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.

Stories of the Lust for Profit in 2021: the Year in Global Streaming
Monday, 20 December 2021 18:35

Stories of the Lust for Profit in 2021: the Year in Global Streaming

This year’s Top 40 Serial TV Series unfolds against a background of continually rising inequality. Thomas Piketty (Capital in the 21st Century) and company released their figures charting global disparities exacerbated by Covid, this was front page news in Le Monde and ignored in the U.S.

Billionaires have captured much more of the global wealth since the onset of Covid and part of the increase in profits is from that enormous moneymaker, the streaming services, expected to generate $70 billion in revenue in 2021 with almost half of all of the global profits going to U.S. streamers.

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Meanwhile, the wealthiest 10 percent own 76 percent of the riches of the world while the bottom 50 percent own only 2 percent. It is the wealthy group that also leads in the destruction of the world through the carbon emissions that sustain its extravagant lifestyle. The most unequal level of emissions being in North America where the same 10 percent are responsible for approximately 75 percent of the pollution that is killing the Earth, while the bottom 50 percent are responsible for only about 10 percent of emissions.

The need to produce constant weekly product to match streaming competitors reached a level of frenzy this year to the point where the pressure put on industry workers resulted in even a traditionally sweetheart union like the IATSE sanctioning a strike. In addition, movie producer and star Alec Baldwin shot a camerawoman who was a IATSE activist, possibly because of the hiring of props and arms personnel with little or no experience in order to hasten production.

Stories of the lust for profit

Three parables illustrate the nature of this profit lust, heightened by the persistent presence of the virus, which has once again accentuated the drive to streaming.

The first story involves what used to be what Theodor Adorno termed “a mark of suffering,” now reduced to simple branding as the level of daily commodification also reaches new heights. Netflix’s reality series Coming Out Colton pretends to be the painful story of Colton Underwood, the NFL linebacker turned star of ABC’s The Bachelor – a heterosexual Cinderella fantasy which two seasons ago starred Colton as the prince.

Colton acknowledged, after the fact, that he is gay, and thus that the whole season, and perhaps the whole idea of the show, was a farce. In the Netflix series, Colton “comes out” to his parents but does it on-camera in a way that is, rather than an authentic moment, just a step in his further enlistment under the rubric of the star-making machine.

The most cynical aspect of the show though involves the use of the series by Netflix to take a swipe at one of the biggest moneymakers of its streaming rival Disney, which owns ABC where The Bachelor has been one of its major hits. The pain of the homosexual experience and the joy of its normalization thus both take a back seat to personal aggrandizement and industry competition. Netflix is using the documentary to attempt to show up the populist simplicity of the network while calling attention to its own supposed sophistication, while actually simply showing the cutthroat nature of the business.

The second revelation also involves Disney, which recently hired Geoff Morrell as the new guardian of its image and public relations. The Disney family brand has been built on ferociously concealing any of the contradictions that arise in the entertainment industry, with the former guardian Zenia Mucha nicknamed “mother crocodile” and “director of revenge.”

Morrell, her replacement, is currently working with British Petroleum, trying to burnish its image after the Deepwater Horizon spill which devastated the Louisiana Gulf Coast environment and economy. His previous position was as Pentagon Press Secretary in charge of promoting and putting a smiling face on the illegal, unlawful and murderous U.S. invasion of Iraq.

This hiring thus casts in concrete the military-industrial-entertainment complex, with Morrell now keeping the Disney skeletons in the closet just as he has done for the polluter BP and the Pentagon war criminals. With an ex-Pentagon employee now fronting for Disney, it’s difficult not to compare the way the U.S. dominates the streaming industry with the way it dominates the weapons – or rather war – industry with the U.S. defense budget greater than that of the next 11 countries combined. And the problem is China?!

The third item shows up the lie, perpetuated by both the Obama and Trump presidencies, that the industrial economy is returning to the West. Since the announcement of the Disney Plus streaming service, that is the move of entertainment to a symbolic, virtual or digital economy, the company has generated more worth on the stock market than Ford or General Motors, the former engines of the U.S. growth.

Is there hope within this bleak news? Yes, indubitably, there were a number of series this year which rose above their labels and companies and either struck blows aimed at illuminating social problems – my Top 20 – or with supreme competence told compelling stories in serial form – my 10 honorable mentions.

I also mention those who rose – or rather sunk – to the level of 5 worst with a bonus wurst. All of the series mentioned are culled from the 135 series I watched this year, from 13 countries, spanning the globe to find those gems which contradict the general trend towards ever more meaningless and more frenzied frivolity and fiddling, while the planet burns or is consumed in a either a nuclear holocaust or a viral apocalypse.

Top 20

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Dopesick/The Crime of the CenturyDopesick, the fictional series, documents the spread of Oxycontin in the Appalachian population, a group of workers that will become redundant as coal disappears and are now consigned to death by overdose. Michael Keaton is particularly effective as a country doctor who could have become a Disney-type “wise old salt” but who instead undergoes a painful metamorphosis. Meanwhile, two dogged state prosecutors attempt to sound the alarm while the Sackler scion first pushes the drug and in a final cowardly act attempts to remove the family wealth from any financial liability.

Alex Gibney’s two-part doc, on the creation in pharmaceutical labs of Oxycontin and its even more deadly cousin Fentanyl, follows with almost fictional intensity the two creators as they market their deadly product, concerned only with their own profit margins.

Goliath Season 4 – The last season for this series, about an alcoholic but crusading lawyer played impeccably by Billy Bob Thornton. It’s short on the personal peccadillos of the character, which became a drag in seasons 2 and 3, and long on his struggle to bring a drug company again in the Sackler/Purdue Pharma vein to task. David E. Kelly’s trademark courtroom reversals and heroics here are in the service of proving that the drug company was not in the business of easing pain but rather, as Thornton’s lawyer claims, in the much more profitable business of “promoting addiction.”  

The White Lotus – The pilot of this series about privileged tourists lavishing and lording it over still-colonized Hawaiian natives was the best hour of television this season. It featured a pregnant worker in the hotel forced to give birth in a back office because she was afraid to leave her job for fear of being fired, while a honeymoon couple complain about not getting the best suite. There was never anything as powerful as the first hour, but Mike White’s HBO series still unerringly kept the focus on race and class disparities in a way that may force other series to foreground these tensions and that showed up series (eg Nine Perfect Strangers) that didn’t.

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Thin Ice, battle for the Arctic 

Thin Ice – This Swedish series, available on Amazon Prime, set at a climate conference in Greenland, was the best political thriller of the year. It centers on the exploitation of the Arctic as a way of profiting from global warming. The series cannily encompasses the indigenous question in Greenland, Danish profiting from its control over the land mass, and Russian, U.S. and Nordic jockeying for position to mine the area and control its seaways. The series initially focuses on Russia as the threat to Arctic harmony, but by the end works its way around to the greater threat as we recall Donald Trump’s offer to “just buy Greenland.”

Tandav – This Indian series from Amazon, unlike fluff like Mira Nair’s Netflix outing A Suitable Boy, begins with a farmers’ strike in Delhi at the moment when farmers were actually in the street protesting the Indian premier Modi’s attempt to make their life more onerous, so they would collapse and be absorbed by Indian agribusiness. The police – two roly-poly seemingly comic figures – then massacre the demonstrators while in the upper echelons of Indian society a palace coup brings a conniving son to power. It’s a critique of Modi-style neoliberalism that was rivalled in the film department by Netflix’s equally vicious The White Tiger.  

Pros and Cons – This Danish series, available on Amazon Prime, follows the exploits of two scam artists, Eric and Nina, who give up the game and instead go straight, only to find that their jobs either pay little or involve necessary sexual liaisons to get ahead. Overwhelmed with the daily pressure of making ends meet, they decide to return to scamming as the only way to partake of any of the wealth that they see all around them. It’s as good a representation of the desperation of the Western capitalist working class as television allows, and a nicely done series of reversals as they strike pharmaceutical and cosmetics companies who are in the business themselves of scamming their customers.

Wanted/The Unusual Suspects – Two female revenge series from Australia, the first available on Netflix, the second on Hulu. Wanted is a more advanced Thelma and Louise which emphasizes the class differences between two women on the run and the patriarchal web they are snared in as they are pursued by drug kingpins and corrupt cops. The second focuses on the high-end relationships between gated community privileged wives and their maids, as the two discover they have more in common then they think – both are left high and dry by men who cheat them. The Unusual Suspects is also revealing about how much of the contemporary landscape is simply an advanced Ponzi scheme, not just fraying at the edges but collapsing at the centre.  

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Germinal in the time of Striketober 

Germinal – In this year of Striketober and of Starbucks and Amazon unionizing, this French series, available on Amazon Prime, masterfully refashions Zola’s quintessential tale of a mining strike in a way that casts a long shadow over today’s corporate landscape. The grey palette and earthily complex depiction of the strike, largely from the workers’ perspective, returns this series to what the French do best, a recounting of their own history in the line of the greatest of French series Un Village Française, and in direct contradiction to the airy transparency of their celebrated series Call My Agent (Ten Percent) and Spiral (Engrenage).

For Life – Season 2 of this ABC series began with a bang as Aaron Wallace won his release from prison where he, like many Black men, was incarcerated for a crime he did not commit. The show then falters as it focuses on the personal relationship between Wallace and his wife but picks up momentum and becomes a series for the ages as it incorporates two events. The first is the concealing of Covid deaths in prisons which turn, because of the inattention and rapid spread of the virus, from detention cells to slaughterhouses. The second has prosecutor Wallace pursuing and placing on trial a cop in a Black Lives Matter plot that illustrates that Serial TV can tackle current issues with urgency. This belies the usual use of the form to surround viewers with ever more hyper-mediatic and slick modes of endless referentiality. The reward for this trailblazing? The series was cancelled.

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Kate Winslet's character Mare, confronting capitalist devastation of a community

Mare of Easttown – Kate Winslet was astonishingly authentic in this HBO series about Winslet’s detective, tracking a murderer and also confronted with the decaying situation of an American rust-belt working class-community, left for dead in a Pennsylvania ex-mining and manufacturing town. The thickness of the web of relationships, both familial and communal, that Winslet’s character encounters suggests that those relationships have not been entirely torn asunder by the economic devastation wrecked on them by American capital’s flight to where it can extract lower wages. Jean Smart’s cynical but ultimately caring and supportive mother was another revelation of this series.   

The Labyrinth of Peace – This series is the proud product of German, Swiss and French public TV, now on Netflix. It charts the aftermath of World War II in Switzerland as a group of young Jewish refugees arrive in the country, welcomed in not for any authentic humanitarian purpose but because they will help ease the “public relations” problem of the country’s close connection through its “neutral” banking system with the Nazi hierarchy. Astounding contradictions abound in this stunning publicly financed answer to much private streaming mediocrity.

The Wonder Years – This ABC series, masterfully written by Saladin K. Patterson, while posing as a simple remake of the ’80s show effect expands the range of content the sitcom is capable of handling. Set in 1968, the show, about a Black middle-class family, is alive with all of the tensions of that era. The lead teenage boy’s father is a Black Nationalist, his brother is a soldier in the Vietnam War and his sister, is part debutante but also part budding Black Panther supporter who trades her SAT study manual for Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul On Ice. The pilot, skillfully directed by the ’80s series lead actor Fred Savage, has a black-white baseball feud interrupted by the murder of Martin Luther King in a crossing of the typical teen coming of age story with a tale about the dawning of political consciousness.

Clean Break –This Irish series, streaming on Acorn, methodically traces the increasing desperation and inability to alter his situation except through crime of a bankrupt car dealership owner whose upright, moralistic banker keeps tightening the screws on him and enjoying his misery. The small businessman’s bad decisions and the corruption of all those around him describe a world where class contradictions are so acute as to make life impossible for all but those few who control the purse strings.

Reservation Dogs – New Zealand Maori Taika Waititi’s fractured sense of humor and pathos, so evident in the wonderful exposure of the ignorance of xenophobia in Jojo Rabbit, guides this tale of four Native American teens on a res they are desperate to leave but that keeps calling them to stay through its own little miracles. A Sioux warrior who helped vanquish Custer keeps appearing to one of them, a local cop calls the soda machine dispensing sugar to sedate them “white man’s bullets,” and, in a stunning fantasy, the boy Bear’s mother imagines the local Anglo doctor as the master of an Indian plantation with her as one of the slaves. Small moments accumulate in this touching, tender and witty description of the pain and triumph of reservation life today.

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Snowpiercer rails against Elon Musks 

Snowpiercer Season 2 – Sophomore outing of this Bong Joon-ho (Parasite) series, about a train with the last survivors on earth after a climate catastrophe, which picks up after a revolution led by Daveed Diggs’ Detroit detective has overthrown the rigid class structure of the vehicle. Arriving to re-introduce capitalist discipline is Sean Bean’s Mr. Wilford, a neoliberal Richard Branson/Elon Musk type whose contempt for equality drips from every corner of his mouth onto his fur coat. The season shows the savagery that underlies the cult of the contemporary CEO and couldn’t be more relevant with Musk himself, who boasted about the coup in Bolivia to secure lithium for his company and was named Time magazine’s Man of the Year.

Bob Hearts Abishola Season 2/The Kominsky Method Season 3 – CBS mainstay Chuck Lorre’s best work in years is on these two series. The first continues to recount the middle-aged relationship of a sock executive and a Nigerian nurse in a way that expands on what in season one was an often too sit-com cliched presentation of the Nigerian world. In this season the loneliness of Kimi, played by series co-creator Gina Yashere, Abishola’s best friend, in a white world not of her making, comes touchingly to the forefront. The last season of The Kominsky Method, a sit-com about aging, is fittingly about death as two characters come to an end and as Michael Douglas’ acting coach struggles with the finality of life in a way that is still often achingly funny.

Home Before Dark Season 2 – This series about a pre-teen crusading journalist in its sophomore outing has Hilde tackling a company that has for years polluted her Washington state town and that affects her relationship with her grandfather directly. In this moment of the battle to keep Julian Assange from being turned over to the blindness of U.S. justice for the crime of revealing the empire’s secrets, this series is again a refreshing fictional reminder of what journalism can be. It is also a riposte to Apple’s mammoth-budget celebration of the banality of the form in The Morning Show.

Back to life Season 2 – Second season of this Daisy (Episodes) Haggard BBC series, streaming on Showtime, has Mimi, having returned from prison, this time pursued by the sadistic police chief who is the father of the friend she unwittingly victimized. The show covers ground initially mapped out on the Sundance series Rectify but with Haggard’s humor intact as she battles to be recognized as someone who has paid her debt in an unforgiving and narrow-minded society.

Bitter Daisies – The second season of this Netflix series about a woman fighting back and trying to expose the systematic male power and brutality of a Galician town in Spain culminates in an Eyes Wide Shut “party” that results in a final revenge for multiple young and underage women exploited in a Ghislaine Maxwell/Jeffrey Epstein mode. Season two does partly show a voyeuristic “pleasure” in this forced copulation but its sharper edge still echoes forcefully. In so doing it points out how another Spanish Netflix hit Money Heist, which began on Spanish TV with so much potential, has in the initial episodes of its final season substituted an ever-accelerating series of ever more meaningless shocks for what was initially a populist fantasy about returning wealth to the people.  

C.B. Strike – The heart of this series, based on the J. K. Rowling novels, is the relationship between the hobbling detective Strike and his one-time secretary, now partner, Robin. The intrigues, often involving the crimes of state officials or wealthy families, take a back seat in the series to Robin’s slow and painful coming to grips with the realization that the comfortable life offered to her by her corporate partner and soon-to-be husband does not make her happy. This lifestyle of the rich and privileged begins to exact more and more a burden on her as the series progresses and as she begins to question its value. A quandary that those still fortunate enough to have a job find themselves in today.  

The Chair – Sandra Oh, the put-upon government agent in Killing Eve, is even more harried here as the newly appointed chair of a liberal arts English department that is, like most liberal arts disciplines, left for dead, supplanted by technical and business programs. The focus here is more on “woke” student culture and its challenge to aging professors, but the highlight of the series is an appearance by David Duchovny as himself, playing an arrogant Hollywood “author” who supposes that academia is now simply another form of entertainment. It suggests that the neoliberalizing of the university has in fact resulted in it becoming just another receptacle for the detritus of pop culture.  

Honourable Mentions

Comfortable as opposed to challenging TV but nevertheless worth a look:

Kung Fu – Particularly strong in this CW martial arts series, streaming on HBO Max, was episode 5 which dealt with Asian bashing in the wake of Trump’s Chinese COVID panic. The final moment where the traditionally conservative mother and restaurant owner is converted to activism, offering herself up to be arrested to save an African-American protestor, has a particular frisson.

Big Sky – The first half of this David E. Kelly ABC series was a stunning reversal of the usual powerlessness of the serial killer plot, with combinations of women of mixed races and sexual orientations fighting back. The second arc, involving the decaying head of a Montana ranch, was also powerful but by the second season the show had fallen into a more simplified “twisty” tale that moved the series from groundbreaking to comfort TV, from a challenging series to one that is a guilty pleasure.  

Burden of Truth Season 4 – A revival for this Canadian series (streaming on Hulu) as former corporate lawyer Joanna defends a Native American woman who wages a lone battle against a mining company which plans to lay waste the town as her fellows urge her to take the money and run. The indigenous element enlivens multiple plot lines on the series and gives it its raison d’être.

Resident Alien – An alien apocalypse comedy set in small-town Colorado, streaming on YouTube, where the most endearing relationship is between the alien doctor (Firefly’s Alan Tudyk), sent to destroy the earth, and his Native American nurse/office administrator who teaches him what it means to be human, or rather, that all humans are not evil.

WandaVision – Most inventive Marvel series, streaming on Disney Plus, with the whole history of the sit com encompassed in its several episodes, a marvel of set design that still could have resounded more if it had increased the emphasis on the eerie emptiness of the form.

The Vampires of Midland – Russian Dracula series, available on Vimeo, that rather than focus on the decadence of the genre in the now departed Anne Rice Lestat mode, instead, in a very Russian manner, centers on the warmth of all generations of a vampire family which has ceased feasting on humans, but which is now prey to a predatory mercantile world surrounding them.

The Last Socialist ArtefactThe Music Man meets Eisenstein’s Strike in this Croatian series, streaming on the French service Salto, about two bumbling “entrepreneurs” who attempt to restore a factory and a town long-since given up for dead as part of the de-industrialization of Eastern Europe.

Biohackers Season 2 – The waters muddy a bit in this second outing for the Netflix German series, initially exploring the underside of biogenetic engineering with last season’s scientist/professor/villainess enlisted by Mia, the student who took her down, against an even more powerful and ruthless foe, the private financier of a pharmaceutical empire.

The Upshaws – This Netflix series is a refreshing throwback to Black working-class sitcoms like Sanford and Son and very alive with the self-deprecating but sustaining humor of its lead couple, a mechanic and a nurse battling to better themselves.

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We are all The Walking Dead

The Walking Dead Season 11 – Dynamite action opening of this last season of the perennial cable ratings leader has the newly returned Maggie leading a raid for supplies in an underground lair of the sleeping dead who, of course, waken. Final seasons, let alone an 11th season, are difficult to sustain (just ask the creators of the overblown last season of Game of Thrones) but this one does it with its perpetual focus on the characters even as we watch successive invasions of oxy and fentanyl plus COVID and its variants turn hollowed out Western “democracies” into zombie apocalypses that each day make the show less of a fantasy and more of a documentary.

The 5 Worst Series

Rutherford Falls – Comedy which gets the set-up completely wrong as Ed Helms (a little bit of him went a long way on The Office) instead of being the Anglo oppressor of the Native American community becomes instead their defender. A chance for first rate satire muffed and turned into ridiculous sentimentality.

Bloodlands – Psychotically reactionary BBC tripe from the network which brought you the equally conservative The Bodyguard and Line of Duty. What starts out as a twisty mystery, circles back on itself and moves insufferably to a cynical conclusion which poses as “ambiguous.” Equally reprehensible was the BBC’s Time which regurgitated the worst prison cliches about guards who are victims of vicious prisoners without a thought about the cruelty of the system itself.

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Nine Perfectly Boring Strangers

Nine Perfect Strangers – In light of the spotlighting of class tensions in the multi-character The White Lotus, this David E. Kelly series, which sets out to spoof retreat centres, seems instead a highly irrelevant, retrograde way of simply restoring a fixation on their privileged clientele.

ChapelwaiteThe Shining meets Moby Dick as Adrien Brody’s retired sea captain is haunted by and haunts a New England seafaring village. The floor of the old house his family inhabits creaks and so does the rickety plot as Steven King’s horror tales expose the wires that hold these rapidly aging contraptions together, especially in the light of the more socially relevant use of the genre by Jordan Peele (Get Out, Us, Candyman).  

Foundation – The neverending search for a sequel to Game of Thrones (Dune, Wheel of Time, the now-cancelled Game of Thrones prequel) reached a low point in this Apple + high-budget, low energy adaptation of the Isaac Asimov novel where the only hope to save an oligarchic inbred empire is by a technological fix, ala a new iteration of the iPhone or the iPad. Less than meets the eye, this pretentious series instead is more like 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Podcast.

Bonus Worst, or Liverwurst

On the Verge – The life, loves and angst of upper-middle-class women in LA with nothing much at stake. When the going gets tough, they go to the beach or Rodeo Drive. The only thing they are on the verge of is a shopping spree, in this series, streaming on Netflix, that is really just Much Ado About Spending.

From Black Radicalism to British Royals in Space
Tuesday, 05 October 2021 13:55

From Black Radicalism to British Royals in Space

Dennis Broe continues his series reviews. Image above: The Wonder Years

Now, at this point when most series TV has moved online and the autumn TV season is a thing of the past, a relic of - what did your parents used to call it? - oh yeah, network TV.  That quirky period of television history where three behemoths strode across the TV landscape forever locked in a death grip that mostly yielded copies of whatever was the latest hit on the other channel.

Yet another nail was driven into the coffin of this kind of traditional television, as opposed to boutique pay-by-subscription streaming television, at this year’s Emmys. For the first time, Netflix beat even pay cable TV favourite HBO by a margin of 44 to 19 – a score that would be labelled a rout on a football field.  

In addition, the streamers, supposedly free of network TV restrictions, have initiated what amounts to their own subscription drive, with each attempting to outdo the other in big special event series that also brand the company.

The greed and murderousness of drugs companies

There is Apple TV+’s celebration of the wonder of technology within a declining empire, in Isaac Asimov’s Sci-Fi-classic Foundation. There is the conservative company Comcast’s Peacock with a reactionary “War on Terror” overlay on Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol, and Amazon with a fourth and last season of David E. Kelly’s Goliath, which rightfully and insightfully attacks the greed and murderousness of drug companies while also nicely tilting the spotlight away from Jeff Bezos and Amazon.

All however fail to match the splendour of the remake of a network TV sitcom The Wonder Years on the terrestrial channel ABC (owned by Disney and part of its “diverse” family strategy), this time with a Black family and set in the revolutionary period of 1968.

It’s hard to overestimate the contribution this remake of the popular series, which began in the late 80s and also was set in the 60s, makes to a deepening and politicization of the standard sitcom. Don Cheadle’s voiceover narration begins the episode, as we watch the 12-year-old Dean Williams peddling home in a middle-class post-segregationist Black neighborhood recounting “the talk,” – not about sex, as might be the topic of the original series about a would-be white writer, but about how to behave in a Black boy’s first encounter with the police.

The somewhat nerdy Dean is positioned in typical Malcolm in the Middle sitcom mode between an athlete older brother and a beautiful popular debutante sister, feeling he will never live up to either. However, the twist here is that he is also positioned between them politically with his absent brother away in Vietnam and his sister becoming radicalized. A photo dropping out of her high school textbook shows her with a gun in a Patti Hearst pose and choosing Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice over her SAT prep manual, after a momentous event which rocks the family

Also emphasized is that “post-segregationist” America is no less racist. A wonderfully telling scene has Dean, and his Black and Jewish friends at the school water cooler – which a white girl and boy then avoid. In a nod to female emancipation, Dean is about to try to rescue his “crush,” the girl he adores, from an aggressive male bully when she instead grabs the bully around the neck.

The one stutter step in what is a near perfect 21-minute script by sitcom veteran Saladin K. Patterson, has Dean expressing anger not at the further disenfranchisement and futility of a political assassination, but at seeing his crush with another boy.

The sequence is scored to the 5th Dimension’s A Change Is Gonna Come and let’s hope the show will continue to integrate its social agenda with the typical coming-of-age story in a way that makes this series a new take on the old sitcom formula, surpassing the original and aided and abetted by the superb direction of the 80s Wonder Years’ child actor Fred Savage.

Goliath

Goliath

There is a lot of moralizing about the savage viciousness of drug companies such as Purdue Pharma, perpetuator of the opioid crisis, in the fourth and final season of Amazon’s Goliath. It’s all warranted of course, but also works to shine a better light on less murderous worker gaugers – such as the show’s parent company, which this week was revealed has carried its super-exploitation of its employees into Amazon’s space division as well.

Nevertheless, this is an extraordinary final season, that does a superb job of wrapping up this series about a self-destructive, alcoholic lawyer (Billy Bob Thornton in one of his greatest roles) who also happens to be a brilliant legal mind and who enjoys sticking it to corporations.

The series does not focus on the near-peddling of Oxycontin on an unwitting population – though a lead lawyer’s daughter has died from becoming addicted – but rather on an underreported aspect of the crisis. This is the way lawyers on both sides collude to fix a settlement price that amounts to mere peanuts for the companies involved and, in that way, prevent the most damning aspects of company policy from ever emerging in court.

Because there is so little government regulation – a main point that emerges is that the companies do their own drug testing which federal regulators then approve – corporations more than ever fear a jury trial where they will be dragged before the public. Billy, the recalcitrant lawyer, is appalled that over the last decades the amount of civil suits that have gone to court where companies must face the public, have declined from 20 to 2 percent.

Settlement and not airing the companies’ dirty linen is clearly a priority. There is an initial whistleblower who describes the way the drug companies championed sales to doctors, including a lavish musical production number extolling the drug’s painkilling virtues. But this is common knowledge and well covered, especially in Alex Gibney’s two-part series Crime of the Century, part one focusing on drug company creation of Oxycontin, and part two on the creation of its even more dangerous cousin Fentanyl.

What is unique here is the show’s late reveal that the company knew all along about the addictive quality, and embraced that aspect of the drug to further its profits, like the tobacco industry where the “smoking gun” was that the industry knew all along about the harmful and addictive aspects of cigarettes and yet cultivated those qualities.

The series was created by David E. Kelly, known for his stunning courtroom surprises. The finale does not disappoint, with Billy struck off the case and a stunning summary by a surprise witness sinking the Purdue Pharma and Sackler stand-in company. Billy says of Zax, in his most damning indictment of the drug companies as a whole, “He’s not in the pain relief business, he’s in the addiction business.”

The show also makes cinematic use of San Francisco, with its foggy, shadowy menacing exteriors where everyone is monitored, and with long takes on lavish corporate interiors that are the lush opposite of disjointed life on the streets. It references Rear Window, Chinatown and directly quotes from High Noon and 3:10 to Yuma, while also being an acting compendium with Billy Bob Thornton facing off in a multitude of scenes with his acting mentor Brue Dern.

Trap doors, hieroglyphs, cult villains and other shenanigans

Peacock’s splashy fall entry is an adaptation of Da Vinci Code author Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol which contains the Dan-Brown required trap doors, hieroglyphic imprints and shadowy cult villains, in this case the Masons. These old reliables work well enough, but there are two problems.

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Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon, pensive, bored or boring?

First, Comcast’s overlay of the now outmoded (if ever relevant) “War on Terror” on these shenanigans. The series opens with a reverse Abu Ghraib, with Muslims beating an American prisoner in a Turkish jail, which casts a pall over the series which is never quite dissipated and which feels like an extraneous and conservative sheen on the plot.

The second problem is the actor Ashley Zuckerman, playing  the young Robert Langdon, in a decision to turn back the clock. Brown is famous for his papier mâché characters who decode one symbol and then rush to the next. Even so, this Langdon is extraordinarily lifeless, affectless, boring, and without a trace of humor. At least Tom Hanks in the two films had a kind of smarmy Everyman morality that you could either love or hate, but here the writers completely abandon their job of fleshing out this lifeless Harvard quasi-archaeologist character, who makes Indiana Jones seem like Hamlet (or in the latest iteration, Lear).

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Royals in Space and a third-rate Loki in Foundation

The least successful and the silliest of the major series this Autumn is Apple TV+’s Foundation, based on the Isaac Asimov trilogy, about a future world where algorithms reign supreme. The empire has become a kind of cloned Dupont dynasty, inbred, self-perpetuating, decaying and under attack not by actual rebels who want to overthrow the imperial reign but by mathematicians who predict the empire will collapse and then move to try to preserve it and “civilization” against the self-destructive urges of its incestuously cloned leaders.

What better advertisement for Apple, a Silicon Valley company par excellence, which presents itself as outflanking government in both managing the future and preserving the integrity of its users? The phony British empire overlay – this is The Crown meets Star Trek, or Royals in Space – is heavy-handed, with the ultimate imperial villain, called “Empire,” scene-chewing as a kind of third-rate Loki.

A word about The Crown: “Yuck.” The success of this Emmy darling and British and U.S. fetish, with two actresses winning successive awards for playing various stages of the life of Queen Elizabeth, can probably best be explained as Elizabeth’s ‘grace under fire,” – the way she bears up under the fall of the British empire, as the American empire is itself in the process of crashing. Both sides of the Atlantic lionize an institution whose sell-by date has long since expired and which owns vast estates in the United Kingdom, while working-class tenancies deteriorate and homelessness abounds. The American royal equivalent is Bill Gates, who now owns large amounts of the country’s farmland.

The series does retain some of Asimov’s reverence for science, but often the special effects are gimmicky and leaden – it all adds up to a sort of 2001, A Space Odyssey: The Podcast. Finally, a 9/11-type terrorist attack on the empire with towers collapsing does not have the effect of say the pilot of Battlestar Galactica with everyone having to flee the planet. The main problem here is the ambivalence about preserving what amounts to a fascist empire, the same empire Apple is both building and helping to undercut as it moves itself to outflank all forms of government as it defines “civilization” not as culture but as algorithms.   

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.

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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. 

People in Prison: ‘They’re Gonna Wanna Get Out’
Friday, 21 May 2021 15:47

People in Prison: ‘They’re Gonna Wanna Get Out’

Published in Fiction

Dennis Broe reviews Manuel Tiago’s fictionalized version of his own prison experience in The Six-Pointed Star

There are many calls today for abolishing the police or, in actuality, establishing a downsized police force and allowing social workers to respond to calls for help not with a badge and a gun but with an understanding of the problems that plague troubled and impoverished communities. The same can be said for prisons, where, especially in the U.S. with the largest incarcerated population in the world, large scale reforms are needed.

This social fact is driven home by the recent publication of the Portuguese author Manuel Tiago’s fictionalized version of his own prison experience in The Six-Pointed Star, in a first translation into English by Eric A. Gordon. This is the nickname given to Lisbon’s fortress-like carceral building with a surveillance centre and cells radiating out from it. During the Salazar dictatorship, which ran parallel to Franco’s rule in Spain, the fortress housed prisoners guilty of crimes large and small. As the book relates, some were violently antisocial while others were a cry against the dictatorship’s inequality. Alongside these were of course those most dangerous of inmates, those imprisoned, as are Mumia Abu Jamal and others in the U.S., for their political ideals. Not to mention two other prominent global political prisoners whose incarceration under harsh conditions is being used to push them slowly and quietly toward death: Wikileaks Julian Assange and Hotel Rwanda’s Paul Rusesabagina, a cancer survivor kidnapped and detained in a Rwandan prison. 

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The layout of the prison with its columns radiating out from a central point seems modeled after Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon, the structure that was able to survey its inhabitants at all times. Michel Foucault then took this layout as the model for modern surveillance outside jailhouse walls, which has through the digital universe further extended this perpetual prison in which we are all being watched, monitored, and disciplined.

Tiago, the pen name for the political activist Álvaro Cunhal, stresses the arbitrary nature of those locked in this system as the dictatorship reached its apogee in the 1950s. The author is struck, in getting to know the inmates, by the fact that the prison is filled with “killers who are neither worse nor better than one[s] who have never killed and never would,” adding, in terms of the unfairness of the system, that “many who committed crimes could well have spent their whole lives without doing them.”

This is a breathtaking novel of heartbreaking vignettes, aided by Gordon’s translation which respects the timeframe but updates the lingo at moments where this is crucial to an understanding by a contemporary audience.   

The author suggests a strong contrast in the motives and circumstances of those locked up. Silvino, convicted of a number of robberies and break-ins, is recognized as “a good man” by guards and prisoners and is fascinated by his explorations into the animal kingdom. Augusto retaliates when a big landowner robbed his family, seduced his sister, and then threw them off their land. In anger at this injustice, he plugs the landowner at point blank range with a shotgun in a crime for which the prisoners forgive him. Garino, meanwhile, stole food, distributed it to his fellow villagers and for this was locked up for twelve years.

These crimes, the product of a ruthlessly unequal society, are differentiated from, for example, the doctor who drugged his patients and then raped them. Behind bars, he treats the other prisoners disdainfully as if he should not have been among them. Instead of showing actual remorse he makes a show and spectacle of prayer which he performs in front of guards and prison officials in a way that is designed to get him an early release. In this other group also is Argentino who trafficked in women and, in a fit, kills his partner with, in this case, “the crime revealing the kind of man he was in the end.”

The subject of prison labour, in the South in the U.S. practiced in a prison system after Reconstruction overwhelmingly filled with Black prisoners and a substitute for slavery, is described in the novel as a scam. The prisoners earn a pittance for the most taxing work while then having to use two-thirds of their earnings to pay the cost of their cells, their food, and, not just their clothes, but the washing of them as well.

A liberal warden begins his stint at the prison enacting reforms, including the prisoners finally being allowed to eat together instead of their only collective experience being one hour in the yard. One prisoner dryly remarks, “This won’t last long,” and indeed it doesn’t as after a slight provocation the reforms are withdrawn.

Tiago’s or Cunhal’s own experience is reflected in the novel in the character of a political prisoner, locked in solitary, whom the other prisoners take pity on, attempting to smuggle soap to his cell as a way of acknowledging his presence. Cunhal was elected head of the Communist Youth Brigade in the 1930s where his adventures included a visit to Moscow and two arrests. He was thrown into the Lisbon prison for good in 1949 and spent the first eight of his 11 years there in solitary. In 1960, after being transferred to a prison with less security, he escaped and rode out the dictatorship living in Moscow and Paris.

In 1975, after the fall of Salazar the year before, he was elected to the Constituent Assembly, while also carving out a career as a novelist, writer of short stories, artist, and translator, notably of King Lear. His funeral in 2005 was attended by a half million Portuguese.

Perhaps Cunhal’s most famous novel was A casa de Eulália (Eulalia’s House), on a Spanish Civil War theme, and his works were turned into Portuguese films and television series. The Six-Pointed Star is also a highly cinematic work recalling the Hollywood crime films of the 1940s. The story of a bandit in the hills which the prisoners follow and who is eventually gunned down by the police is eerily similar to Bogart’s doomed escaped con who falls in love with a blind woman in High Sierra.

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The novel’s description of one prisoner’s body exiting the prison “wrapped in a topcoat of planks” recalls a moment in I Was a Fugitive From a Chain Gang where one of the inmates upon his release rides out from the chain gang institution on top of the coffin of a dead inmate.

The doctor, who assists the prisoners as best he can but is replaced by an incompetent one whose mantra no matter the illness is the do-nothing “This will pass,” recalls both the kindly doctor and the hardened replacement regime in that greatest of all prison films Brute Force.

There are prisoners who hang themselves after having all of their delusions broken, a stirring moment in the film which Cunhal describes in the novel. Others wither away. Such is the fate of Number 402 who made it over the walls but then collapsed in an injury that precipitated his slow decline. 402 describes the injustice of a system that has, like our own, foregone rehabilitation and is simply about a punitive exploitation: “I’m here for the rest of my life just on account of one second in my life.”

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The desperation of these wasted lives who nevertheless make of this inhuman situation a kind of lively humanity is perhaps best summed up by the last line of Brute Force. The kindly doctor, as a post-mortem for prisoners mowed down in an escape attempt, says there is one thing that unites all of those in this situation. “Whoever they are, they’re gonna wanna get out.”

The Six-Pointed Star, translated by Eric A. Gordon, New York: International Publishers, 2020, 112 pp., $19.99, ISBN 10: 0-7178-0835-1. Please order here.

Raymond Chandler: The Man Behind The Mask
Sunday, 25 April 2021 08:13

Raymond Chandler: The Man Behind The Mask

Published in Fiction

Dennis Broe reviews Raymond Chandler: The Man Behind The Mask, by Ken Fuller, and discusses how Chandler and others unmasked the capitalist delusion that was - and is? - Southern California

Raymond Chandler, along with Dashiell Hammett before him and Ross Macdonald after, effected a startling change in the crime novel. As Chandler put it, he took the novel away from those who commit murder with "hand-wrought dueling pistols, curare and tropical fish” and returned it to “the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse.”

This passage from Chandler’s essay explaining his technique in “The Simple Art of Murder” is dripping with sarcasm, contempt and class analysis in its explanation of how the genre had been practiced by the upper-class detectives of the Sherlock Holmes/Agatha Christie school.

Chandler is at pains to argue that murder and crime in general is not done for specious reasons and in a way that creates a puzzle for the detectives or as a clever ruse, or, as is still practiced in much of the serial killer literature of today, as expression of aberrant psychology.

A new book by Ken Fuller, Raymond Chandler: The Man Behind the Mask, in its strongest moments concentrates on Chandler’s implied politics in his noir novels. Chandler focuses on a generalized corruption in capitalist society that with his other two compadres opened a space for crime novels to have a strong infusion of the social aspects of crime. As he portrayed it, crime was committed by either those wanting more in a society which gives them less than they want, or by those on top who commit crimes as the way of establishing the fortune that then makes them respectable, or to maintain their position on top.

In Chandler’s world, crimes are committed for profit or out of class antipathy. For my money, the best of Chandler’s novels, the most explicitly class-conscious in this respect, is The High Window. Sometimes called The Brasher Doubloon, this novel focuses most directly on great fortunes and great crimes and reminds us today of the Sackler Family, who have paid almost no price for their role in promoting their drug oxycontin which led to the opioid crisis.

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Fuller highlights a change in Chandler in the wake of the House Un-American Activity Committee and McCarthyite purges in which he disavows progressive social content and dawdles for a period on “the non-communist left,” a movement and a moment that, as Fuller describes, was well funded by the CIA.

For Fuller this turn in Chandler’s sympathies aligns both with his Eton-like elite education and ambition to create “literature”, leading to his perpetual disappointment because his work was not accorded that status, and also his secret homosexuality, shown by the way his lead character, the hard-core private detective Philip Marlowe, constantly projects his anxiety around women.

Fuller has a reading of Chandler’s work that sees his literary career as building to The Long Goodbye, seen as Chandler’s only real literary novel, and then suffering a precipitous decline.

Here the book is on more tenuous grounds. Judging Chandler on the somewhat antiquated and elitist assumptions of whether or not his works are “literature” takes us away from his actual literary contribution. Chandler unmoored Hammett’s often critical view of the detective as hired gun of the owner class and instead followed that other impulse in Hammett which allowed the detective to be a kind of interrogator of the class system itself, constantly and smirkingly questioning its assumptions, because of his or her freedom to go anywhere in search of the solution to the crime or to aid a client.

This multilayered examination of a society fractured on class lines – and what manifestation of society is not more fractured than status conscious Los Angeles? – is Chandler’s contribution to opening an entire literary genre to a wider view of the world.

Fuller illustrates Chandler’s literary failures by pointing out minute plot inconsistencies, something which Chandler was well aware of and never overly concerned about. His famous quip about moving the story forward was along the lines of, ‘Whenever I am unsure what to do I have someone come into the room with a gun and start shooting.’ It seems a bit of a timewaster to keep pointing out the ragged edges of Chandler’s plotting when he himself, and most readers, are not overly concerned with it, mostly because the themes and atmospherics are so strong.

The other aspect of Chandler’s work Fuller points to is how his repressed homosexuality plays out in his novels. Fuller does make a strong and original case in both examining the life and the novels for traces of this proclivity, which Chandler may never have acted on. In fact, there is a whole range of criticism which sees noir, or tough-guy fiction, as driven by repressed and unfulfilled masculine relationships. The problem here though is in a way the failure to link what may be an unconscious motivation with the main line of the novels. How does the repressed homosexuality affect Chandler’s views of society?

The Man Behind the Mask is well worth reading for its careful examination of Chandler’s overt politics and how this played out in his novels. The book though doesn’t do justice to Chandler’s achievement in significantly advancing the class consciousness displayed in his predecessor Hammett, and laying the groundwork for an even sharper class critique practiced by his successor Ross Macdonald. In Black Money, Macdonald explored all the dark nooks and crannies of the loathing and disgust generated over the failure of the capitalist delusion that Southern California was a new Eden and land of promise.

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