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.

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

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

Published in Visual Arts

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

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

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

DBroe nantes

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

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

DBroe nantes elephant images

 

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

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

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

DBroe nantes museum

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

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

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

DB memorial

 

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

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

Horror, horror everywhere - and not just the election result
Saturday, 10 December 2016 16:01

Horror, horror everywhere - and not just the election result

Published in Films

Dennis Broe discerns a renewal of energy in the tired old formulae of the horror film, as film-makers draw on the horrors of everyday life under an ever more destructive, greedier capitalism.

Any assessment of the best films of 2016, as critics around this time of the year are wont to do, has to take account of the new power of traditional genres to illuminate contemporary truths.

I’m talking particularly about the Korean horror film the Last Train To Busan, a zombie thriller whose subtext is the horror of neoliberal life and its stifling of all collective feeling; The Witch, as good a film as has ever been made about the way a particular brand of fervent Puritanism continues to inflect and infect the American psyche; and the upcoming Brimstone, a Dutch film set in the American West which uses elements of horror in its perennial battle between a woman’s desire and a stifling and violent macho culture, justified under a kind of religious and military fanaticism that predominates in the history of the Western.

This is not even to mention Don’t Breathe where the horror of the contemporary American urban nightmare of under or non-funded inner cities is metastasized into a battle in Detroit between urban raiders taking advantage of the situation and a Iraqi war vet whose sadism is the detritus of the US Middle East colonial wars, and the related reviving of the disaster genre, distant cousin to horror, in the blockbuster crossing of it with the contemporary social problem film in Deepwater Horizon, so that just when British Petroleum thought it was safe to go back into the world’s waters we have the nightmare they inflicted on Louisiana retold as a corporate disaster on the scale of Earthquake, Poseidon Adventure and Towering Inferno.

It really is not surprising that in today’s world horror is a genre that draws directors. What is different is that, globally, a good number of these films are moving beyond the splatter aspect of the genre and into more sophisticated dystopian imaginings of contemporary events. Where horror in the first decade of the millennium was defined by the Hollywood splat pack epitomized by Saw where sadistic effect is piled upon sadistic effect in a reflexivity or consciousness about the genre that substituted gore for the comic sophistication of Wes Craven’s Scream, and by reactionary pieces such as Hostel where the other of the American empire, the strangeness of life outside the neo-liberal order, was villainized. The one film worth remembering from the whole lot was Cabin Fever which cast a negative light on the now no longer innocent band of privileged teens previously in the genre only victims but in this film also victimizers.

Humanity does appear to be at an impasse in a number of areas. There seems to be no real will to stop global warming as energy companies become more and more vicious in their pursuit of profit, seen currently in the unleashing of dogs on peaceful protestors in land of the Lakota. There are more and more areas of the globe simply written off as no longer profit centers and with people in those areas being offered only right-wing demagoguery or Trumpisms as an alternative. And finally, neoliberal governing mechanisms, nominally called democratic, everywhere being exposed as simply under the command of a global oligarchy with the processes incapable of producing anything like true representatives of the people. 58% of the electorate in the US viewed unfavourable the two puerile mouthpieces who recently contested the presidency.

In this increasingly catastrophic world, along comes the most important representative of the new political horror Korea with the resplendent Last Train to Busan, a zombie film for the neoliberal age. It is unlike The Walking Dead, whose subtext is simply how to manage the empire in the wake of its personal catastrophe of 9/11 – how much violence does one use to subdue the world’s population of zombies who are sleepwalking through existence? Here, the film’s virus that causes the zombie breakout throughout the world, and specifically on a single train, is tied to nuclear radiation leaks, recalling nearby Fukushima, the winds from which must have affected the neighbouring island of Korea.

The penetration of nature by these deadly manmade energy sources is forecast in a truly frightening and wondrous opening where a deer, become roadkill by a pig farmer, rises reborn as a creature of the dead, as so much of nature is now stillborn. On the train we witness the force of the zombies penetrating every strata of society, but two business types stand out.

The lead character is a financial manager, on the train with the daughter he often neglects, who is reborn as a human being in the course of helping others in combatting the outbreak. In contrast the most vicious of the zombie-battlers is a corporate CEO who sacrifices everyone in his single minded desire to stay alive, utterly devoid of all fellow feeling, as accurate a depiction of the neoliberal ethos as has been rendered on screen.

The train hurtles toward Busan, the site of one of the major battles of the Korean War, and it is here in the finale that the human survivors of the zombie attack are met with a line of soldiers recalling the primal trauma on the island of a war inflicted on it by the great powers. Though the city has been remade as a global production capital, Busan for Koreans still bears the scars of those never healed wounds.

The film is in the line of two earlier Korean horror-disaster films, The Host, concerning a seaside city menaced by a aqueous monster begot in the labs of the still occupying American army and Snowpiercer, a dystopian fable about the wages of climate change which this film acknowledges by the former film’s lead appearing on the zombie train, broken down and in tatters, muttering over and over “We’re all dead.”

Busan is contemporaneous with another Korean horror film, The Stranger, where horrible murders in a village are tied to a Japanese recluse who haunts the countryside long after the end of the brutal Japanese colonial period.

Why the mastery of these genres in contemporary Korea? For one, the Korean cinema is duplicating its role as trendsetter in Asian television by challenging Western distribution in Asia with extravagant genre films with a regional bent. But the force and vociferousness of these generic creations owes much to the horrors in Korean history – the Japanese occupation, the Korean War, the South Korean dictatorship, and the current inability to reunite the island – and the willingness of Korean directors to transmute this tragedy into a form in the horror and disaster film in which it can be contemplated. This has energized genres that had atrophied, partly from becoming too shielded from the social world.

And Hollywood is following suit. Don’t Breathe utilizes the ravaging of Detroit as subtext for its intimate horror, inside the last house inhabited on a block destroyed by the city’s debt, which has been foisted on it by its banks. The film recalls Wes Craven’s resplendent People Under the Stairs of a quarter of a century ago when the devastation wrecked on the inner city of Philadelphia is seen from the inside by its black inhabitants as fueled in a horror mansion by a sado-masochistic Caucasian Mommy and Daddy who torture the neighborhoods downcast.

Craven in his social attitudes follows a line in the horror film that dates back to WW2 impresario Val Lewton whose nine horror films, including Cat People, a branding of the Serbian female other and The Leopard Man, which materializes the horror of Latino treatment in the US, together present a savage critique of American normalcy. Craven’s The Serpent and the Rainbow in its treatment of Haitian voodoo as desperate cry of a former colonial downcast people recalls directly Lewton’s I Walked With a Zombie where the horror of a Caribbean island is tied to its history as a sugarcane plantation.

Don’t Breathe, in the Lewton/Craven line is a well-drawn, basically single set-piece where the trauma inflicted on the city is reflected in equal measure by the young housebreakers who are attempting to flee and the blind war vet who has lost his daughter, but who reenacts his pain in the most violent of ways, a reversal of Audrey Hepburn’s victimized blind woman in Wait Until Dark.

The new and important wrinkle in all of these films is the contemporary social setting that grounds the film and lets in and references directly the horrors of the modern global capitalist world. Thus in Don’t Breathe we get a montage of the deserted houses on the same block as the one the intruders are attacking. This element of social reality is even more strongly at play in Deepwater in the interpolation of an almost fetishistic recreation of life on board the Deepwater Horizon just before and after the disaster, including featuring and naming the members of the crew who will become victims of BP’s drive for profits, as a cagily evil John Malkovich, instead of his usual over-the-top villainous persona, refuses safety tests and pushes the drilling that results in the spill. Just as Don’t Breathe cuts to a variety of shots of devastated Detroit, so too Deepwater contains a series of shots which describe the awesome destruction, a true attack on nature, of deepwater drilling where the earth is pounded in ways it cannot sustain.

These films constitute a global change in renewing tired generic formulas by investing in them the horrors of daily life under an ever more destructive and ever greedier capitalism.

 

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