Dennis Broe

Dennis Broe

Dennis Broe's latest book is Diary of a Digital Plague Year: Coronavirus, Serial TV and The Rise of The Streaming Services. He is also the author of Birth of the Binge: Serial TV and The End of Leisure. His TV series blog is Bro on The Global Television Beat. His radio commentary can be heard on his show Breaking Glass on Art District Radio in Paris and on Arts Express on the Pacifica Network in the U.S. He is the author of two novels: Left of Eden, about the Hollywood blacklist and A Hello to Arms, about the postwar buildup of the weapons industry. He is currently teaching in the Masters' Program at the Ecole Superieure de Journalisme. He is an arts critic and correspondent for the Morning Star and for Crime Time, People’s World and Culture Matters, where he is an Associate Editor.

Highlighting and concealing class conflict as inequality intensifies: new TV series
Tuesday, 21 September 2021 11:55

Highlighting and concealing class conflict as inequality intensifies: new TV series

Dennis Broe reviews some forthcoming TV series, presented at the recent Series Mania festival in Lille 

It’s Emmy Award season – but rather than dwell on television’s past it might be better to dwell on its future. What follows are the best (and worst) of fall series previewed at the recently concluded Series Mania, the Festival of Global Television in the French northwest former mining centre of Lille. Many of the series were concerned with either highlighting or concealing class-based social divisions, in the wake of the vast transfer of wealth that has followed the COVID billionaire accumulation in the online goldrush.

The mining history of Lille is relevant because the best of these series was a new French public television version of Germinal. Two of the six episodes were broadcast at sites throughout the region, which was one of the coal mining and industrial centres of the world when Zola wrote the novel in the 1880s. The novel, about workers’ actions in 1860, is a long debate about managing a strike so that workers can claw back some measure of decency from an increasingly exploited life at work, requiring ever more sacrifices just to make their daily bread.

It’s the same struggle that workers in sites like Amazon warehouses are engaged in today, and they also face a triple onslaught from the government. With the Delta Covid strain still rampant, the state of Texas has attacked the right of women – mostly from working-class minority ethnic groups – to abortion. The Democrats have allowed the rent moratorium to end, throwing millions out into the street and have also withdrawn financial support in an attempt to force workers back to work in the same low-paying but now more dangerous jobs. To add insult to injury, all three attacks came over Labor Day weekend.

Producing Germinal as a TV series restores the novel to its original serialized version, with its hourly climaxes similar to how Zola wrote them for French magazines like Gil Blas. It is a welcome contrast to the supposedly magisterial but actually stuffily conservative 1993 film version by Claude Berri. This film turned the living, breathing workers of Zola’s novel into stone-faced French national icons.

This is class war

There is a nice blend of personal and collective in the endings of the first two episodes which propel the audience forward. The first episode ends with what is depicted as the rape of the mining girl Catherine by a rough fellow miner Chaval, while episode two ends with Catherine’s mother Maheude casting a full-throated vote for a strike after her young son is crippled for life in a mining accident,.

There is a nod to contemporary finance capitalism as the mine manager Hennebeau, positioned at the end of long table with the Parisian company stockholders, argues for the miners but is told by the board members that “this is a war” and they cannot relent.

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Maheude’s son crippled in the mine, in Germinal  

The series is shot in CinemaScope, using a grisly colour palette influenced by Peaky Blinders and the darkly ominous films of James Gray (Little Odessa, The Yards). The effect is one of gloomy misery, visually echoing Zola’s description of the mine as “a mechanical monster and the men and women mere beasts or insects fed to the monster.”

The series’ writer cites John Sayles’ Matewan as an influence, and it premiered around the 100-year anniversary of what was called The Battle of Blair Mountain, that the Sayles’ film is based on. This saw miners battle a company private army in an attempt to organize the Appalachian coal fields, not dissimilar to the strike described in Germinal or the Teamsters Union attempt to come to the aid of Amazon workers’ struggles to organize.

The producers turned down an invitation to premiere the series at the Venice Film Festival, preferring to present it as television and to premiere it at the Arenberg pit in the town of Wallers, near to where the novel’s action took place.

The series is being used as a calling card for production development in this area is a means of replacing the long-deserted mines. It is unfortunately also being trumpeted by the region’s director Xavier Bertrand as part of his bid to represent the right-wing Republicans in the next presidential election on an anti-working class emphasis around the diversionary issues of security and immigration – an ironic undoing of Zola’s mission in the novel.

On the plus side, the series also corrects an imbalance with other French series that are often ineffective imitations of their American counterparts. Thus 10 Percent is warmed over, sentimentalized The Larry Sanders Show and Episodes, which are both bitter satires of the entertainment business, and Spiral is only a step above Law and Order.

 Stifling socially relevant drama

The best French series are those which either deal in an authentic way with French history, eg Un village français about the German occupation and The Price of Peace about Switzerland coming to grips with its Nazi past after the war, or with contemporary social problems, eg the excellent attack on carcinogenic polluters like Monsanto in Game of Influence. This is a reversal of the situation in visual art in the first half of the 20th century, where everywhere there were copies of French art which generally stifled local artists – just as copying of American rom-com and crime formats today stifles more socially relevant French television and film production.

The companion piece to Germinal in terms of its high degree of class consciousness is the Australian series The Unusual Suspects, about two high-end families and their Filipina maids in Sydney’s lavish, gated, eastern suburbs. This series follows in the wake of The White Lotus’ concentration on the gap between rich pampered tourists from the mainland and the still-colonized Hawaiians who serve them at an elegant resort. Both these shows, despite the New York Times’ description of them as being about problems on vacations,  are about gross inequalities, and make series that simply concentrate on the foibles of the rich – such as Nine Perfect Strangers – now seem antiquated.

The Unusual Suspects has the matrons of the two households, betrayed by either criminal or incompetent husbands, aligning with their maids to pull a heist to try to maintain their status. The show is a vicious satire about privilege, with Sara, whose “brand” is #loveyournanny, ordering her maid Evie to sit at the breakfast table for a ‘happy family’ publicity photo and then ordering her to get up and clean up, after the phot.

There is more than class satire in the series, however. It is actually about the way that the dominance of financial capital and the symbolic economy is turning people into various kinds of scam artists, where nothing and no value is real. Sara’s “company” which she is trying to sell to an American investor is all about family management – but she doesn’t know where her own kids are and that they have gone to the zoo.

The cross-class bonding between the matrons and their maids and the planned heist makes for an exciting series, in the vein of the previous Aussie series Wanted about two women of different classes coming together. But the real breakthrough point of the series is the way it highlights the sham element of advanced capitalist societies where value is divorced from production and created and lost on the whim of its “influencers,” hedge fund investors and vulture capitalists.

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Reviving a dead factory in The Last Socialist Artefact 

The deterioration of Germinal’s industrial economy is the starting point for Croatia’s The Last Socialist Artefact. It’s about two self-styled entrepreneurs who must revive a turbine plant in rural Croatia, where the company has long since moved as a part of post-Soviet deindustrialization. The two work to reactivate the factory and restore the town, which is full of too-soon and too-long pensioned engineers, plant managers and workers, now being given later in life a second chance.

The series is a kind of Music Man for the deglobalized generation, a left-for-dead rural Eastern Europe which saw its economy collapsed or plundered after the heavy infusion of capital post-1989. The question is whether the two ideas men from the capital Zagreb will deliver on their promises. The series focuses on the hope of a revival, as skilled workers from the town bring a new fellow-feeling which outdistances and changes the entrepreneurs, humanizing them by giving them a stake in the well-being of the town which becomes more than just an investment, as one takes up with a local bartender and the other falls for the camaraderie of the ex-factory workers.

Unbridled and unquestioned class privilege

The most disappointing series were those which simply focused on unbridled and unquestioned class privilege. The Bite starring The Practice’s Audra McDonald, teases at being a zombie series but comes across simply as Upper East Side COVID confinement show about a doctor and a dominatrix residing in the same luxury building as a zombie infestation sets in. CBS thinks it’s being very radical by proposing a Black female doctor and a blonde dominatrix as leads, but in fact the series is a faux-doctor and faux-sex series. It’s even a faux- zombie show with little tension, carnage or laughs, so frankly if you watch it for the zombies, you’ll be disappointed.

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Women on the verge of a shopping spree 

The French actress Julie Delpy, star and co-creator of Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight film series, is one of the creators and the star of On The Verge, a series about four middle-aged women in L.A. who help each other through the apparently difficult time of what in male series is called mid-life crisis.

Unlike the far better Almodovar film Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, where the heroines struggle against a vicious patriarchy, when these upper middle-class career women are on the verge of not a nervous breakdown but rather a mild anxiety attack they go to the beach, or more likely go shopping on Rodeo Drive. What they really are on the verge of is becoming “Karens,” the eponymous, privileged racist figures that keep popping up in the media. Their supposed “struggle” for recognition as they age is in a way no more compelling than similar series about Dicks – privileged men superseded by youth and now mostly relevant because of their wealth. A prominent example of which was TNT’s Men of a Certain Age.

 Ignoring and eliding class conflict

The last and most interesting of this trio of series is Hacks, starring Jean Smart, so convincing as the nearly inarticulate but steadfast working-class mother in Mare of Eastown, here reimagined as that character’s opposite. Smart plays Deborah Vance, a Las Vegas comic whose routines have long since ceased being funny and who lives in splendour so appalling and gross that when the young female, Hollywood writer she hires to revive her act approaches her mansion she mutters “This is why we need a wealth tax.”

Hannah Einbinder’s Ava, as the wise-cracking out-of-work writer, shows promise as an alternative voice in the series, which unfortunately is never able to get beyond Smart’s unfunny, smarmy Vegas jokes. The two bond in their relation to comedy but that seems unlikely given the gap between Ava’s truth-telling humor and Vance’s truth-concealing Vegas put downs. It is interesting also that the show’s Hollywood creators position an up-and-coming Hollywood sit-com writer as an alternative to smarmy Vegas humor and lifestyle, when in fact that writer is simply on the path to eventually becoming the same thing herself.

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Money for nothing in the Swedish series Dough 

Far better at cross-class female bonding in the Wanted mode is Dough, a Swedish series about a down-and-out ex-convict mother trying to nurse her baby on the street, a middle-class set-upon mother beset by financial difficulties and a troubling teenager who discovers a pile of loot in the forest. Best scene is the ex-con mom getting a job and then saying she has a record but for nothing special, “petty theft, driving while drunk,” then walking away and turning as she remembers “and, oh yeah, assault.”

There is a contrast in the camerawork around the two women. The poor woman gets the Dardenne Brothers up-close, in-tight kind of camerawork, emphasizing her state of constant agitation, while the camera keeps a respectful distance from the middle-class woman, who is actually just as harassed. At this point, the show begins to feel just a bit too pat, as this post-Thelma and Louise bonding is now becoming not a way of emphasizing the shared plight of women but a de rigueur trope that fits neatly into the standard, culturally hegemonic narrative that elides class conflict.

As Judith Butler would describe it, there is a wide gap between the middle-class woman’s precariousness, which is a more universal plight about parenthood and raising a teen, and the working-class convict’s precarity, the result of a societal class war waged against her.

Last and least in this survey is The Rope, a series from the usually cinematically reliable French and European production house Wild Bunch. The series will keep you on the edge of your seat but only because you’ll be wondering how and why it got made. It’s Survivor meets Waiting for Godot, and not in a good way – a baldly philosophical series whose problem is the clumsiness of a conceit not grounded in any material reality. Here are some examples of the snappy dialogue: “Should we follow the rope?” “You need to keep following the rope,” “I don’t want to follow the rope,”….and frankly neither do we.

On the horizon in the new television season is hopefully more grappling with the gross, absurd disparities in wealth generated by capitalism. A recent report by the U.S. Treasury stated that the rich have cheated the government out of 630 billion dollars in unpaid taxes – this while Congress argues over whether poor working people “deserve” to have daycare education and free community college. Let’s hope this season features more cross-class alliances, fewer Karens, and no more Dicks.

Jean-Paul Belmondo

Jean Paul Belmondo died last week at 88. He was the New Wave icon, who with his insouciance and general amoral nonchalance brought a new body to the French cinema, notably in Godard’s Breathless, Pierrot le Fou and Une Femme et une femme.

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He was an active part of all of the contradictions of the day. Born of extremely privileged heritage in Neuilly, the richest city in France, he briefly became a soldier, taking part in the war in Algeria. However, he then became the lead in Pierrot le Fou, pursued along with his female accomplice by OAS gangsters in a direct reference to the conservative forces that tried to oust De Gaulle because of his ending of the Algerian war.

The film was censored for even these slight references, with the censors paying particularly acute attention after Godard’s film two years earlier Le Petit Soldat, in a way remade in the U.S. by Hal Ashby as The Last Recall, and both about a soldier’s reluctance to do their duty, in the French case to go to the Algerian war.

Belmondo was also during this period the head of the French Actors’ Union, an affiliate of the radical CGT union. After his stint in the New Wave, he remained an emblem of French popular cinema.

Series, series everywhere with no audience spared: what’s new from the world of streaming
Tuesday, 07 September 2021 21:18

Series, series everywhere with no audience spared: what’s new from the world of streaming

Dennis Broe reports from Series Mania, at Lille 

If not the largest, it is certainly, as Hagai Levi, the showrunner of HBO’s lead fall series Scenes From a Marriage and festival jury president, termed it, “the most important” television festival in the world.”

This year’s edition of Series Mania at Lille in Northern France previewed 70 series from 22 countries, with 44 new entries as well as three days of talk about the business of global streaming. The most dominant trend in new series is that the best of them, Germinal (France), The Unusual Suspects (Australia), and The Last Socialist Artifact (Croatia), feature plots pitting rich against poor and acknowledging this inequality.

This comes in the wake of The White Lotus’ critique of the rich and the Covid more unequal distribution of wealth with tech billionaires growing by leaps and bounds while millions are about to be thrown out of their homes. On the other hand in the U.S. series The Bite and On The Verge, there was an utter ignoring of these disparities, a continuing to pretend they don’t exist, or a Hollywoodization of the differences (Hacks) or a deflecting of group anti-corporate sentiments into individualized domestic problems (the French series The Code).

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HBO’s Scenes From A Marriage 

The mood in the three days of consideration of the streaming and on-the-air television business was relentlessly positive and why not? The American streamers are flush with money, though much of it borrowed, as the Disney + rep began his talk by displaying the figure of 116 million subscribers as of August of this year and with the U.S. cable channel Starz, CBS Viacom, and HBO Max all about to expand into Europe, a territory they can’t wait to pillage. The European mood was, despite the edict, much more cautious on how to take advantage of, counter and contend with this onslaught.

There was little talk about Asia, (have the streamers conceded this territory to China?) though a report by the French State Film and Television Association, the CNC, revealed that over the last year China was the leading commissioner of series, beating the U.S. by 653 to 611, with France, Britain and Turkey far behind. Yet another area of digital competition in which the Chinese are the new world leaders.

One presenter conceded that the three most important makers of television series are, in order, the U.S., Asia, and European publicly financed television. Though the Chinese outproduce the U.S., it has the lead because of the dominance of English, with 903 series in that language and Mandarin a distant second with 656. Netflix has not only capitalized on this difference in terms of global subscribers, but also has taken the lead in terms of dubbing, not only global series into English but also now dubbing in 34 languages and subtitling in 37 of the 190 countries in which it now has subscribers.

The U.S. streamers’ global capacity has forced changes in the European media ecosystem, prompting a new wave of consolidation like the coming merger of France’s two leading independent TV channels TF1 and M6 and much more cooperation between public and private national entities and between nations. Germinal, with a budget of $2 million euros for each of its Euro standard 6 episodes, voted the most popular series of the festival, is a combination of the French production company Banijay, France public television, Italian public television RAI and the new French streaming service Salto.

These combinations are now necessary to produce competitive series since the American streamers, led by HBO now folded into HBO Max, with series such as Game of Thrones and Westworld, have pushed budgets to $5 million per episode, (what used to be the outlay for a studio or Amer-indi film) as a way of drowning their rivals in high-priced production values. Cross-country financing is now also de rigueur with, as one speaker put it, even the days of BBC, ITV and Channel 4 combined financing barely being enough to compete with the new budget requirements.

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Vampires of the Midland 

The expansion plans of the U.S. streamers for Europe often betray the one-sidedness of the transaction. Netflix is beginning production in Russia with its contemporary version of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Anna K, and the Netflix rep expressed surprise that the country “has the technicians, the studios and the landscapes” to produce the series – amazed at “discovering” that Russia, the land of Eisenstein, Sokurov and Konchalovsky, actually has a long and celebrated  moving-image history.

Russian television also is alive and well and one of the surprise hits of the festival was Vampires of the Midland, about a vampire family with a feisty grandpa who harkened back fondly to the Stalinist ’50s and his young bumbling tech savvy charge in a smart update on Anne Rice’s Interview with The Vampire which collapsed Russian history, including the defeat of Napoleon, into bite-sized (pun intended) chunks.

The series though has a warmth and comradeship to it, sometimes expressed in cynical Russian humor, with the vampire family committed to not killing humans, that was missing from Rice’s simply decadent storytelling. As the Russians move into straight genre productions, here and in the action flick Major Grom: Plague Doctor, they produce them with a liveliness and good-natured humour missing from the more intense pursuit of novelty in American genre production.

In terms of producing, as they enter the European market, Disney + had the most to offer, citing series which stressed marginal populations like the Turkish women who take over the patriarch’s restaurant in Berlin in Sultan City and Ossekine, a series about the actual murder of an Algerian boy by a French cop. The executive Jan Koeppen’s situating of Disney as having a long history of Euro productions in its animations of Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame, of Hans Christian Andersen’s Cinderella and the Italian author Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio failed to mention that in each case the Disney version had mutilated the class consciousness or societal horror of the originals and turned them into toothless family fare.   

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SpongeBob SquarePants, this series needed to be “curated”? 

Much more openly exploitative was Pluto, the Euro channel for CBS/Viacom now rebranded Paramount +, which will feature little European content, though it is obliged by law to produce 30 percent native content. Instead, the streamer emphasized how it was helping the consumer, always the rationale used to justify the more honest lingo used by Viaplay in its coming expansion into the U.S. as “innovative, disruptive and ambitious.” Pluto features content on multiple channels available on the streamer “curated” for individual and national tastes, a new twist as the terminology moves out of museums as Monet and Modigliani give way to Survivor and SpongeBob SquarePants.

The grubbiest and most nakedly exploitative view of plucking the European market, now that the U.S. market has nearly reached saturation point for streamers, was HBO Max which is diluting the HBO standard of quality with a “variety” of “more expansive and popular” fare. The streamer, whose stock is still majority owned by the conservative Texas company AT&T, did acknowledge it would be producing three to four shows a year in Spain, the Nordic countries and Central Europe, but also allowed that part of its variety would consist of “unscripted,” meaning cheaper reality TV series as well as game shows.

Anthony Root, the HBO Max programming director for foreign markets, in describing this expansion and how it would change the company, compared it to “moving the oil tanker 45 degrees to the right,” that is, casting the behemoth streamer as a bloated carrier of polluting materials stuck in a narrow canal, perhaps a too apt description of the whole enterprise. As HBO grew in the 1990s its motto was “It’s not TV, It’s HBO.” That has now yielded to “It’s not HBO, it’s HBO Max, which is far worse than TV.”

 Earlier, an HBO Max executive, in countering the charge that WarnerMedia is an old company, explained instead that what it represented was “100 years of storytelling excellence,” a description which neatly elides the sometimes tortured, as when Jack Warner capitulated to the blacklist in the 1950s, sometimes trailblazing, in its early 30s representation of the hardships of the Depression in its Gangster and Fallen Woman films, actual history of the company.

The Lionsgate executive, a representative of the studio which has now merged with Starzplay, since all streamers need some back catalogue as a way of drawing audiences, explained that, with the signing of the Abraham Accords, the formerly strange bedfellows of Israel and Saudi Arabia are now engaged in talks to partner to provide content for the new Saudi steaming service. Good news for the region as its two most conservative countries team up to financially swamp other competitors in the region, most notably Egypt, with series ever more hellbent on concealing and whitewashing the warlike and aggressive tendencies of both countries who together have reigned unending death and destruction on their neighbors.

Thierry Breton, the European Commissioner charged with promoting the interior market, couched his talk in much more cautious terms, speaking of a “rebalancing” between American and European film and television, of “responsibility” of the U.S. companies, of European “regulation” and of European Commission funding this year of $2.4 billion to support cross European film and audiovisual development.

The French Minister of Culture Roselyn Bachelot-Narquin spoke about a new decree issued by the Macron government with the intention of “bringing back our audiences” and called attention to the need for French companies not to sell off their back catalogue, part of the nation’s patrimony, as Netflix recently bought the Francois Truffaut films.

Finally, the Portuguese Minister of Culture, representing a left coalition government of Communists, Socialists and the independent left, reminded the audience of producers, writers and company officials, of the need to address “the green position in the sector,” to make it sustainable and reminded this European audience that “we are stronger if acting together.”

The unremittingly positive mood, with European producers in the audience after the Disney presentation more elated at the opportunity of selling to Disney than of being overwhelmed by the entity, countered the global economic prognostication which had even the Davos elite last week counseling against “toxic positivity” as the COVID Delta strain slows down recovery and inflation gallops forward.

This week the Russian Central Bank also warned that a possible outcome is a return to the global crisis of 2008-9 by the end of the year. It is hoped that European series production, both on the continent and in Britain, will not fall prey to the same outcome with the American corporate streamers plundering at will and the rest of the continent’s producers left clawing for scraps.

Next week, I’ll be talking about the best and worst of the 70 series at the festival, all of which will be making their way to home screens and computers this fall.

Streamers versus Socialism
Tuesday, 17 August 2021 09:07

Streamers versus Socialism

Dennis Broe reports on how the streaming services are attempting to subvert government-financed and often more progressive film and television production

As was detailed in Part 1 of this series, the “epic” battle being waged, or rather being reported on in the corporate entertainment press, is between streamers and theatres or between various streamers.

However, this is a battle now being fought not just in the U.S. – Netflix is already losing U.S. subscribers to its rivals Disney+ and HBO Max – but throughout the world. Only through global subscriptions can these companies, most of whom have run up huge debts, stay one step ahead of their creditors. It is also through global profits that the companies, most now flush with cash but with the pressure of debt and increased competition always looming, can outmanoeuvre any single country that attempts to compete, a situation I detail in my new book Diary of a Digital Plague Year: Corona Culture, Serial TV and The Rise of The Streaming Services.

In the U.S. these companies are private, but in the rest of the world complicated systems of financing of film and television, and increasingly as well of alternative streaming services, usually feature a healthy amount of government funding. This funding in many cases helps account for more progressive and socially concerned films and programmes.

Neoliberal capitalist corporations vs. national governments and creatives

So this battle for the soul of popular media is actually between neoliberal, utterly profit-driven conglomerates against national governments and individual creatives who are attempting to retain some shred of their own culture and potentially address problems endemic to them.

More and more though, the power of the American streamers is forcing national films and television series to dilute their content. This is in order to also reach a global audience which they now also increasingly need, in order to compete.

This global sweep is now the main profit-making element of Netflix, where foreign subscribers now outnumber those in the U.S. and which is available in 190 of the 195 countries in the world. There are limits though even for the most dominant streamer which must come up with new content and which does not have an extensive back catalogue of films and series as do the other streamers, most of which have merged with Hollywood studios so that they now contain studio offerings going back decades.

Netflix panicked during the production halt in last year’s confinement and began leasing or buying older films such as the Francois Truffaut collection, as well as now constantly needing to compete with the other streamer/studios by corralling topline stars and directors into its stable. For example, as it has done with the upcoming Don’t Look Up, directed by The Big Short’s Adam McKay and starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence and every other Hollywood newcomer and star they could round up.

These limitations aside, Netflix and the other American streamers following in their wake are adept at outmanoeuvring local producers and governments, with examples abounding in Britain, Italy, Australia and Spain.

In Britain, where the steamers Britbox – a combination of the programming of British public and private channels – and BFI Player attempt to counter this influence, Netflix early in its run employed in Britain 900 engineers, a huge number and comparatively, in terms of Europe, “more than any channel in France can mobilize.”

British regulators are also incensed about a Netflix button on the standard remote control of any television so that viewers can bypass British public television and go straight to streaming.

In Italy, the government is watching its industry be undermined due to its extremely generous 30 percent tax rebate for programme-making by streaming services, which results in some temporary creation of jobs but no sharing of residuals. The Italian pay on demand channel Chili is now giving Apple iTunes a run for its money in Italy, but partly because it has cash from the U.S. rivals Warner Brothers, Fox and Disney, who are attempting to outflank Apple.

Australia, which has a vibrant public television network, is being outspent by Netflix by almost 10 times as much; in 2020 $841 million to $89.7 million. The country is in danger of being swamped by the streamers, as TV stations collapse due to loss of advertising revenue. Consumers early on demonstrated an appetite for turning off public television already in place as, before Netflix legally entered the country, 23 percent of the country, 6 million out of a total of 23 million, watched the service using VPNs which conceal the viewing country. Australia also boasts a rival streaming service, Stan, but forecasts that it too will soon be overtaken by Disney+, which has only been operating in the country for two years.

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Money Heist, a Netflix global hit 

Perhaps the major battle is being fought in Spain, which Netflix has made its European capital. The country has abundant sunshine for filming outdoors, talent from an already developed industry, and the streaming service sees it as a portal by which it will be able to access Latin America and the 580 million Spanish speakers in that world. As Screen International reported, Netflix currently lists 50 Spanish titles, led by one of the world’s most popular series Money Heist which will is forecast to return for its final season in September.

The streamer currently boasts 70 film productions with 35 Spanish partners and claims to have created 1500 jobs for cast and crew and to supply 21,000 days of work for extras. The country is a production site not only for Spanish series but also Anglo series like The English, an Amazon epic Western with A Quiet Place’s Emily Blunt, as other streamers also recognize Spain’s value as a location that is exotic but cheaper than the U.S.

The country though may be in danger of being overwhelmed. Netflix produces more content than is even required of it by the government and its so-called job creation is all temporary, with again fees paid upfront and Netflix then owning the work in perpetuity.

Government attempts to stem the tide

 Governments and national film and television industries are beginning to realize that their own films and series will be swept aside if this onslaught continues unabated. In Australia, there is now an attempt to address the imbalance whereby the local streamer Stan is required to give over half of its time to Australian programming, but the foreign global streamers are under no such restriction.

One proposal would require that any streamer with over 500,000 subscribers invest 20 percent of its profits in the Australian film and television industry. That proposal is being resisted, even by some Australian academics, claiming that the investment might instead open the way for a more globalized Australian content, a spurious “international free market” argument aimed at granting the American streamers full power.

In Spain, like everywhere else, the challenge is to keep the industry from becoming what Screen labels “a service industry for the U.S. giants.” There is now a law requiring streamers to pony up 3.5 percent of their profits for investment in the Spanish TV industry and 2 percent in the film industry. In addition, a bill expected to be passed next year by the Socialist government will require 1.5% of streaming revenue to be earmarked to finance Spanish public television. 

South Korea, the Asian leader in television series, in attempting to withstand a Netflix investment in the industry of $500 million, wants to charge Netflix “network fees” so that they contribute to supporting local television.

France has perhaps the most extensive system of protection, but still seems stuck in the cinema model onl,y since none of its films were released to streamers during the year-long lockdown and now have come barreling into cinemas at the same time as new restrictions, including a 50-person maximum per screen limit.

The country has the largest investment requirement and is currently negotiating with Netflix asking for 25 percent of its French revenues to be re-invested in French production along with the Netflix upfront one-time payment being replaced by rights sharing. In return the country would relax its three-year restriction of a Netflix film in the cinemas and allow Netflix films to play on television after one year.

The European Union as a whole is also trying to stem this tide by advancing funds to “foster real European productions” and this now includes supporting pan-European streaming platforms. The EU advanced $2.6 billion in the last 30 years and practically matched that total amount in May of this year by allocating $2.4 billion. The idea is to promote cross-border circulation featuring “European culture and linguistic diversity”, by becoming a promoter with the scale to compete and to break down national fragmentation.

Part of the strategy is also to force the American streamers to invest in smaller, Eastern European countries, which are largely fed content from the Western states. The danger is that producers eying this money will lose focus on the local specifics which make their films and shows socially and politically relevant.

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A mother searches for her son kidnapped by the Colombian army in Amparo  

A national fund that is also sponsoring socially inflected filmmaking is the Doha fund from Qatar, a country much maligned by Saudi Arabia for its economic ties to its neighbor Iran. At the last Cannes festival, the fund contributed to two of the most socially aware films in the festival. These were The Gravedigger’s Wife, about the lack of medical treatment in Somalia and a disguised call for universal health care, and Amparo, about a mother’s attempt to keep her son from being strongarmed into the military in Colombia in the 1990s in Medellin, with echoes across the decades of the protests in that city today.

On the other hand, government funding and participation may also be used to conceal repression. Saudi Arabia, in contrast to the United Arab Emirates’ attempt to diversify its source of revenue, is doubling down on oil. This is even as the globe reels from the effects of greenhouse gases, the main source of which is fossil fuels, as it alternates between floods, droughts and ever more destructive and all-consuming fires.

The kingdom is using the film industry as greenwashing, as a sign of its modernization and liberalization. Mohammed Bin Salman, infamous for his devastation of Yemen, one of the poorest countries in the world, and for the Khashoggi assassination, lifted a ban on cinemas in the country in 2017, with screens increasing from 300 in that year to an expected growth of 2,500 by 2030, making it the only country in which box office returns grew in 2020.

A $10 million film fund supports film projects throughout the Arab world and Africa, with the country also boasting its own streaming service Shahid VIP, but also not being above fairly ruthless competition. Egypt has been the main outlet for films from this burst of Saudi financing, but the kingdom scheduled its entrée into the international film world – The Red Sea Film Festival – in December at the same time as the Cairo film festival.

The West, which initially refused Saudi money with the producing agency Endeavor famously returning $400 million after the Istanbul assassination, while always creeping around the Saudi tent, is now coming back through the front entrance. For any film festival to succeed it needs a prominent director, and the Saudis enlisted Edward Waintrop, the head of the Cannes Director’s Fortnight section, whose rationale for lending credibility to a warlike regime that is helping to devastate the planet was that this festival would be celebrating filmmaking as [a] force for positive change.” 

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Tom Holland as drug-addled veteran of the Iraq war in Cherry 

Hollywood, since the Saudis have too much money for the industry to retain its integrity for long, is now back in force with this year’s Cherry, a Russo Brothers (The Avengers) film for Apple with Spiderman’s Tom Holland. The Saudi film fund also invested in Disney last year as well as pouring $50 million into the Russo brothers production company, thus putting it on the entertainment industry map.

Finally, governments may also promote regulation designed primarily not to halt the economic swamping of the industry but to upend any attempt at criticism. This is the case in India, with the right-wing Modi government’s highly repressive broadcasting code which forbids all content that “disrespects the sovereignty and integrity of India,” is “detrimental to India’s friendly relations with foreign countries” and “endangers national security.”

The code has been used to attack both Netflix and Amazon, both of which have featured films and series that spotlight the neoliberal turn in the country toward a regressive and divisive social system. Amazon’s series Tandav, first broadcast at the time of the farmers’ strike in Delhi, opens equally with a farmers’ strike being brutally suppressed by smiling, rotund police and then details the ruthless, murderous rise of a politician who has no scruples and hides behind a supposedly religious code, in a Modi-like fashion. Netflix’s White Tiger, based on a popular novel, is a reverse Slumdog Millionaire, where a poor boy learns the cunning and ruthlessness it takes to come out on top in Modi’s society, in a kind of Scorsese-esque Wolf of Wall Street treatment.

Both challenge the law and both were attacked under it, making this the rare case where the streamers, chasing new subscribers through a sensational expose, contributed to a progressive conversation about a repressive, right-wing government.

So what is to be done?

In one sense the streamers and their attack on the last vestiges of socially responsible film and programme making and on media sovereignty are the ultimate expression of the neoliberal ethos. Neoliberal capitalism is plundering the world, increasing equality, poverty and wage precarity, with weakened governments now barely able to react, let alone influence, plan and control the global economy in any meaningful way.

So, what is the answer? We need a re-organization of civil, social and governmental society in which the natural tendency of creators, supported by governments and thus freed from the dreadful imperative of the profit motive, can flourish as they have the space to look around them and put on display the ravages of this system.

For the moment this exists only in dribs and drabs and incomplete pieces, such as Mike White’s critique of ruling-class nonchalance in The White Lotus or Taika Waititi’s more open acknowledgement of the humour and pathos of Native American life in Reservation Dogs. Any truly creative, social movement must acknowledge the power of the media of film and Serial TV and encourage its truth telling rather than its addictive qualities. In the end speaking truth to wealth and power is the most effective alternative to the kind of corporate palliatives that, despite the ever-worsening situation which threatens us all, still go under the misnomer “entertainment.” 

Covid, Cannes and Conglomerates: A Battle for the Soul of Popular Media
Monday, 02 August 2021 17:40

Covid, Cannes and Conglomerates: A Battle for the Soul of Popular Media

Published in Films

Dennis Broe looks at the battle between streaming services and cinema owners. Image above: Jane Campion on the set of the Venice-ready Power of the Dog

What did the just-concluded Cannes film festival tell us about the power of the streaming services and the future of watching in cinemas or at home on TVs and computers? “Will Cannes Kick Off a Global Comeback?” The Hollywood Reporter asked and the answer as far as cinema going is concerned was a resounding “No.”

If anything, the festival – declared, in a fever pitch of polyannishness, to be a triumph by The New York Times – confirmed the power of the streaming services, as new COVID lockdowns persist and as restrictions on entering cinemas were slapped on half way through the festival, such that attendance at the festival fell by almost half.

This was a festival with a lessened global participation as the BRICS countries, 40 percent of the globe, and in particular Russia, nearly voided the festival because the smaller countries they sell to were not present and as the Cannes basement market, where major distribution deals are transacted, all but disappeared, with many of the market screenings not in cinemas but online.

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Diary of a Digital Plague Year

I trace the long term COVID effects in more detail in my new book Diary of a Digital Plague Year: Corona Culture, Serial TV and The Rise of The Streaming Services. No streaming service was allowed an entry in the Cannes main competition but that didn’t prevent streamers from being a major presence at the festival. The festival opener, the ultimate French auteur spectacular, Leos Carax’ Annette is being distributed in the U.S. by Amazon, which presumably after a brief opening will put the film online.

An outstanding documentary, Todd Haynes’ The Velvet Underground, is distributed by Apple + and Netflix capped the first week with a multimillion dollar deal for CURS>R, a horror film about, of course, a student playing an ’80s computer game which turns on her, making the film itself an advert for online life.

The Cannes ban on streaming services and particular Netflix participation, a rearguard action by French cinema owners, rather than stemming the tide, instead resulted in increasing the visibility of September’s Venice Film Festival which will now feature Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog. This was ineligible at Cannes, as well as new films by the Italian auteur powerhouse Paolo Sorrentino and the Spanish perennial Pedro Almodóvar. The result is that Venice, which has often featured the eventual Oscar winner, becomes not a festival with the also-rans from Cannes but perhaps now the most important European and global festival.

Jury president Spike Lee, whose last release, Da Five Bloods, was on Netflix, said during the festival that streaming service and cinemas will work out their differences – and indeed they will, though the balance of power seems likely to have shifted. The pre-COVID situation saw the streaming services coming to cinema owners’ hat in hand often begging for an opening.

The new Big 7 (Netflix, Amazon, Disney+, HBO Max, Apple+, Paramount + and Peacock) now command a greater share of the audience and in many cases, particularly with HBO Max and Disney+, either open their films online or open both online and in cinemas. With the cinema chains forced by these conglomerates to accommodate to a shrunken exclusivity window, as the largest chain AMC did, the polarity is reversed.

Cinemas now may function much like major television events, like the Superbowl and (sometimes) the Academy Awards, opening films that then go quickly to streaming or that play off earlier theatrical openings for prestige. Netflix used the theatrical success of Knives Out, a splashy star-laden feature in the vein of previous star agglomeration vehicles like the ’70s studio release Murder on the Orient Express, to then build attention for its $400 million dollar acquisition of the next two films of what it is making into not a theatrical but a streaming franchise.

Meanwhile Peacock (NBC/Universal) paid $450 million to restart an Exorcist trilogy with the opener in the cinemas to get attention, with the next two films going direct to the streaming service, in order to enlist subscribers.

For every Fast and Furious 9, which boasted global opening week profits of $405 million and a post-COVID record of $70 million in the U.S., there was, as Deadline pointed out, an Army of the Dead which, though it had generally strong reviews, garnered only $700,000 in 600 cinemas as viewers. Their streaming appetite for the director Zach Snyder’s brand of bombast had recently been stoked by the HBO Max release of the four-hour director’s cut of his Justice League, and waited the extra week for it to play on Netflix.  

Adding to the streamer’s power is the shrinking distance between film and television, in some sense erasing the last vestige of the prestige, or aura, of film as a special theatrical and artistic event. Directors and actors now frequently move back and forth. In addition, Marvel Studios, a part of Disney+, has shrunk this distance this year in its interweaving of television and films as its vaunted “Phase 4” alternates between the two and adjusts the continuity in its “universe” accordingly. Disney+’s Star Wars franchise has now followed suit, with its most prominent contemporary exemplar, the multiple Emmy-nominated series The Mandalorian, to be followed by nine new series and corresponding films.

Profits have never been greater for these online winners as the week before many renters are about to be kicked out of their homes as COVID eviction moratoriums end, Apple, Google and Microsoft on average more than doubled their profits from the previous quarter, with Apple’s profits rising 47 percent to $16.5 billion – but with the company stock falling because profits were predicted to have been greater.

But, as with any capitalist enterprise, the house of cards may quickly collapse and most observers do not believe that consumers, with inflation gaining ground, wages at a standstill or lowering and jobs being lost to a new wave of automation, have enough money to subscribe to all of the services.

A wave of mergers accompanied this movement online and these 7 media conglomerates will likely shrink to 4 or 5 with Peacock and Paramount+ potential losers and with global and U.S. competition accelerating between Netflix, Disney+ and HBO Max. Weakened cinema chains will also shrink with AMC, which itself barely survived the closing of all 10,700 cinemas during the lockdown, a potential buyer for the now bankrupt California Pacific Theaters Corporation.

But what will this brave new world of streaming domination, with these services now circling the globe, look like? The nightmare scenario, as profit predominates, is supplied by HBO Max, the former Time Warner which previously merged with the conservative Texas communications company AT&T, a company which saw the enterprise purely as a least common denominator profit centre and immediately attempted to discipline its occasionally rambunctious element HBO.

AT&T, after the usual merger savagery in which it cut 2000 employees, then stepped out of the spotlight, though it controls the majority of stock, and instead is merging the company with the Discovery Channel and its affiliates, appointing Discovery head David Zaslav as the new HBO Max head.

Zaslav comes from the world of documentary, and documentary film and television, which is cheaper to produce, has become much more popular as streaming service fare. The high end of this genre are Netflix series like The Innocence Project, about DNA testing proving the guilty innocent. The low end is the non-stop Netflix True Crime series and Reality TV. Zaslav declared himself to be against paying showrunners huge fees for the kinds of scripted series that have distinguished Serial TV and added a social dimension to its offerings. Instead, the new director favors (cheaper) unscripted fare such as 90 Day Fiancé, a series which reinstitutes in the era of MeToo regressive scenarios featuring mail-order brides. One can feel the long arm of AT&T still in control.

Another problem with streaming domination is its promotion of the Netflix model of creators not being paid residuals and instead only a lump sum upfront. The studios were notorious for hiding their profits so they would not have to pay residuals, with Paramount famously declaring in the Art Buchwald case that it had made no money on Coming to America and so owed nothing to the screenwriter.

The streamers hide their subscriber data and so even to calculate and pay residuals will be difficult in this era of excessive tracking of user actions but minimal accounting of those actions released to the public. The lump sum payment then allows the streamers to build and maintain their catalogue in perpetuity with creators reaping no reward for their ongoing part in building that catalogue. In this transition period, the sudden switch to online also short circuits artist cinema residual payments and is now the subject of a lawsuit by Black Widow star Scarlett Johansen against Disney.

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The Black Widow revenges herself on Disney

Spike Lee is right. The streamers and the cinemas will work out their differences in a shared but shifted balance of power. What this discussion conceals though is that the major loser of this online American dominance is likely to be government-financed global film and television, which is often much more socially conscious than the fare put forth by the American streamers. That is the rival that these privatized services are actually working against and working to undermine.

Next week I’ll talk about what governments are doing to curb their power and to promote their own local films and television series. This week I’ll conclude with a look at streaming service rivals around the world, which, though listed as private companies, are often supported by public financing.

The first point is that the Americans are attempting, as the streamers decrease cinema attendance, to throttle local services as well. They do this not only by competing but also by vastly outspending these services in their own countries because of the revenues from their global sweep. However, they are also not above working with them in shared windows and in that way accommodating to them as they undermine them.

One of the most prominent local rivals is the Scandinavian service Viaplay, which is now rapidly expanding throughout Europe and will soon be available in the U.S. The service, which encompasses programming from not only Sweden, Denmark and Norway but also Finland and Iceland, has now also expanded into Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. Its signature shows are the dark crime series like The Bridge and The Killing which have been exported around the world.

Viaplay now has production deals with NBC/Universal, MGM, Sony and Fox and in its expansion describes its fare as “genuinely Nordic but also tailored to a global audience.” Will this American studio investment and this need to go global to compete foster a diluting of the social specifics which have made these series so tantalizing to global audiences?

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Lars von Trier’s The Kingdom, foundational series for Serial TV

The streamer would seem to be attempting to straddle this line as new entries in progress include Glacier, a Swedish disaster film written by Nordic Noir star author Camilla Lackberg and Lars von Trier’s sequel to one of the greatest series on Serial TV, and along with Twin Peaks one of its originators, The Kingdom with his The Kingdom Exodus.

The original, a critique of western corporate dominated medicine, is an acerbic antidote to syrupy “doctor” shows like Grey’s Anatomy or even better-intentioned validations of public hospitals such as New Amsterdam.

 Finnish television production is also booming, with another Finnish streamer Elisa Viihde home to the series All The Sins, about the masculine cultural violence of a Lutheran sect in the extreme north of that country. There is also Deadwind, each of whose two seasons featured major storylines about a transfer from oil to wind power and the corruption around a tunnel connecting the country to the European and Estonian mainland. Deadwind, bought by Netflix, is at least partially financed by the Finnish government, a fact that tends to be concealed now that the series has the global streaming imprimatur.

In order to compete, streamers such as Viaplay are also challenging the Netflix flat fee model and instead conceding to its artists both upfront fees and residuals in a way that, if they succeed, may be a break on the American streaming service pattern. However, producers are always tempted to resort to the flat fee model and sell to the American streamers because of their promise of release on a global scale.

The rise of the streaming services, spurred on by Covid, is neither a battle between the various services or between streaming services and cinema owners. They will slice up the market as capitalist monopolies always do. Instead it is primarily a battle between private, fully for-profit American companies, with often little social conscience – as Netflix proclaimed itself to be in the business not to “speak truth to power” but “to entertain” – against government-backed, often more socially motivated global film and television.

This is a battle for the soul of popular media. 

Cannes and Covid go together like a horse and carriage
Monday, 19 July 2021 15:33

Cannes and Covid go together like a horse and carriage

Published in Films

Dennis Broe concludes his review of the Cannes Film Festival 

Another Cannes Film Festival is in the books and this one, which Variety labelled “Red Carpet Done Right” and The Hollywood Reporter hoped would “kick off a global comeback” for the film industry in a return to a “New Normal,” instead was beset with all the contemporary contradictions as the global crisis outran the global comeback.

First prize, the Palme d’Or, went to Titane, a film loaded with treachery, gender-bending decadence and automobile fetish – Black Swan meets Fast and Furious. Jury president Spike Lee let the cat out of the bag inadvertently announcing the winner at the beginning of the awards ceremony but that was the least of the problems, in particular for the French film industry.

This edition of a festival essentially ruled by the French cinema owners, who three years ago threatened to fire festival director Thierry Frémaux if he ever again allowed a streaming service entry in the main competition. It was all about promotion of French film, as many of the filmmakers elected to delay the release of their films one year to take advantage of the Cannes promotional lift. The Americans, on the other hand, used the lockdown to either launch or strengthen their digital streaming services and to condition global audiences for streaming releases of films.

For the French industry, the Covid catastrophe intervened. President Macron announced midway through the festival that because of the rapidly increasing cases due to the Delta strain and the resistance to vaccination, on the Wednesday after the festival ends, the prime day for these films to make a splash in cinemas, everyone attending the cinema must produce the QR code showing two shots of the vaccine plus two weeks and no cinema hall could house more than 50 spectators. To add insult to injury, he also gave restaurants, cafes and nightclubs an additional two weeks before these new restrictions apply.

The India Delta strain now plaguing France is a result of the greed of Western big pharma and supposed do-gooders like the G7 group of neocolonial powers which failed to push for patent sharing and a global vaccination. Scientists are also coming to a consensus that climate change plays a huge part in the spreading of COVID and similar pandemics because, as animal habitats shrink due to global warming and humans live closer to animals, the likelihood of deadly viruses jumping from one species to another increases. So, the Cannes “new normal” was disrupted by the corporate forces the festival nominally stands above in its validation of art over commerce.

In a special climate section, French director Cyril Dion’s Animal did raise this point. The film is an elegantly photographed tour of the planetary destruction caused by climate change as its two teens join in a “picking-up-plastic” campaign on the beaches of Mumbai, observe shrinking nature in the wild in Kenya and visit an island where foxes, killed by golden eagles who have migrated there in search of food stricken from their habitat, are being brought back to their natural place in the ecosystem.

Dion is well aware of the stakes and stated in a festival press conference that if individual initiative, which the film validates, were completely successful, this would only eliminate 24 percent of greenhouse gases. A kind of neoliberal reformism is offered by the film: for example, the boy and girl teen protagonists are told that farmed rabbits in tight cages are raised humanely. Only at the end of the visit do they bring up that this humane treatment is only to later slaughter the animals. The Franco-Indian boy is quite curious and natural while the British girl, Bella Lack, often preens to the camera in a way that suggests she may use global warming as a stepping-stone to media stardom.

Wealth-washing

The corporate media have their own brand of wealth-washing evidenced in Deadline’s profile of the French actress Léa Seydoux who appeared in four films in the festival, including Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch, a nostalgic look at a newspaper and journalism in a small French town in the last century of the kind that is everywhere disappearing in France as well as in the U.S. The French audience, aware of these changes, gave the film a nine-minute standing ovation at its screening. Seydoux was a formidable presence first in the French cinema and now globally, but the mag was at pains to point out that her initial breakthrough in the industry could not have had anything to do with her grandfather being the head of Pathé and her granduncle being the head of Gaumont – still the two leading studios in the French cinema industry. 

The immigrant question was on the minds of global filmmakers as two films – the possible Oscar contender Blue Bayou and Europa – dealt in variously effective ways with the harsh treatment of those not born in the U.S. and Europe. Blue Bayou, written, directed and starring Justin Chon, revolves around a Korean-American outside Baton Rouge being threatened with deportation. The film is a prime example of the “Immigrant Melodrama” where the former victim position of the woman in the Hollywood melos of the ’40s and ’50s is now occupied by the immigrant, be they male or female. The film tugs at your heartstrings but heavily overloads the conclusion, as a Bodyguard type-airport scene just doesn’t, or won’t, end.

The most effective part of the film is Alicia Vikander, who plays the deportee’s wife, rendering an unbelievably touching, heartfelt but not overdrawn, version of Linda Ronstadt’s phrasing of Roy Orbison’s “Blue Bayou.” Europa, on the other hand, is a Dardenne brothers’ framing of an Iraqi immigrant’s entry into Fortress Europa by way of Bulgaria. In shots where we hardly see anything else but him – call it the Paul Greengrass Flight 93 version of events – he is variously beaten and abused. However, the film’s refusal to supply any context to the immigrant’s plight makes it far less effective.

Protests were much in evidence. The festival’s directors disingenuously snuck in – after the Chinese film screenings so they could not be withdrawn in protest, Revolution of Our Times. This is a propaganda documentary validating the often-violent student protests backed by Western capitalists and governments as a toehold in the developing Cold War against a China which has dared challenge those powers for economic parity.

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Colombian Protest in the 1990s and now in Amparo 

On the side of genuine protest was Amparo, a touching fiction set in the Colombian city of Medellin in the 1990s, about a mother’s journey and humiliation as she attempts to free her son, shanghaied into the Colombian army and sent to the most dangerous war zone. The director Simon Mesa Soto explained that, with the Duque government continuing to wage war against the guerilla movement the FARC, which like the majority of Colombians now wants peace, the situation detailed in his film is still a reality 30 years on, as each day protestors in Medellin are being shot by the U.S. backed government.

Oliver Stone marked another 30-year anniversary in his JFK Revisited: Through the Looking Glass, a documentary sequel to JFK which incorporated additional evidence now unredacted from the Warren Commission and House of Representatives reports. It gives increased credence to the film’s thesis that JFK was assassinated not by a lone gunman but most likely by CIA and ex-CIA members which after Kennedy’s failure to back the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba then launched their ultimate dirty tricks operation. Stone described this new research including Kennedy scholars claiming that Kennedy was actively engaged in a global peace movement and in withdrawing the U.S. from Vietnam, as converting “conspiracy theory” into “conspiracy fact.”

Whoopi Goldberg and Stone narrate the first part of the film and Stone then inserts the clip from JFK where Donald Sutherland as a deep cover “Colonel X” asks who had the motive for killing Kennedy, beginning to point toward the intelligence agency. Sutherland then narrates the second, more involving part of the film which details the CIA’s dissatisfaction toward Kennedy who having visited Vietnam as the French were losing the country and having seen the U.S. as facing a similar fate wanted peace. He also wanted a de facto understanding with the just-completed revolution in Algeria, the left-leaning Sukarno in Indonesia and Egypt’s Nasser, the pan-Arab proponent who was said to have wept for an entire night upon hearing of Kennedy’s death.

The film also relates the French President de Gaulle’s confronting Kennedy with his suspicion that the U.S. backed the plot to assassinate him by a right-wing cabal of his generals. To which Kennedy is said to have replied that there are parts of the government he had no control over. Sutherland’s narration of these findings, then, because of the previous clip from Stone’s earlier film, is invested with the fictional authority of Colonel X rather than simply the actor’s voice. A remarkable blending of fact and fiction.  

 
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Justin Chong and Alicia Vikander in the Immigrant Melodrama Blue Bayou

Finally, there was Ukrainian director Sergei Loznitsa’s Babi Yar. It is an astute assembly of footage from German and Russian archives that tells the story of the Nazi invasion of the Ukraine and most particularly of the murder of over 33,000 Jews and the burying of their bodies in the Babi Yar ravine outside Kiev. In 1944 as the Russians approached, the Nazis ordered Ukrainians, to dig up the bodies and burn them to hide the evidence of their crimes, after which they were shot. This evidence emerges in the Soviet “Nuremberg Trials” held two years before those in the West which contained testimony by a Ukrainian who miraculously survived and an SS machine gunner who participated in the slaughter.

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Ukrainian Nationalists parading under the Swastika in Babi Yar 

Stalin never acknowledged that the 33,000 were Jews, referring to them only as Ukrainian citizens, while later colour footage shows industrial waste being pumped into the ravine at the order of the local town council, with the Ukrainians themselves further erasing traces of the atrocity. Loznitsa has a very anti-Soviet bent and he does parallel cuts – first the Ukrainians putting up Hitler posters and then, after the Red Army sweeps through, posters of Stalin. The footage also shows the right-wing fascist element who welcomed the Nazis as a parade of men and women in traditional Ukrainian peasant outfits, gleefully brandishing swastikas.

A fascinating confronting of brutal realities often glossed over in this edition of the festival.   

Artwashing at Cannes film festival: 'The best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity'
Sunday, 11 July 2021 17:32

Artwashing at Cannes film festival: 'The best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity'

Published in Films

Dennis Broe is unimpressed by the artwashing at this year's film festival at Cannes. Image above: Lou Reed et. al. in Todd Haynes' The Velvet Underground 

It may be a bit cruel starting with Yeats’ criticism of his era in his epic poem The Second Coming but unfortunately it is an accurate summary of both the organization and the films in the 2021 edition of the world’s leading film festival.

This post-COVID confinement version of the festival featured maximum healthcare restrictions for the Cannes elite and minimum restrictions for everyone else. Thus to enter the Palais where the competition screenings are held amid the splendour of the red carpet, you are required to have either a QR bar code proving two-shot vaccination in France or a 48-hour COVID test. It is mandatory in France to wear a mask inside but for the opening ceremony, attended by the rich and powerful from the French Riviera and the global 1 percent, both Variety and Screen reported that as soon as the lights went out many of the elite removed their masks and were not reminded by ushers to put them back on.

Meanwhile, for the majority of screenings stocked with lower level press and students, many of which have now been moved out of Cannes and are a 45 minute bus ride away, there were no health restrictions.

This year the entire festival bureaucracy has moved online which caused much initial chaos. Although the streaming services and their digital monopolies are being kept at a distance and not allowed entry into the main competition, the virtual rules the festival. All tickets are online in a system that often crashes, contains no summary of the 135 films in the festival now that the festival book is eliminated, and shortcircuits the human contact of waiting with other dedicated filmgoers.

The online system has, like French organization as a whole, the appearance of elegance while being both inefficient and overly rule bound. What makes it work is that the French people staffing the festival are able to help as they can, humanizing this mechanization just as they have always done with earlier versions of French bureaucracy. But once the system is automated, those lacking technical expertise are practically useless.

What used to be the press room still exists but this year there are no computers, since the usual sponsor Hewlett Packard dropped out. The room is nothing but a series of electrical outlets and remains most often empty. It’s a perfect symbol of the fate of the press over the last decade as hedge funds buy up newsrooms, deplete the staff and sell off part of the real estate, gutting major papers.

In a rapidly deteriorating world, plagued by multiple pandemics involving climate change, COVID, drugs, inequality and racism, the usual blather about the sanctity of the auteur sounds simply like French industry speak, since the films they make seldom confront these problems. Instead, French film makers are using this year’s edition to relaunch their films now backlogged from COVID, with over 450 films vying for attention as they are poured onto the market after the lockdown and facing the American streaming services who used the lockdown to launch their films online.

Because of the restrictions there is also very little product or presence here from the BRICS countries of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, which together account for 40 percent of the world’s population. These countries have been effectively shunted aside what is supposed to be a global festival.

The best are well-intentioned but empty

The best do not lack all conviction but much conviction is shunted aside or squandered in NGO gobbledygook such as that used by Chadian director Hahamet-Saleh Haroun. He makes very good films like The Screaming Man about poverty in neo-colonial Africa, but told the Western press that he was not Chadian but rather he spoke ‘the global language of cinema’.

A special section called Cinema for The Climate is well-intentioned but somewhat empty. At this point if that cinema is not exposing the fossil fuel companies or industrialized fishing magnates which are destroying the land and the oceans it is really engaging in cultural greenwashing, which instead of combatting these companies usually proposes individual solutions to the global problem. An example is the film Bigger Than Us about a teenager from Bali whose Bye Bye Plastic campaign got the island to ban plastic bags, straws and Styrofoam cups. It’s helpful but hardly controversial, and we are beyond the point where planting trees and recycling will solve the problem.

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The Gravedigger’s Wife 

The best film entry was a fourth level competition film The Gravedigger’s Wife, about a Somali villager who has only a shovel to earn his daily bread, by pursuing hearses and offering to bury the dead. His wife has kidney failure and will die if he does not come up with 5000 American dollars, a sum no one he knows possesses. The film is touching about his and her desperation and in the end, just as all seems lost because a doctor will not perform the operation to save her without the money, a contemporary miracle occurs.

The film, which seems to be about individual heroic acts and acts of kindness, actually calls attention to the need for a global system of healthcare, rather than relying on the kindness of strangers, though it stops at merely validating the miraculous individual act. The film originates in the West, and the Finnish-Somali actor Omar Abdi, whose tattered face fits in with the actual villagers, is excellent. His wife is played by a Canadian Somali model, and her bearing and looks are sometimes a jarring reminder of the presence of the Western gaze, even in a quasi-neorealist film.

Todd Haynes’ documentary The Velvet Underground is about a band who had few convictions to begin with. Haynes tells the story of this proto-punk group of misfits, outsiders who railed against the musical establishment, which at that time was the industry’s embrace of the hippie era and the Velvet’s West Coast avant-garde rivals Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention.

Their story is told largely in their own words with the avant-garde composer John Cale, whose atonal drone was an essential part of the music, as a major source for the film. The band was supported by Andy Warhol and sometimes described as his marionettes, but the real genius was a drug-addled, bisexual Lou Reed. He channelled all his obsessions into a music that, in its cynical embrace of his truth, linked to the French poets Baudelaire, Verlaine and especially the tortured youth Rimbaud while anticipating the impending return-to-basics musical revolution that was to come, here symbolized by punk-folkie Jonathan Richman, who saw the band in Boston 75 times.

A fascinating recounting of a group of visionary artists, too many of whom, including Reed and the German vocal enchantress Nico who blazed the path for Debbie Harry and Blondie, died young, victims of a society which did not tolerate their alternative lifestyle.  

The worst are full of sound and fury

‘The worst are filled with passionate intensity’ might have been Yeats’ review of the festival opener Annette, which Le Monde, doing its part to restore French cinema, gave its highest rating, four stars. Leos Carax is a talented director who makes arthouse films that are, depending on your taste, highly provocative (The Lovers on the Bridge) or fairly pretentious (Holy Motors).

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A devilish Adam Driver and a bedevilled Marion Cotillard in Annette  

His latest film stars Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard as a disparate couple who combine American low art and entertainment – he is a stand-up insult comic whose stage routine is not funny – with Continental high art as she is an opera singer. The form of the film is operatic, mostly sung, with a soundtrack from the group Sparks. Carax updates the form – in one scene having Driver and Cotillard singing while he pleasures her, and begins both the film and the festival with the ditty “And so may we start,” the lyrics of which, like most of the songs, are simply a repeat ad nauseam of that line long after it has lost its referential meaning.

The film makes use of Driver’s talents and rehearses his past roles, as a robed boxer about to go onstage shot from behind and looking like his Vader character from Star Wars, as out of control lover from Girls in the sung sex scene, and as employing his gorgeously melodious voice which was the revelation of A Marriage Story. Onto a Hollywood tragedy – the boating death of Natalie Wood often attributed to her husband Robert Wagner – Carax grafts a criticism of the vacuousness of American entertainment in the form of the Driver character’s brutality in his treatment of the underused Cotillard.

However, the film exaggerates the brutality, defining it too often as coarseness rather than as violence, while at the same time not showing enough of it, as Scorsese does in the much better New York, New York. It offers Carax’s knowing genre play and thematic overloading as the answer instead of an actual critique of the way French and continental high art and Hollywood are now moving toward becoming a more seamless whole in which neither allows the real problems of the world an airing. Annette is full of sound and fury but signifies little.

Falling into the same category was The Hill Where Lionesses Roar, which features three teenagers discontented with their lives in a Kosovo, which has been almost entirely cleansed of all its meaning as brutal site of destruction – the only signifier of its history is a mosque in the background. Instead the film is mostly about the three teens frolicking – on a hill, in the water, in a hotel. And that’s about the beginning, the middle and the end of it.

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Menacing Croatian patriarchy in Murina 

On a similar young girl coming-of-age theme was the more interesting Croatian film Murina which features a 17 year old caught in a death grip between a domineering father and his seductive former boss, a successful businessman. The father is trying to induce the businessman to invest in a hotel on the prosperous Dalmatian coast, now a dazzling global resort. The daughter is ultimately able to transcend both the physical violence of the father and the seductiveness of the boss, which since it is empty is a kind of emotional brutality. However, neither is linked to the history of the brutality of a country with a fascist and ethnic cleansing past. This past is being erased as it enters the global economy as tourist paradise.

Similarly interesting and similarly limited was the Argentinian film The Employer and The Employee, invoking Hegel’s master and slave dialectic as it plays out in the parallel relationship of the son of a wealthy landowner and the Indian boy he and his father treat as a servant. In the end the Indian gets his revenge expressed in a bitter smile, but the revenge also dooms him in a way that incorrectly suggests that the only way out of this relationship is mutual self-destruction.

The antidote was provided in a passage from a documentary essay Mariner of the Mountains about a Brazilian journalist Karim Ainouz who journeys to Algeria in search of his father’s village. He quotes Franz Fanon’s passage from his essay on violence that says that when the colonized realizes he or she is equal to the colonizer, it is the beginning of the end of that relationship. We then see Algerian youth chanting “Murderous regime” as they come to their own realization about a government that is selling them out. Here the passionate intensity is directed and purposeful and the conviction of the youth of this generation is sincere.

Violence from the police against the poor:  The crime novel after Covid and after Black Lives Matter
Friday, 09 July 2021 09:46

Violence from the police against the poor: The crime novel after Covid and after Black Lives Matter

Published in Fiction

Dennis Broe reviews books from Quais de Polar, the recent French crime fiction festival

As the world begins to wake up and we enter the period of post-confinement, in France the first major festival returns. Just before the opening of the Cannes Film Festival was the Quais du Polar, the global festival of crime writing – the largest of its kind in Europe.

There was an air of hesitancy, of dipping a toe in the water, with everyone inside except the speakers kept at a distance from the audience wearing masks and the crime novel book fair moved to tents outside the main hall.

There was also an air of hesitancy because this was the first crime writing festival, one branch of which in France is called “the policier,” which celebrates the deductive skill and thirst for justice of the police, which sits uneasily with the global questioning of the tactics and ends of the police in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests.

The health restrictions generally did guarantee an air of safety about the festival, as one security guard checked bags (the result of the largely overblown and previous “terrorist pandemic”) while a second one made sure everyone used the hand lotion before entering the building (the result of the latest pandemic).

Travel between countries is still an issue. R.J. Ellory from England and the continent’s most popular crime writer, Iceland’s Arnaldur Indriôason, whose novel begat the Hollywood film Jar City, were both unable to come because of the quarantine restrictions. This was balanced out by remote appearances by the American recounter of drug traffic Don Winslow and Edyr Augusto, the Brazilian author of a series of books on the Amazon city of Belem , a site not only of exploitation of natural resources but also of drug traffic.

France has now started vaccinating at a rapid rate, hoping to reach 70 percent by the end of the summer, with the cases falling every day but as with the rest of the world with the threat of ever more contagious variants hovering over this attempt to restart this branch of French soft power.

France leads Europe in the number and global range of its publications and translations of this most popular genre. Through festivals like the Quais du Polar, the country strengthens its hold on the genre, not only because French authors pour out a seemingly endless supply of crime novels but also because its translators bring novels in from all over Europe and the rest of the world, and in that way the country becomes the mediator and meeting place for global crime fiction. So its place in the market functions like a branch of the world-leading French luxury industry, which makes high end clothes, perfumes and accessories.

This brings us to the twin poles of the crime novel. In France for every “policier,” whose tradition goes back to Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie, and which fits the entertainment/luxury industry mould, there is also a more hardboiled element of crime fiction, in the Dashiell Hammett/Raymond Chandler tradition, with a more socially situated milieu and a critical message, called the “roman noir.” The difference was readily apparent at the festival.

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Le Monde, the newspaper of the centre left, fired the first salvo in its pre-festival article where it questioned the very idea of fiction from the point of view of the police, in the light of the George Floyd and other killings and the demands for justice from a police force whose budget for domestic control in the U.S. makes it the sixth largest military budget in the world.

Le Monde also quoted the American contemporary noir novelist Benjamin Whitmer who criticized his own genre in which “the daily violence of the police is totally ignored.” Whitmer, the author of Cry Father and Pike, then elaborated on his refusal to romanticize this now much criticized institution: “I do not write about good cops for the same reason I do not write about unicorns.” He added that “If the police do their work correctly that work is violence against the poor and working class for the protection of the upper class.” This view was echoed by some speakers in the festival. 

The conservative weekly digest Le Point countered with its view of the crime novel in an elaborate feature on the “cosy mystery.” Here writers, often in a nostalgic aristocratic vein like S.J. Bennett’s The Windsor Knot on the royal family, return to the “locked room” mysteries which, though they exhibit a good deal of humour, (one of cosy author M.C. Beaton’s book is titled The Quiche of Death and her Absolutely Fabulous-type character is named Agatha Raisin, in homage to her predecessor), disdain any social implications of crime and see it as a puzzle to be solved rather than as an opening onto a deeper examination of the society.

The hard-boiled novelists often echoed Whitmer’s sentiments on the police. In his non-fiction The Business Secrets of Drug Dealing, journalist Matt Taibbi transcribes the account of an anonymous marijuana dealer who claims that the police, far from being the expert sleuths of crime fiction and crime TV series such as C.S.I., in fact operate mainly by grabbing informers off the street and beating on them until they give up names, with the testimony often inaccurate because it is obtained under duress.

The Greek author Minos Efstathiadis whose The Diver is about the relation between Germany and Greece, with the latter subservient to the former during the 2008 government debt crisis, suggested that the police, far from battling crime, are part of a worldwide network that supports the worst elements of criminal activity exploiting the weakest members of society – underage trafficking, drug dealers, child pornography and female slavery. Without that support, he claimed, these activities would never be allowed to flourish.

Arpad Soltesz, from the former Yugoslav country of Slovakia, in his latest novel Swine, writes about how organized crime, in the form of the Calabrian mafia the ’Ndrangheta, has insinuated itself into the highest levels of that society, in both government and law enforcement. The novel which begins and ends with the assassination of a journalist recounts 25 years in the history of the country where one regime, claiming it was battling corruption, succeeded another and then became corrupt itself. Hard not to think of Joe Biden’s equally Trump-like but suppressed Ukraine antics or his promise and then refusal to back the 15-dollar minimum wage; and his “generosity” in forgiving two-tenths of one percent of student debt after promising 50 percent, etc.

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Carlo Lucarelli, whose Commissioner De Luca began as an inspector in the Mussolini fascist period, in An Italian Affair, follows De Luca into the ’50s as, with the U.S. backed Christian Democrats in power, in order to pursue justice, he must join a secret service so secret it was never given a name, where he finds his former fascist police colleagues restored to power.

We are reminded of the continual interplay in the U.S. between the Klan and other right-wing groups and the police, much in evidence in the way right wing violence was tolerated and condoned while any street violence was brutally repressed. In Germany, also, the recent connection between the far-right AfD and the police was also widely reported.

Another use of the noir novel to illuminate social ills was Jurica Pavicic’s Red Water, named the best Euro Crime Novel of the Year. Pavicic is from the ex-Yugoslav country of Croatia and uses the 30-year investigation of the disappearance of a 17-year-old girl to recount three different eras in his native town of Split, on the Dalmatian coast, the most desired tourist site in Europe.

Pavicic explained that he did not travel, but staying put in his native town was like watching three different cities. During the Soviet era in the 1980s Split was a mining town, which he compared to the North of England, which boasted a well-known soccer team, sponsored by the mine. With the fall of the Soviet Union, as in Russia and many of the countries in the East the go-go 1990s “where everything collapsed” saw the deindustrialization of the town as industry moved further East or to Asia and corruption ruled as fortunes were quickly seized.

In the 2000’s Split has remade itself again, this time as part of the global tourist boom in which the Dalmatian Coast has thrived with The Guardian calling the nearby city of Zadar “the hippest place in the world.” Red Water charts these changes with the jaundiced eye of a world-weary observer.

On the cosy mystery side there was Lionel Froissard, a former racing-car journalist, who has just written a novel about the death of the much-loved Princess Diana. Froissard though refuses to entertain the many theories around Diana’s death involving the royal family, and instead blames the death on a poor black woman from the banlieu, or urban slums, focusing not on the potential assassination but on the car that caused the crack-up.

Elsewhere Niklas Natt och dag, from a Swedish aristocrat family who he said “had a good run from the 13th to 16th centuries” and the author of two historical crime novels 1793 and 1794, claimed that he focused on the aristocracy who commit crimes not because they are more untrustworthy than the poor, but because they are more imaginative.

Frakas

At the heart of the roman noir’s ability to shed light on forgotten periods of history was Thomas Cantaloube’s Frakas, set in France and Cameroun in 1962, where Cantaloube, an ex-journalist for the investigative website Mediapart, related that France, after losing Indochina and Algeria, had settled on as its new colony of choice.

The French government went so far as to commission a study by a team of geologists to determine what raw materials were available to be looted underneath Camerounian soil. Cantaloube’s book details how the French, in the period after Cameroun achieved independence and while it was attempting to achieve financial sovereignty, acted with the government to punish and eliminate those freedom fighters who wanted to continue the struggle.

Cantaloube’s work, both in Frakas and his previous Requiem for a Republic which detailed the merger of gangsters and government in the Marseilles of 1936, illustrates how the noir novel can illuminate social problems instead of concealing them, as practiced in its opposite the cosy mystery.

Carlo Lucarelli exemplified this in his three-day plan for how he hoped readers would react to his fiction. The first night they would be up all night reading. The second night they would be troubled by what they read and be up all night disturbed. The third night, he hoped, they would be up all night trying to figure out how things could be different. 

The Colescott Chronicles Part Two: Expanding Black Representation while Narrowing in on Capitalism and Colonialism
Friday, 25 June 2021 10:52

The Colescott Chronicles Part Two: Expanding Black Representation while Narrowing in on Capitalism and Colonialism

Published in Visual Arts

Dennis Broe continues his presentation of the work of Robert Colescott. Above: The Wreckage of the Medusa (1978) and the wreckage of capitalism

 Robert Colescott’s satire of Americana George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware has now become the centrepiece of L.A.’s new Lucas Museum of American Art. Colescott’s best known work though only begins to touch his four major themes and concerns. These are: expanding Black representation in art while calling attention to the way the culture has been stereotyped in the past; a sharp critique of how the consumer products which shaped and defined him have been adapted and altered by Black experience; bringing the Black female body to the foreground while commenting on the exploitation of the female body in art-historical ideals of beauty; and, finally, a lampooning of the colonial legacy and a sharp analysis of how that legacy functions in the contemporary neo-colonial world.

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In the 1970s Colescott broke free from the de-politicized abstract tradition, the establishment of which is described in my book Cold War Expressionism: Perverting the Politics of Perception. His goal was, as he put it, “to interject blacks into art history.” Initially he did this by creating his own versions of classic works. Thus, his George Washington Carver, in satirizing one of the most famous images of Americana, has a black chef, a barefoot fisherman, a banjo strummer, a moonshiner and a black female performing a sex act on the flag-bearer at the centre of a boat which may be about to spring a leak. The painting was called “the most gleeful and unbridled attack on racist ideology in his oeuvre” but it is also a celebration of various forms of Black working-class and underclass activity.

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His Eat Dem Taters, a parody of Van Gogh’s Potato Eaters is likewise filled with grotesque images of a black family, seemingly happy with little, a racist stereotype but also as well commemorating black sharecropper life, finding the humanity behind the caricature, as Van Gogh’s original celebrated the Dutch peasantry with whom he sided at the beginning of his career.

Instant Chicken! is a gathering of the racist stereotypes behind the Southern kitchen in a culinary scene dominated by Colonel Sanders with Aunt Jemima applauding Sanders and black cooks framing the composition. The painting reminds us of the southern plantation paternalism which is behind the supposedly benevolent figure of “The Colonel.” The image, rather than being superseded, couldn’t be more relevant as a Christmas ad, with people trapped in their homes as part of the coronavirus confinement, had a Sanders snowman delivering chicken to a mixed family and then sacrificing himself as he melted away after securing the delivery.

Expanding the representation of Black people

The word the art world used to describe Colescott’s antics was “appropriation,” which somewhat denies the originality of what he was doing, presenting it as a form of theft with the term itself falling into a kind of discriminatory and derogatory label. He partially disdained this label and did not want to be known as a creator who “paints art history in blackface.” A far better way of looking at what he accomplished would be to say that what he was doing was expanding the possibilities of Black representation.

His project is renewed today in a variety of places. In the art world, for example in Kara Walker’s recent piece at the Tate London Fons Americanus, a water fountain, recalling that trope in Western sculpture, which instead of nymphs and sea creatures, displays images, using the water motif, of the African, European, American transatlantic slave trade in a piece on display in the heart of London, historical centre of that trade. Likewise, Lovecraft Country, the HBO series, ín one episode, “appropriates” the Wolfman theme from the segregationist period of Hollywood history where African-Americans were locked out of the horror genre. A black woman, who is refused a job at a Chicago department store in the 1950s, makes the horror transformation to a white woman who is then offered a job as a manager at the store. Horror transmutes into the horror of racial inequality.

Colescott came to prominence at a time when American consumer goods were circling the globe, defining our experience of fashion, leisure and entertainment. The artist’s variegated and complex view of this culture aligns him with earlier observers like Walter Benjamin, who was a collector himself of the detritus of capitalist production. He treated its castoffs as signals from far-off lands, and kalso was attuned, as Fredric Jameson says in his book on Benjamin, to the way these products, which define “capitalism’s rituals,” dominate not only our consciousness but also our sense of time. People think of (capitalist) crisis as an event, Jameson explains, but for Benjamin “the catastrophe is that it just goes on like this.”

In 1978’s The Wreckage of the Medusa, a sly borrowing from Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa, a modern-day ocean liner, like the Titanic, has crashed and in the sea are the detritus of society, both humans and objects. They are all cut into their individual parts – used underwear, trash, beer cans and body parts, all fragmented in the way consumer society fragments experience. One critic wrote that while Colescott “knows that the ship of civilization is sinking” “he remains on board.” Another way of seeing the gesture, related to the patch over the leaky George Washington Carver boat, is that he is doing his part to ensure a society weighted down with its own consumerist garbage rightfully collapses and sinks.

Two works from 1983 with the same subtitle, Down in the Dumps, provide diametrically opposed views of this culture. The first So Long Sweetheart, takes up the motif of depression as Colescott himself at far right, his head in his hands in the tortured image of “The Thinker,” is being left by a naked woman wandering off left. What he is left with are all the objects piled up as if at a dump that may have defined their relationship. The Dump is both his depression as well as the collection of objects; bicycles, tyres, straw hats, tennis rackets, which are now also defunct. 

Down in the Dumps II it titled Christina’s Day Off. In it a proud black woman fashions her existence out of a similar pile of objects (hotdogs, cakes, a teapot), but smiles with satisfaction at how she is able to create a persona from these castoffs. Colescott was well aware of the way capitalism discards its useless artifacts, be they workers or objects: “Sometimes people when they get to be about 30 years old find it’s time for them to be knocked down, just like buildings.”

Capitalism’s exploitation of the female body

Another of Colescott’s preoccupations was the often-exploitative presentation in the art world of female bodies in general and the black female body in particular, including an awareness of his own participation in that process. Colescott, with his thorough grounding in art history was very aware of how a concentration on the white female body necessitated a lack of representation of the black female body. In one work, he has an African woman gazing into a river, like Narcissus, and seeing her reflection as a blond pin-up queen.

Later, in Les Demoiselles d’Alabama, he presents all the colours of the spectrum of black and Native American women from beige to brown to umbers to dark brown, with various hairstyles and styles of dress, yet all being registered through the knowing gaze of the blonde woman sitting comfortably in the corner who addresses the audience directly.

The artist’s own theory of skin colour was that there was no pure black or white but rather infinite shades of colour, with the peoples of the Earth in close proximity to each other. “The closer you are to Africa, the darker the people are in Southern Europe. The closer North Africa is to Europe, the more European people appear.” This blending of races was for him the actual reality, rather than the rigid distinctions codified in racist and apartheid societies.

He was also keen to put official presentations of pulchritude under the spotlight. In 1976’s American Beauty, the colorful blonde pageant winner in the foreground with her trophy smiles, but the smile is belied by a background of black and white “movie stills,” a sort of R. Crumb version of a pornographic film showing the sexual abuse the contest winner had to put up with to ensure her victory.

Colescott also pointed to his own engagement as a Western artist in this process in his version of Susanna and the Elders (1983) which has a black and white worker gazing at the blonde Susanna as she is about to exit the shower. In a window in the upper corner of the work, Colescott himself appears, a Peeping Tom who is part of this leering. His placement in the painting suggests Max Ernst’s surrealist masterpiece The Virgin Spanking the Christ Child where Ernst appears as one of three “gentlemen” in a peephole watching a highly sexualized spanking of the bare bottom of the child by Mary. Both point to the way art in general and religious art in particular, while claiming to be sacred, often simply legitimates voyeurism.

Art that eats away at empire

Colescott came to prominence at a time when colonial empires not only in Africa and the Middle East were being overthrown, and conflicts were growing in the remnants of the colonial slave system in the U.S. His work has been described as “art that eats away at empire.”

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His 1992 Arabs: The Emir of Iswid (How Wide the Gulf?) in the wake of the U.S. Desert Storm operation against Iraq, has a Haille Selassie figure in the top half of the painting, a memory of the one African ruler who was not conquered as the Europeans carved up Africa, with the title referring to an archaeological site which unearthed ancient Egyptian culture. In the middle are Arab nationalists struggling to overthrow the colonial U.S. and European oppressor, and below sit two women chained atop oil cans and a pile of bananas, both items coveted by the continual devastation of Arab lands in the region.

Colescott’s critique is of course largely ignored in the West as can be seen in the mid-point “adventure” sequence in Wonder Woman 84 where the Israeli Gail Godot as Wonder Woman and the American Chris Pine team up to lay waste to an Egyptian caravan, an almost too blatant enactment of the last half decade of power relations in the region.

In Some Afterthoughts on Discovery, part of a series titled Knowledge of the Past is the Key to the Future, Colescott laid bare North American colonialism as on the left a “heroic” Christopher Columbus gazes off into history, oblivious to the lynchings, skeletons, and main figure of a black worker hobbled by the burden of carrying bales of cotton that make up the center of the work. On the left a black woman in a dress with a brilliant floral pattern, seeming to have absorbed this history, strides with pride into her own alternative future.

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Finally, in Rejected Idea for a Drostes Chocolate Advertisement, Colescott mocks the Dutch fairy tale Hans Christian Anderson trope, as two skaters in typical Dutch dress enjoy the frozen river, with only two elements out of kilter. The woman is black, surely an indication of the Dutch wealth which came largely from its exploitation of Indonesia and its other overseas colonies, and the man is exposing himself, which suggests, or rather accuses, the Dutch of a history of not only pillage but also of rape in their laying waste to their colonies, referred to also in the title as we recall that Dutch chocolate is not grown but only processed in the Netherlands which therefore profits from its final production while exploiting its growers in the colonies.

Colescott’s career and concerns show him to be an artist who contested the injunction to put aside all political content in art while greatly expanding the range of expression of Black representation. In the end he helped allow us to reimagine art history and to realign art with its persistent earlier links to an engaged political modernism. In the 1970s and ’80s, artists like Colescott restored both formally and narratively the social content to an art which had seen that content outlawed during the conservative 1950s.

For more on Colescott listen to my talk from the American University at Cairo here.

The Colescott Chronicles Part I: breaking free of the shackles of colour blindness and abstract art
Thursday, 17 June 2021 11:58

The Colescott Chronicles Part I: breaking free of the shackles of colour blindness and abstract art

Published in Visual Arts

Dennis Broe presents the first of a two-part topical study of Robert Colescott, whose politically committed art tackled issues of unequal racial and gender representation, and the history of racial exploitation and domination in the U.S.

One of the founding members of New Black Art just reaped the rewards of his painterly prowess. Robert Colescott’s monumental George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware (above) recently sold for $15.3 million and is thus far the highlight purchase of the George Lucas’ Museum of Narrative Art, scheduled to open in Los Angeles in 2023.

This was nearly 17 times what any previous Colescott painting sold for and unfortunately the artist, who died in 2009, will not reap the rewards.

The painting, which shows a ragtag band of black workers in their professions and at leisure in a ragged vessel with a patch that could at any moment spring a leak, is a satirical rendering of the 1851 staple of Americana Washington crossing the Delaware. Colescott’s humorous rendition was described by the Lucas Museum head as “racially, socially and historically charged” and “at once a contemporary and historical work of art.”

That description suits Colescott’s art as a whole, which emerges after a long and arduous journey out of the dominant mode of American painting when he entered the field, Abstract Expressionism, through his engagement with Egyptian art, and his own, sometimes hilarious, sometimes painful, observations and experience with the legacy of colonialism and racism. These insights led him to raid the treasure trove of Western art to imprint his own stamp on it in a way that was more expansion of Black representation in line with the work of artists, filmmakers and television showrunners today than simple “appropriation.”

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Colescott was born in Oakland in 1925 after a westward migration of his parents described in his painting 1919 (above). In it his mother, an African-American who identified as white, in white dress and green hat with a bow, and his father, with mixed African and Native American heritage in army fatigues bearing the mark of the Buffalo Soldier, face off on opposite sides of the country. His father was a jazz musician who was forced instead to work on the traditional Negro job as a Pullman conductor. Colescott, his mother’s favourite, as a teenager “passed” by enlisting into the army as white, fighting with a Caucasian unit in World War II. It wasn’t until an extended trip to Egypt, where he discovered a history of Black Art, that he stopped passing - denying his African-American heritage - at the same time as he definitively discontinued a flirtation with abstract art. 

A second major influence on Colescott was his study in Paris with the cubist Fernand Leger in 1949, courtesy of the G.I. Bill. After Leger returned from the U.S. after the war, he abandoned the abstract Cubist inheritance for a figurative style that was still highly stylized, with meticulous straight lines crisscrossing the composition. But the compositions themselves now incorporated some of the direct language of advertising, being stark oblongs of figures designed to be accessible to ordinary people. Leger refused to look at Colescott’s Cubist abstract renderings and instead steered the young painter toward the kind of representational exhibited in Leger’s own Construction Workers, a kaleidoscope of workers rebuilding France after the war, including an Algerian worker as a centrepiece. Colescott later reworked this motif in the American context as Hard Hats, showing the hierarchy of white American workers with black workers surrounding them and underpinning their labor.

The major change in Colescott’s work though occurred because of two sojourns in Egypt where he was confronted with 3000 years of Black Art. He was particularly enamored with the paintings in an ancient burial site in the ruins of The Valley of the Queens. These tomb murals of Nubian female royalty had figures floating freely in space everywhere surrounded with splashes of pure colour. Colescott incorporated this freedom and this concentration on the Black female form into a series he did at the time, a highlight of which is 1967’s depictions of one of these queens in Nihad in the New World, with the title suggesting his wish to transport what he learned in Egypt to the African-American context at home. The importance of Egypt to Colescott and Colescott to Egypt was acknowledged in the recent “Robert Colescott: The Cairo Years” exhibit at the American University of Cairo. My exhibition talk on Colescott is available here

Along with this immersion in a tradition of Black Art went his being thrown into the turbulence of the 1960s. First he was forced to flee Egypt because of the onset of the Arab-Israeli Six Days War, thus experiencing Middle Eastern colonialism firsthand, and then he returned to the political hotbed of San Francisco as the Vietnam War Protest and Haight Asbury counterculture reached its peak in 1968.

As Colescott made the transition from pure abstraction to a more socially and politically committed art, a journey that was not validated at the time in the art world, he was sustained by his university connections, the last place artists could find public support for their work, due to the dominance of abstract art in the gallery system.

Here though he was also thwarted. He wanted to be full time faculty at Berkeley, where he had gone to school, but was passed over for a job. He finally went to the University of Arizona at Tucson, where he became the first faculty member in the art department to receive the prestigious title of Regent’s Professor.

From Social Expressionism to Abstract Expressionism and back again

The triumph of Abstract Expressionism in the postwar 1940s and 1950s and its subsequent influence on conceptualism, minimalism, serialism etc. was accomplished at the height of the Cold War with the blessing of the CIA, and through the silencing of two other currents of modernism, the American Social Expressionists and the Mexican Muralists, both of whom retained the political thrust of earlier modernist movements.

This suppression, detailed in my book Cold War Expressionism: Perverting the Politics of Perception, subtitled Bombast, Blacklists and Blockades in the Postwar Art World, saw the work of the Popular Front artists of the 1930s and ’40s dumped on the market and sold for pennies. Their work was outlawed in the prestigious galleries which came into prominence with the decline of government support for an art of the people. What grew up alongside what the banker and later vice-president Nelson Rockefeller termed “free enterprise painting” was a privatization of visual art, was designed to be consumed by the burgeoning postwar corporate elite.

The high priest of the movement, the critic Clement Greenberg, urged artists to re-engage with “those to whom…[art] actually belongs – our ruling class.” Tom Braden made the apparently not very arduous leap from the executive secretary of the Rockefeller’s Museum of Modern Art, the temple of Abstract Expressionism, to the CIA’s director of cultural affairs. There he extolled the virtues of the new abstraction which he claimed “constituted the ideal style” now that its artists had “left behind [their] earlier interest in political activism.”

The artists themselves had mixed views about this adoption of their art where once monumental murals that expressed social struggle were replaced by large-scale abstract gaudy color schemes, such as the yellows and reds of Mark Rothko’s 1953 Untitled No 10, colours that announced the global triumph of American consumerism in works that now hung on suburban walls and in corporate lobbies.

Meanwhile, the political artists, who had been supported by the government in the New Deal 1930s were now forced into exile – for example, the artist Alice Neel, currently the subject of a retrospective at New York’s Metropolitan Museum, had to move to Spanish Harlem. There, she painted portraits of its inhabitants and grey, dingy landscapes such as Rag in Window, that expressed the loneliness of her political exile and contrasted with the productivist, corporate spirit of that other symbol of the New York landscape – the skyscraper.

Another prominent political artist, Jacob Lawrence, who described himself as an expressionist painter and whose subject matter centered on ordinary black workers, also fell on hard times and, at the height of this Cold War repression, had a mental breakdown and spent a year in an asylum. His work was scattered to the four winds and a recent painting, ironically of farmers contesting the power of the government in Shay’s Rebellion as part of the series “The American Struggle,” has recently been recovered after it was passed around and sold at a charity art auction.

The other suppressed movement prominent in this period, which Colescott when he came out as Social Expressionist would have affinities towards, was that of the Mexican Muralists, and particularly in the 1950s and ’60s the work and path of David Alfaro Siqueiros. The movement vied for renown with the Abstract Expressionists at the 1950 Venice Biennale. It was a triumph and then toured Europe where it was finally savaged by French critics – with American backing – and re-confined to Mexico. It didn’t re-surface in the American consciousness until last year’s thoroughgoing reexamination at New York’s Whitney Museum in the wake of which it was claimed the Mexican Muralist’s were more important as influences on American modernism than French artists.

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Siqueiros was one of the first to represent the female Mexican indigenous body in a corporeal way, in for example 1924’s Peasant Mother. That might have sensitized Colescott in his later representation of many shades of African and African-American female bodies, most notably in his 1986 Picasso takeoff Les Demoiselles d’Alabama (above). Colescott, who had watched Diego Rivera’s painting of a mural of the Golden Gate Bridge, also had in common with Siqueiros the journey to Egypt where in ’65 Siqueiros declared himself to be in favour of the non-aligned movement in an extended stay in Nasser’s Egypt.

Colescott himself satirized the gallery-collector system of privatized and marketized or commodified art in his work Tea for Two (below)Colescott appears as himself, a hip black artist in checkerboard pants, leaning languidly on the fireplace of an affluent home. The artist knows what sells, how to brand himself, and how to appeal to the sexualized white female rich collector who gazes at him. The curlicue wafting of the artist’s cigarette and the tea is picked up in the abstract designs on the canvas the artist is peddling. A black servant delivers the tea, highlighting the structure of racial inequality that underpins the entire arrangement. 

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Colescott’s work in breaking free of the legacy of Abstract Expressionism, detailed in Part II (to come), would be a sustained challenge to the still formidable injunction that art should properly remain silent on the world’s increasingly more violent devastation under a form of capitalism where greed knows no bounds; or that art’s sole role must be confined to obscure and wry comments on its place in a certain highly limited and reified area of commodity exchange. In the 1980s and 90s Colescott would move beyond Tea for Two to take on wider issues of unequal racial and gender representation and to put on display the ways the U.S. postcolonial system was built on a history of racial exploitation and domination. 

Wanted's Women on the Run
Wednesday, 26 May 2021 10:30

Varieties of working-class women: Wanted, Bitter Daisies and Mare of Easttown

Dennis Broe discusses various depictions of working-class women in Wanted, Bitter Daisies, and Mare of Easttown

In large parts of the world anywhere between 50 and 70 percent of women are now actively engaged in the workplace, with most earning less than men and many performing the essential service and caring jobs that keep their societies running. This doesn’t include the nearly 100 percent of women whose domestic labour is unpaid and whose work in all the activities of reproduction (childrearing, cooking, cleaning) is still officially labelled ‘unproductive’.

Three series from across the globe, all falling into the crime genre, spotlight the ways working-class women make sense of the world and contend with a patriarchy which everywhere besets them. Wanted (Netflix) from Australia features two women who meet by chance and must take flight together in a version of Thelma and Louise that is much more class-conscious than the original. Bitter Daisies (Netflix) follows a police investigator as she burrows ever deeper into a sex ring that exposes the layers of male violence in the desolate Spanish province of Galicia. And, finally, Mare of Easttown (HBO/Sky Atlantic) presents the dense web of familial and social relationships in a Pennsylvania ex-mining town, centered around an anything-but star turn by Kate Winslet as a cop trying to solve the murder of a young girl in the town while keeping her family together.

Wanted’s Women on the Run

The set-up for Wanted is exquisite. Lola is an aging cashier who has no love for her menial job, sassing her employer and walking off the job when she feels like it. Chelsea is a young accountant at a corporate firm with a rich father who longs to assert herself in a job in which she remains faceless. They cross each other because both wait at an otherwise deserted bus station each midnight but would have never spoken except that they suddenly find themselves in the middle of a drug deal gone wrong involving a crooked cop.

In defending them Lola proves adept with a gun, resulting in a death and necessitating them fleeing together with the money from the drug deal, pursued by both the dealers and the police who are also in on the deal. The series, on Australian independent television, lasted three seasons – it was hoped Netflix would pick it up for a fourth but it did not – and over those three seasons the show highlighted various kinds and degrees of corrupt cops, mostly male but finally in the last season also a female corrupt cop who ultimately proves to be understanding of their situation.

The actual subject of the series is the relationship forged between the adamantly working- class Lola, whose family is no stranger to Australian prisons, and the privileged Chelsea who longs to break out of a patterned luxurious life that she simply inherited and that ultimately confines and limits her. Lola is ingenious at manoeuvring in the margins of the law, while Chelsea proves herself adept at manipulating a financial system which is set against them.

In each of the three seasons there is a moment at the end of the season where they acknowledge what they mean to each other. The series is touchingly about a difficult friendship forged in the midst of an impossible situation where each comes to admire the gifts of the other while accepting their faults.

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Thelma and Louise was a first blow in the direction of female friendship formed through a challenging of the patriarchy, where the open road offered a vision of freedom, though it didn’t stress class differences and ended in tragedy as the only possible ending for such an encounter. In contrast, Wanted ends its three-season run on a tragic note involving Chelsea but with the two together and finding solitude in the beaches of Southern Australia while securing the deserved gains of their adventure. That they find solace together and don’t need to go over a cliff is an acknowledgement within the genre that the outlook for female emancipation has changed. It is now a more than a remote possibility and with #MeToo the potential for fulfillment may be increasing both in the crime genre and in the world at large.

Bitter Daisies and Establishment male power in the sex trade  

Bitter Daisies is set in the rough northwest province in Spain of Galicia, known for hosting the Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage across its mountainous terrain. The native Galego language is spoken in this series about a “newbie” female detective sent to the town by the Guardia Civil to solve the disappearance of a young girl against the background of the pope’s visit to the faithful. The detective Rosa follows a trail that leads to several murders in what appears to be a Jeffrey Epstein, Eyes Wide Shut ring involving at the lower level in the first season several of the men of the town. Rosa’s investigation is a way of exposing the web of male power that leaves the town’s young women as prey, and there is even at least a hint that the pope, whose visit delays and obscures the investigation because of the commotion, is tacitly a part of that male power. The first season also centers around a prostitution nightclub and Rosa’s forays into it in disguise have a prurient element but also partake of a Spanish, Almodovaresque flair for costuming and sex as female power.

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Rosa proves herself an able detective in her pursuit of the underlings who connive and murder to arrange and then clean up a debauched “party” for the region’s elite. Rosa is driven by a personal loss and a mystery that she is attempting to unearth and that may be related to the larger mystery. It is the subject of the ‘bitter daisies’ of the title which show up at what seems to be a burial site. The series is particularly adept at unearthing the layers of corruption engulfing the region and obscuring her investigation. One final reveal at the end of season one, where the lead female’s mental condition evokes and then far outstrips that of the counter-intelligence agent in Homefront, is entirely unnecessary and an arbitrary impugning of her skills.

The show became a global hit, reaching a place in the Top Ten most watched non-English language shows in the U.K. The second season promised the detective returning to the area and this time investigating the actual web of elite men of the region who are participants in the sex ring involving young girls. The budget is bigger in season two, culminating in a lavish crowded party scene in the finale. The problem is hypocrisy: in the second season the tendency toward titillation, evident in the first season, continually vies for attention with a condemnation of this exploitation.

There is a particular scene in which a young B&D Spanish mistress, who in order to pile on the fetishized layers also dresses in a kimono and goes by the Asian name of Huichi, when the detective leaves after questioning her, lingers in her dungeon, flexing her whip and glaring at the camera. Who is this for if not the men (and women?) in the audience to enjoy the same kind of practices that the show accuses the rich and powerful of engaging in? The season culminates in an apocalyptic party scene which is again a combination of exploitation/revenge which speaks to male and female audiences in those two respective registers. In general, though, the exploration of a net of power relations in season two falls prey itself, ironically, to a need to grab global (male) audiences.

The season focuses again mainly on the functionaries arranging the fete, though there is significant attention paid to the young women who are to be the victims of it. This focus for the most part conceals the identities of those masked exploiters at the party, and so much of the critique of season one instead of being deepened is blunted. Nevertheless, the series is a valiant stab at representing the layers of male privilege dominating not only the region but extending, through the web of young East European women gathered for the saturnalia, across the continent. This dominance of West European masculine power extends to the British and American world as well, in a Jeffrey Epstein-like web. 

Mare of Easttown and intimate crime

Kate Winslet’s Mare is a sodden, downtrodden cop from solid and now decaying Scotch-Irish stock in a place that is less a suburb of Philadelphia – its actual location – than an embittered ex-mining town in the dried-up Allentown region whose mines have long since ceased to function. Mare’s family consists of her mother (an equally sodden turn from the veteran television actress Jean Smart), her lesbian daughter who is haunted by the demise of her brother and who may escape the town, and an adopted boy of mysterious origins. Right next door, lives her ex who, if that’s not torture enough, is about to be blissfully remarried.

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Mare is an excellent cop who uses her knowledge of the town and her relations in it, both direct and indirect, to solve crimes. No one is above suspicion in the death of a young girl, not the local priest who refuses to talk about why he was relocated to Mare’s parish, the father of the dead girl’s son, or even the once honoured writer (Guy Pearce) who is now a dried-up professor at the local college who courts Mare. What gives the series its breadth and depth is Mare and the other characters’ display of raw emotions in this desolate working-class setting, where each struggles to find soothing words rather than fists or inflammatory rhetoric to express themselves.

This battle to throw off inarticulateness is manifest most strongly in Mare who gives way to bull-headed decisions to protect those around her and keep what is hers, but who constantly is pulled in the direction in spite of herself of caring for those near her and for the welfare of her community as a whole. This is one of the best American series on the toll that the lack of economic opportunity has taken on working-class lives, with those in Easttown struggling to keep their heads above water as they watch those around them drowning.

The general reaction of the American critics, before the mystery swung into high gear, was that the series was a bore, that Kate Winslet let herself wallow in mediocre material, a reaction that was less critical opinion than disdain for any series that treats working-class life with the seriousness it deserves.

A final note. It seems odd that this ultimately working-class series stars the English actress Kate Winslet and the Australian actor Guy Pearce – but perhaps not so strange, since each comes from a culture which is much more conscious of class differences than that of the U.S.

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