headed by LA symphony orchestra conductor Gustavo Dudamel, celebrating his 10th year as head of the orchestra. The tradition, in line with U.S. tradition like the Leonard Bernstein Young People’s Concerts, but inflected with Dudamel’s experience with his Bolivarian Young People’s Orchestra in Venezuela, reaches out to poor and minority communities across the country to fashion a high-school orchestra of the highest calibre, which then holds a final concert, partly conducted by Dudamel.

The passionate conductor began the night with his simple, “I am from a country called Venezuela,” a statement which with him surrounded by this diverse young orchestra brimming with talent, zest and confidence was a powerful and understated political statement, his way of contradicting current US propaganda waged in its quest to short-circuit oil competitor Venezuela and steal its assets.

The concert included an Asian and African-American conductor (Soo Han and Roderick Cox) preceding Dudamel, an orchestral number conducted by Dudamel which featured Venezuelan folk musicians backed by the orchestra, and a repertory boasting the contributions of early African-American symphonic pioneers William Grant and Florence Price. The concluding number, Brahms’s “Hungarian Dance No. 5,” illustrated the way the classical canon is partially made up of contributions from minority groups with the melodies in the piece largely drawn from Roma or Gypsy music.

It was here, in this touching melding of so many culturally disparate spirits, that a truer vision of an evolving Los Angeles, took shape and form. It is an alternative vision that counters the city's history of land and cultural appropriation, and suggests a more inclusive society and a breaking down of its still rigid class barriers.

 

Godzilla vs. Bambi? American monopoly capitalism vs. European public service broadcasting
Monday, 15 July 2019 13:36

Godzilla vs. Bambi? American monopoly capitalism vs. European public service broadcasting

Dennis Broe reports from the recent Fontainebleau conference on series TV, and the growing conflict between American-owned media companies and European public service broadcasters

The Americans are coming! The Americans are coming! This is the cry of alarm of European broadcasters, the majority of whom are part of publicly owned TV, who are trying to figure out how they can compete with the capitalist media giants, Netflix and Amazon. Then, at the end of the year – just in time for faster streaming on more devices on an enhanced 5G network – they will be facing Disney+, which also owns the majority stake in Hulu, ATT/Time Warner, NBC Universal, Apple and Facebook. If this Big 8 is starting to sound like the old Hollywood studio system, with its Big 5 and Little 3 studios, that’s because the attempt to monopolize the market is very similar.

Chambers

Netflix, which now has indeed gone global, with over half of its profits and subscribers coming from outside the US, is also behaving more like a traditional television network, having just cancelled three of its series prematurely, with two of the series it pulled the plug on having actual social content. Chambers, cancelled after one short season, where the complaint was that it was unfocused, instead was sharply focused on class tensions in the Sedona area of Arizona where upper middle-class me generation Sufism was exposed in the series as simply another mode of privileged behavior because viewed from the perspective of its half African/half Native American heroine, who was being tortured by class privilege masquerading as spirituality.

One Day At A Time

One Day at a Time, in the 1970s a Norman Lear show about a single white mother raising a family, and here reimagined as a charming sitcom about a Hispanic mom anchoring three generations in her apartment, was cancelled after three seasons with Netflix then refusing to let CBS all-access pick up the show because it would then be a streaming service competitor. These recent Netflix cancellations proved that just as with the networks of old, progressive social content, far from being given a break or encouraged, needs to quickly justify itself in the ratings – or algorithms, the new version of ratings – or it will be extinguished.

The dominant force in television in Europe, and at the Série Series conference in Fontainebleau, was publicly owned stations, which are under attack from this coming onslaught in a number of ways. First, as has often been detailed here, with Netflix attempting to whittle down their ratings, and in the case of Canal Plus, the French pay per view network equivalent to HBO in the US, encroach on their subscribers. Indeed, Netflix now has more subscribers in France than Canal Plus. This is important because 12.5 percent of the Canal Plus revenue is mandated to fund French film and television as well as global production and this money is behind some of the most progressive content in the world, along with Britain’s Channel 4, which is also under attack. Fewer subscribers means less revenue and thus less support for the French industry.

Just prior to the conference, the British writer of Wolf Hall, Peter Kosminsky, called for a tax on the streaming services to make up for the lost revenue. France and Germany have a nominal, 2.5 to 3 percent tax, but the solution is to tax these services at the 12.5 percent rate. Netflix’ argument is instead that they are financing European production with their own creations, pointing for example to their new centre in Madrid as proof of their serious intent. Sounds benevolent, but it’s not. They are now required by law to have 30 percent of their productions in Europe and the kind of material they promote tend to be either Europudding, one-size-fits-all series or dumbed down blockbusters – can you say Marseille?— that are generally detested in their local region.

What is happening with the streaming services is happening of course with the digital economy in general with the FAANGS – Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix and Google – now monopolizing a larger portion of online life and behavior, to be used as data to sell to advertisers and attract subscribers. France is now proposing to tax the FAANGS, and Trump is threatening to retaliate, since under what might be called the Trump Doctrine any attempt by any other country to curtail US dominance is a threat to national security.

The Americans, Netflix and HBO with Game of Thrones most especially, are also driving up the cost of production, attempting to short-circuit the local public competition which cannot keep up financially, since the streaming services are drawing on global revenue, which outmatches any single country. Whereas an average series episode cost $1.57 million three years ago, an episode, in the wake of Game of Thrones and Westworld, is now $2 and a half million, with production costs more than doubling over the past decade.

Both Canada and Australia are now complaining that while Netflix originally was a godsend, and simply a participant in the television ecological landscape, American-led streaming service production is now taking over. Production volume in Canada for example has increased nearly 50 percent in the last five years, from almost $6bn to almost $9bn. However, only 47 percent of that production is local, as opposed to 65 percent 5 years ago. In Australia, meanwhile, only 2 percent of the content on Netflix is Australian, so the country with its plentiful natural landscapes and cheaper labour is being used as a backlot for the streaming service.

Our Planet

Netflix also, like the Hollywood studios of old, is stealing talent that might have stayed on public television. David Attenborough, whose nature series were a BBC pivot, has now moved to the streaming service where his Our Planet is a huge hit.

At the conference we saw two coping mechanisms, neither of which seem like they will be successful. French television previewed a series of Une Belle Histoire, a dramedy with a supercharged opening which adds a new wrinkle to removing key characters early in the series in an eerie mountain-climbing scene, but which then seems to settle into being warmed-up This is Us, which is really just middle-class self-congratulatory fluff.

A far more effective way of challenging the steaming services is now playing on French TV and that is a series titled Jeux d’influence, Game of Influence, by far the best series of this year and which hopefully will be available in the American and British markets soon. The series is a thinly veiled swipe at Monsanto and its allegedly cancer-causing best-selling pesticide, as a legislator with a conscience reacts to the poisoning of his farmer friend by attempting to ban the substance. The series details the way murder and all kinds of nefarious deeds, including drugging and branding as insane a teenager who pursues the murder of her whistleblower father, are part of the effort, which includes the legal pressures of lobbying, to falsify the truth to keep the product on the market. The series couldn’t be more topical, as Monsanto is pulling out all the stops to keep the European Union from banning its number one seller glyphosphate, including suppressing reports the company itself commissioned and as President Macron attempts to stonewall legislation so the product can stay on the market for another three years.

A worse coping strategy was unveiled by the other leading public broadcaster in Europe, Danish TV, called the DR. The station was home to such series as The Killing, The Bridge and Borgen, all of whom have been adapted in other countries but a right-wing attack on the station’s funding – because it is also fiercely independent and critical of the government – caused the writers to leave to set up their own company. Now with a lack of funds and talent, programmer Christian Rank has chosen to tell what he calls local “human” stories. However, this language conceals a conservative, sensationalist turn by the station, with one series (Deliver Us) actually a veiled attack on immigrants as a small town conspires to kill a rabble-rouser, and another (When the Dust Settles) a fear-mongering series about a terrorist attack.

Floodlands

Nevertheless, three series at the festival were worth cheering and will be coming your way soon. Floodlands is a Belgium-Netherlands co-production, with a lead Afro-Dutch cop whose subject is cooperation and tensions in the border region between the two countries, as the detective investigates the brutalization of a young African girl. The shared border culture detailed by the series reminds us that the residents on both sides of the US Mexican Border similarly cooperate, and oppose Trump’s wall.

Equally stunning was an extremely kinetic action sequence unveiled at the festival, in the upcoming Gangs of London, for HBO/Sky Atlantic. The series illustrates the way the City of London survived the 2008 financial crisis by greatly increasing its global lead in money laundering, here for a London gang. The series is directed by Gareth Evans, who crafted The Raid 1 and 2 from Indonesia. He brings the same beyond frantic pace to this series, in a story about a black Londoner’s rise in the gang.

DB Back to Life

Finally, there is the magnificent Back to Life, on BBC Three and hopefully soon on BBC America. Daisy Haggard, who created and stars in the series, is an alumnus of Episodes, a brutal and vicious satire of the American television business. Like Stephen Mangan, also from Episodes who then went on to create the very funny Hang Ups, her sense of humour is slyly underplayed, here as a woman who returns from prison to the town where the crime she is accused of was committed, and where she must face the town’s resentment.

Much funnier – because more socially grounded – than the merely frivolous The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and in terms of examining small town prejudice endowed with the dramatic weight of Rectify, this stunning series, with a sad and hilarious opening job interview that recalls the iconic opening of Girls points the way, along with Game of Influence, to how European Public Broadcasting can combat the increasingly more insipid fare of the streaming services.

           

Rembrandt the outsider
Wednesday, 26 June 2019 16:59

Rembrandt the outsider

Published in Visual Arts

Dennis Broe reviews the recent Rembrandt exhibition at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Rembrandt the outsider? At first glance nothing could be further from the truth. Rembrandt is being feted throughout the Netherlands this year, the 350th anniversary of his death in 1669, with over 23 exhibitions celebrating not only his painting but also the ascendancy of Dutch naval and trading power in his century, the 17th, with Amsterdam becoming the world’s largest port and Holland the empire that succeeded the Spanish and Portuguese. Rembrandt became the most prominent, one of the best paid, and most successful portrait painters of the Dutch merchant class that powered this empire, so in what sense could he be thought of as an outsider?

Here is the argument: His drawings in particular show him in active sympathy with the downtrodden and poor in a society that considered poverty a disgrace; his affinity with the Italian painter who was exiled from Rome, Caravaggio: his fall into disgrace and ruin for the last 20 years of his life where as a painter he was ignored which cast him into obscurity, not totally dissimilar to the way the contribution of the fertile lands and exploitation of the Indonesian peasants obscured the source of Dutch wealth; and, finally, his possible exposure of the violence of a Dutch militia which may lay at the heart of his and the Golden Age’s most famous work, The Night Watch. This violence at home echoes the violence in the colonies and reminds us, as Edward Said so elegantly pointed out in Culture and Imperialism, that the two cannot be separated.

The celebration includes the Rijksmuseum’s ‘Alle Rembrandts,’ ‘All the Rembrandts’ which saw the museum for the first time empty its treasure trove of 20 paintings, 60 drawings and 300 prints as well as a major exhibition, ‘Young Rembrandt,’ to open in Leiden, 35 minutes from Amsterdam, in November. Leiden is where Rembrandt was born, was trained – you can also visit the studio of his teacher – and spent off and on the first 26 years of his life. The show features 40 paintings, 120 etchings and 20 drawings. Again at the Rijks, there is both ‘Rembrandt-Velazquez’ in October, featuring the master’s relationship with other painters and over the summer, a ‘live’ restoration of The Night Watch.

The Dutch Golden Age, which lasted for much of the 17th century, was fueled at home by windmills and peat, that is cheap energy, and abroad by its powerful ships which dominated world trade, so that the Dutch controlled a high percentage of all trade in Europe. They were pillars of and pioneered the techniques of much of contemporary corporate and financial capital. Their primary trading business, the Dutch East India Company, the world’s first multinational and first to be financed by the stock market, was also supported by the Bank of Amsterdam, the first central bank. The Dutch operated monopolies in European trade on nutmeg, cloves cinnamon and cornered the market in coffee, tea, cacao, tobacco, rubber sugar and opium. Much of the first part of the century was spent gaining their independence from Spain, finally conceded in 1648. Before that, a 12-year truce, where they were at peace in Europe, allowed them to train their weapons on Indonesia, the source of many of these goods, which the Dutch declared officially as their property in 1619.

Max Havelaar

The Dutch had guns, the Indonesians spears, and so Indonesia, and most particularly Java, or as the Dutch called it, the East Indies, fell, and a landowning people whose earth was rich in fertile volcanic soil began to lose their land and were forced either to cultivate crops that profited Dutch trading or were forced to leave the soil to work on Dutch plantations. This subjugation, which is the underside of the Dutch Golden Age, is partially recounted in the great Dutch novel of the 19th century Max Havelaar, sometimes referred to as ‘the book that killed colonialism.’ Its author, who called himself Multatuli, Latin for “I Have Suffered Much,” was a disgruntled colonial administrator who had what D.H. Lawrence termed ‘a passionate, honorable hate’ for the colonial system and a penchant for social satire that Lawrence equated to Jonathan Swift and Mark Twain.

A new edition of the book has just been published and in Amsterdam there is a Multatuli house which tells his story. A pastor in this multi-voiced novel, whose apt name is Blatherer, speaking to the Dutch merchant class from the pulpit, explains and rationalizes the colonial system in the following homily: ‘The longer the Dutch have to do with the Javanese the more wealth there will be here and the more poverty there will be there. It is God’s will that it should be so!’

Rembrandt Peasant Scene

Multatati, like Rembrandt, ended impoverished but in his final years pleading the cause of the Dutch working class, which was just starting to organize. Rembrandt in his time, especially in the drawings and etchings of his early years on display at the Rijks, demonstrated a great sympathy and reverence for the poor in Dutch society, often displaced peasants, as well as a Bosch-like attention to the raucousness and physicality of this class and a sharp at times almost Hogarth-like ability to display the actual vulgarity of those in power. There is the gorgeous cross-hatchings which illuminate a drawing of a bearded old man with a high forehead, all his dignity intact. There are as well leprosy sufferers, a beggar woman with a gourd, a ratcatcher doused in rats plying his trade to a shirking homeowner, and side-by-side etchings of a peasant man and woman ‘making water,’ seen simply as a natural act.

der something

A painting from 1639 is a Chardin-like genre scene of a boy watching two pheasants, one hanging from a hook, the other sprawled on a ledge. The viewer’s sympathy though is not with the plump boy, but with the slaughtered pheasants. A rape scene of a monk with his female prey in a cornfield from 1646, a little after The Night Watch, and reveals the exploitation of the clergy. Finally, at the point where Rembrandt is being forced out of his home by his creditors, there is a pen and brown ink drawing of the biblical Susanna being accosted by two elegantly attired elders who, having surprised her at bathing, point to her nakedness and in a majestic economy of line implore her to surrender herself to them.

susanna

Rembrandt also has historical and aesthetic affinities with another outsider artist, Caravaggio, whose dark palette and mastery of light and shadow – with the emphasis on shadow in his violent and bloody biblical scenes – influenced the Dutch artist. Rembrandt, who purportedly never left Holland, was likely exposed to the style, which would become crucial for his own mastery of light and shadow, by a group of Dutch artists, called Caravaggisti, who brought the dark style back to Holland. Caravaggio was exiled from his home in Rome as Rembrandt was forced to leave his. The Italian artist also had an affinity for street people, having been exiled for public brawling, and also died with little recognition, not to be rediscovered until the 20th century by Roberto Longhi, Pasolini’s teacher, as Rembrandt was himself only reclaimed as a major artist in the 19th century because of the attention of the Impressionists.

In his late 40s, Rembrandt was forced to sell his house and the many art objects and antiques he had acquired, supposedly due to poor financial investments and lack of commissions. It was the turning point of a descent into poverty. He died in 1669, was buried in an unmarked grave, and as was the custom for paupers his ashes were dug up and discarded 20 years later.

One reason his sales no longer flourished was that in the 1650s and 1660s, in the high era of the Dutch empire, a new style, ‘courtly, elegant, and smooth,’ that is more imperial, was coming into fashion and erasing the taste for his animated brushwork and anything-but-restrained use of colour.

Greenaways JAccuse

There was perhaps another reason and that is examined in Peter Greenaway’s film Rembrandt J’Accuse which, through what it terms a forensic examination of The Night Watch, makes the argument that the painting is anything but celebratory and solemn in its presentation of an Amsterdam town guard or militia as a brawling band. It was an expose of its central figure, the militia captain Banning Cocq, as being a violent ruffian who may have murdered his way to the top and may have taken part in an unsuccessful attempt at overthrowing the city government. A gun goes off behind the captain, indicating the violent and thuggish quality of his charges; a rooster in the lower portion of the painting mocks his name; and Rembrandt himself appears near the centre, cupping his hand and seemingly whispering in someone’s ear potentially about the official and his dirty secret. In Alexander Korda’s 1936 fiction film about The Night Watch, a disgusted Cocq who supposedly hated the frenzied violence of the painting, asks Rembrandt, ‘Do those look like gentlemen of rank and position?’ Greenaway claims that Rembrandt’s ostracism was in part due to his exposé in the work.

wallpaper rembrandt the night watch ok

Greenaway argues his case from a spectral and minute analysis of the work itself, with little supporting evidence, but the view that Rembrandt was ostracized for exposing the plot and the officer – a view the BBC took seriously enough to recently refute and which may be gathering steam – is simply one more indication that far from being the primary representative of the Dutch Golden Age, Rembrandt was one more victim of it.

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One of his most tender drawings in 1658, at the time he was forced to vacate his house, has a woman, exhausted from the day’s activity, sitting by the kitchen stove fire, her shirt at her waist, and unable to move so that her half-nakedness is not voyeuristic, but an expression of her exhaustion at a world that has made life hard and almost unbearable for her. Her resignation seems an almost autobiographical representation of the artist’s own struggles under an empire that had rejected him and his sympathy for its exploited and oppressed outcasts.

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