Dennis Broe

Dennis Broe

Dennis Broe is the author of The House That Buff Built, the upcoming fourth volume in the Harry Palmer mystery trilogy whose subject is homelessness and the real estate industry, racial prejudice against the Chinese in Los Angeles, and the power of major media to set the development agenda.

'The Sympathizer': Not Sympathetic Enough
Saturday, 20 April 2024 08:54

'The Sympathizer': Not Sympathetic Enough

HBO’s The Sympathizer, from the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Viet Thanh Nguyen, opens with a quote: “All wars are fought twice, once on the battlefield and the second time in memory.” It’s not simply memory that the book and the series are concerned with though, its “representation,” that is social memory refracted through a hostile media, which often exists to “correct” the sins and failures of bloody imperial overreach.

“On the battlefield,” Vietnam was lost by the U.S. and its tiny number of collaborators, although the cost was high, with over 1 million Vietnamese killed for the crime of wanting to free their country from first French and then American domination.

“In memory” though, on American movie screens particularly, the Americans won the war, with Rambo’s “brave” rescuing of prisoners just one in a cacophony of works with “outnumbered” soldiers prevailing against all odds. The films always forget to remind us that the soldiers were “outnumbered” because the majority of the people in the country opposed its land, resources and strategic position in Southeast Asia being appropriated by foreign conquerors.

High-end films (Platoon, Apocalypse Now) generally elided the Vietnamese having them fade into a faceless background where they were often machine-gun fodder. The Sympathizer goes some way toward addressing this grievance, but in the end not far enough, ultimately retreating into generic considerations which quash what could have been a more far-reaching understanding of the war.

The series is set near the end of the conflict, opening four months before what in the imperial West is termed “the fall of Saigon” but what for the Vietnamese was “the liberation of Saigon.” The end is nigh, and everyone knows it as The Captain, a North Vietnamese spy, attached to “The General,” is anticipating revealing his cover and welcoming the liberation troops entering the city.

Depicting this moment would have been a welcome addition to the war’s representation, since it was the beginning of a now rapidly developing economy which continues to grow by leaps and bounds and which avoided the ongoing tragedy of Korea, presciently witnessed by the series’ producer and director, Korea’s Park Chan-Wook.  

Instead, the spy genre dominates, and The Captain is ordered to accompany The General as he is being airlifted out of the country in order to monitor his activities in the U.S. The exigencies of the spy genre demand he remain undercover and in his being ferried into the belly of the beast reminds us of the superb Russian series 17 Moments of Spring, one of the greatest of all spy stories about a Russian officer in World War II who infiltrates the Gestapo.

The undercover motif also recalls The Americans, the series about Russian spies in Washington where the spies’ point of view and their patriotism was generally respected.

The frantic rush to the airport as the empire deserts those it has used (here not giving The General the seats he requests for his extended family) recalls not only the loss of Vietnam but the more recent debacle in Afghanistan.

While some of the representation of the war is rejected or complicated, there is a meaty role for the CIA agent, Claude, played by Robert Downey Jr. hamming it up in a cigar-chomping cross between The Quiet Man’s Brendan Fraser and James Bond’s Felix Leiter, but there is not the reflective quality of the tragedy in Graham Greene’s depiction, cancelled as it is by the bombast and scene-chewing of the Felix Leiter overlay.

In even suggesting that there might be another side to the Vietnam War, The Sympathizer begins to break new ground. But the series is also careful to cover its tracks, that is to not present the war for Vietnamese independence – Ho Chi Minh had seen himself as his country’s George Washington before being rejected by the Americans – in too favourable a light. The Sympathizer’s story is told as a flashback from a Vietnam prison, warning us in advance that the movement for independence has run off the rails and taken a repressive turn.

Nevertheless, the novel and the series begin a long-postponed more realistic and complicated portrayal of yet another imperial war, as the U.S. stands on the brink of ever more global engagements and possibly repeating the same mistakes in the Middle East.

The Good, the Bad and the (possibly) Interesting: Previews of some Spring global TV series
Monday, 15 April 2024 10:15

The Good, the Bad and the (possibly) Interesting: Previews of some Spring global TV series

Dennis Broe previews some upcoming TV series. Image above: Machine, now streaming on Arte 

What follows are a few global series worth watching in the coming months, along with a few not worth watching, and a few that have at least a curiosity quotient. These prereviews are of series at two French TV Fests: Series Mania, which bills itself as “where series begin” and is the largest festival of its kind; and from the International TV Festival titled Canneseries, on the site of the more famous Cannes Film Festival.

Each festival gives out final awards in different categories, and there were telling moments at each awards ceremony. At Series Mania, with the grand jury prize about to be bestowed, a young woman with a mild teargas canister took to the podium to garner support for the farmer’s protest, the “Cause Agricole,” that has shaken France, with farmers on their tractors barricading key cities including Paris because of the rising price of supplies. She was quickly led off the stage and not a word was said or written about her protest – in a way a fitting reminder that series TV usually fails to confront or else represses the crises going on around it.

At Cannes, the grand prize was awarded to The Zweiflers, a German series about the history of a Jewish family delicatessen which links the family’s contemporary survival to their enduring the Holocaust. One of the team members noted that the series was important because it was made for and appeared on German TV, allowing the creators to “confront their perpetrators.”

However, as the cast was leaving another member returned to the podium to make a positive reference to Israel. This seemed to be a deliberate attempt to counter the brave message from Jonathan Glazer, director of The Zone of Interest, at the recent Academy Awards, questioning the Zionist perversion of the principles of Judaism in Israel’s genocidal actions in Gaza. The twin pronouncements illustrate how the Jewish Holocaust is both a bitter reminder of European violence and of how it can justify ongoing contemporary holocausts.

The Good

Machine —This series, written by Thomas (A Prophet) Bidegain, available to be streamed for free on the Arte website crosses the always vibrant French social realist tradition with Kung Fu sequences. A young woman, escaped most likely from the French military, hiding out in a small town and counselled by a Marxist worker of colour, combats factory goons intent on breaking a strike in support of keeping the factory in France instead of the buyer’s intention of moving it to Poland to save money. The male-female camaraderie and the concealed power of the female combatant echoes the Gina Davis/Samuel L. Jackson film The Long Kiss Goodnight and makes for a compelling ride.

Dates IRL—This Norwegian series touchingly and with a good deal of humour confronts the problem of a generation raised in a virtual reality and not as the titled phrase suggests “In Real Life.” A 25-year-old, Ida, with an online relationship in the U.S. must enter the dating world when he “cheats” on her by having a physical relationship in his town. The dating world she enters though shows the strains of the online “reality” as she encounters one date whose sex life seems to have been torn from his own online porn activity and another who, possibly also for the same reason, climaxes “in eight seconds.” Very wise, satirical rendering of our current shattered reality, pointing up also that English is the digital language shared by the online couple, with its prominence indicating the global dominance of American tech.


Disko 76: liberation on the dance floor 

Disko 76—This is the most exuberant and liberatory of all the new series. Fleeing a bland marriage and an overbearing father whose oppressive rigidity recalls the Nazi era, the young German woman Doro and her more reluctant brother discover the glamour and freedom of the dance floor through the intervention of Black American G.I.s, and then open their own disco in the small town of Bochum. The music hums and the dancing, especially of a dance team, the male member of which Doro falls for, is a sensational revival of how, like rap later, the Disco era liberated not only the dance floor but the zeitgeist around it.

Operation Sabre—A tight, taut Serbian series which recounts how a Prime Minister falls victim to gangsters. The series set before the NATO bombing is very pro-NATO intervention, but it does offer a brisk recounting of an investigation into the affair with the music, which quotes Mission Impossible, constantly throbbing in the background and keeping this tale—which recounts how a TV journalist and an ingenue mob member helped bring the scandal to light— humming. The kind of ’70s Alan (The Parallax View) Pakula-type political thriller that has almost disappeared in the West.

Dark Horse—A Danish series about how the sins and insecurities of a mother, who constantly packs up and flees, are visited on her daughter as she lands in a tiny Danish town and tries to accommodate herself to the school “hot” boy by cooking her mother’s ketamine, leading to disastrous results. A cautionary tale where the blame falls not on the daughter, but on the parent’s own anxiety and neglect.

Blackout—A Korean series about a teen drunkard whose last high school binge may have resulted in the death of two girls. He cannot remember what happened because he drank so much, but his traces are all over a bloody scene that might have been the murder location. He is sent to prison, released ten years later, and now must confront his past and figure out who may have actually committed the crime in a town that hates him. A well-worn trope (Savage River, Back to Life, Rectify) but one that always, as here, produces an invigorating series that challenges the justice system.

The Bad

 DB2 Hors competition Maxima

Maxima: 10 percent dates 1 percent  

Maxima—Billed as “The Crown but in the Netherlands,” this series about an Australian investment banker working in New York who slowly falls for a Dutch prince is not a rags-to riches but rather a rich-to-richer tale. It asks the poignant question, “Can a girl from the 10 percent ever really be happy with a boy from the 1 percent?” Opening teaser, supposedly the most dramatic moment of the series, has the banker screaming at her royal mate, “You’re telling me my father can’t come to the wedding?” It’s all downhill from there.

Fiasco—This Netflix French production is about a fledgling director whose adventures on the set go horribly wrong. As so often happens with French humour, it punches neither up – that is, at the power structure (Netflix) financing the film – nor (thankfully) down at the crew, but rather sideways at the foibles of the “well-meaning” director. The fiasco is not only in the onscreen production but also in the meagre attempt here at satire-less humor. TV biz satire is done much better, pointedly and with actual humor by The Larry Sanders Show and the underrated Episodes.

The Source—This French police series, titled Ourika in French, views the 2005 uprising in the banlieue or Parisian ghetto from the point of view of a rookie cop and his gangster brother, neatly eliding the protest of a people who are the constant victims of French state neglect. Disgusting elitist claptrap.

DB3 Hotel 

Hotel Cocaine: a series that disappears up your nose 

Hotel Cocaine—This mirthless series by Narcos creator Chris Brancato, centred around a Miami hotel at the height of both the disco and cocaine frenzy, unlike Disco ’76, misses the exuberance of the moment in the decision to save money by not buying the rights to disco hits, and by its ill-conceived idea that watching gangsters put stuff up their nose is sexy and engaging. It traces the conflict of two Cuban brothers, the manager of the hotel and a drug lord, in a well-worn trope which is executed grimly and unimaginatively. 

Soviet Jeans—Latvian series set in Riga in the 1970s whose hero, presented as a rebel, is a petty crook on the lookout for blue jeans and Walkmans, which to him signify freedom in a heavily regulated and surveilled society. The problem here is the commercial alternative to an oppressive state is the detritus of market capitalism.

After The Party—New Zealand show starring Brit Commonwealth stalwarts Peter Mullen and Robyn Malcolm in a series where Malcolm’s rude, offensive, and self-righteous schoolteacher is gaslighted by Mullen’s superficially endearing ex-husband. The problem with the series is that the Malcolm character is not just a difficult woman – we’ve seen that before and it often works – but rather a domineering and oppressive one who is right at every turn, even as she attempts to control her students. It’s like cheering on the bellicose Kissinger disciple Hilary Clinton over the corrupt racist Donald Trump, when in fact it’s very difficult to tell which one is more insidious. In this series, as in real life, the answer is both.

The (possibly) Interesting

 DB4 Camo

Ben Gazzara’s mob boss pontificating in Il Camorrista 

Il Camorrista/The Vatican—The first, directed by Cinema Paradiso’s Giuseppe Tornatore, stars Ben Gazzara as a Southern Italian mobster. The 1986 series, which was also shot as Tornatore’s first film, was never released because the mobster it was clearly based on threatened the director and producers both legally and physically. With he and his wife now deceased, the series is finally getting a release. High point of a series that features a flawless Gazzara is his appearance in episode 4 before the magistrate where he is charged with over 300 killings. He waves his hands and professes (the original English title of the film was The Professor) to have no idea why he is there since he only ever wanted to help people.

The Belgium documentary The Vatican, a kind of lukewarm treatment of the corruption and sexual crimes of that institution, has a remarkably similar scene of a cardinal, himself perhaps implicated in embezzling funds, claiming that likewise he also “only wants to help people.”

Herrhausen – The Banker and The BombAn almost documentary portrayal of the Deutsche Bank high official who created a sensation in the financial world by in 1987, at the height of the global and particularly Latin American debt crisis, proclaiming that banks should be in the business of forgiving debt to allow Third World countries to grow. Herrhausen then “pioneers” female integration into the banking hierarchy and embraces computers as part of the beginning dominance of financialization. He is monitored by the CIA for his stand on debt but also eventually the victim of, as the series has it, a combination of the East German Stasi and the Red Army who are sheltered and aided in the Arab cities of Baghdad and Damascus. Yeah to the expose of the “dangers” of Herrhausen’s wanting to cancel debt. Nay to the way the series represents his latter “improvements” as neutral and the paranoid way it brings together disparate elements which oppose him.

Apples Never Fall—New centre of conservative luxury, West Palm Beach, is the site of this family expose and mystery series starring an imposing Annette Benning as a supposedly happy wife gone missing. Apples is yet another adaptation of a Liane Moriarty novel, incisive in Pretty Little Lies, insipid in Perfect Strangers. The mystery element works well here but the supposed “exposing” of family secrets mostly amounts to sibling bickering about which parent loved who the best.

DB5 Malays 

Three Tears in Borneo: where have all the Malaysians gone? 

Three Tears In Borneo—A Taiwanese series set in Malaysia about three brothers who get commandeered into the Japanese army and must participate in atrocities performed on the Australian prisoners in World War II. An unusual setup but a strange perspective, that in points exonerates the jailers while never mentioning the Malays surrounding the prison, thus mimicking the Japanese imperialism of the time.   

House of Gods—The positive part of this series is that it offers a perspective on the customs of an Iraqi mosque in Australia. It has been described as “Succession in a mosque,” and that’s the negative part, the overlay of Western politics on a series that could have shown more of the inner workings and manners without the ultra-competitive,“electoral” overlay.

The Decline of Streaming Services and the Exploitation of AI for Profit
Friday, 12 April 2024 11:32

The Decline of Streaming Services and the Exploitation of AI for Profit

Dennis Broe explains the decline in the quality as well as quantity of streamed series, and the exploitative use of Artifical Intelligence by the industry. Photo above: SORA’s “artificial” creation of a walk in Tokyo 

Last year’s retrenchment in the world of streaming TV is continuing with Netflix holding even on bankrolling series at $17 billion but with all the other streamers cutting back. The big money players are searching for, as one studio exec put it, the “right show shot in a cost effective location,” where “it is possible to make a whole series for the cost of an indie film.”

The industry way of portraying these cutbacks, seeing the glass half full, is there is now an emphasis on “quality over quantity,” but when one observes what is coming down the road it’s hard not to see these cutbacks as simply less quantity amid decreasing quality. The new emphasis on safe investments is being translated into increased concentration on what the industry terms IP, intellectual property, ie going with what has already been established in another medium (books, films, music) or in television itself.


Baywatch uber alles: beefcake meets cheesecake 

One look at the low end of production, that is the TV network pilot season, is a scary reminder of what this trend entails. CBS is chiming in with: Matlock, perhaps with an AI Andy Griffith; a Young Sheldon spinoff with the original, itself a spinoff of Big Bang Theory, having just ended; a Young Sheldon version of NCIS titled NCIS Origins with Mark Harmon’s narration (like Sheldon’s in Young Sheldon) of his on-screen younger self; and Watson, a Sherlock Holmes series without Sherlock and with the good doctor taking up the crimefighting duties.

Fox, in an even less daring move, is reviving the sexist Baywatch and NBC, besides Suits: L.A., a spinoff of the cable series, is dressing up its revivals as St. Denis Medical could easily be St. Elsewhere and Dr. Wolf’s gruff medical practitioner is supposed to remind viewers of House.

The high end of this lack of originality was on display in a Max (Warner Bros) presentation which trumpeted Season 2 of Game of Thrones, The Penguin from the DC Batman franchise and a series based on the Harry Potter books and films. All three of these fall into the blockbuster category, that is the streamers copying the Hollywood studio format that began in the ’70s while shelving original series, which were what brought Max subsidiary HBO to prominence in the first place, as recounted in Peter Biskind’s new book Pandora’s Box: How Guts, Guile and Greed upended TV.

As more and more series rely more and more on IP or already proven material, what was once a “Golden Age” of originality begins to skew close to the now partially abandoned Hollywood studio format of sequels and comic book adaptations, a format that is working less and less for the movie studios as audiences decline, because of the lack of creativity.

 S3 gone

Gone Producer, a synthetically created game show 

The other major trend, which has creators terrified and investors and studio executives “excited”, is the rapidly expanding use in every phase of the business of artificial intelligence, AI. Perhaps the scariest projection of the technology, described by one longtime independent film assistant director as “nothing but plagiarizing software,” is a new gameshow on Korean TV titled Gone Producer. In this nightmare gameshow scenario, the entire series is cast, directed, and produced by AI which also judges the videos that contestants submit in a competition.

According to the studio, “The fun factor is not only that the show is produced by AI, it is also the contestants getting confused and bewildered confronting the AI.” In other words, the show not only uses the service to replace jobs, it also makes a virtue of the fact that, as everyone knows, AI often “hallucinates,” that is returns incomprehensible information and opinions.

The contestants and the viewers are asked then, as the media critic Theodore Adorno put it, to participate in their own demise. Korea is well-known for its game show formats, having produced a “spin off” of the Emmy-winning fictional series Squid Game and Gone Producer has already been sold to Sweden and Norway.

Less Is More?

These observations about the business come from two recent French TV festivals, Lille’s Series Mania, one of the largest of its kind in the world, and Cannes’ MIPTV, with this year’s meeting of buyers and distributors ending the convention’s 61-year run. The latter had 130 companies represented but was still a shell of its former self, a sacrifice to the new austerity where, because of the entry fee and the Cannes boardwalk prices, buyers consolidated by going to a February conference in London or to the larger MIPTV conference in October.

Walking through what was once production house stalls and was now an empty space that looked like a parking garage, one former attendee mourned the passing of a place in which she said she had spent many years.

The streamers and television magnates in general are attempting to combat churn (subscribers signing in watching the few creative series on the streamer then signing out), the fact that working-class audiences have less to spend because of continuing inflation, and the streamers’ raising of their subscription rates.

The way they are choosing to combat this situation though betrays a lack of imagination, with the same assistant director suggesting that instead of AI replacing writers and actors, the technology might better be used to replace CEOs and studio executives.

At the Series Mania Forum, discussing the business of television, it was reported that “Peak TV” was over, because in the U.S. the number of series declined from almost 600 two years ago to 516 last year. In Europe not only are the number of series declining, but so are the number of episodes, by an average of one episode per series – and also the length of each episode, now cut by almost 10 minutes. One of the original promises of streaming TV was both would be determined by what was needed to tell the story and that priority is vanishing.

 S4 Isabelle

Isabelle Adjani on television 

There is also more monetization of back catalogues, using former material to create series and the sale of catalogue entries, so that subscribers who are looking for a show on their service may find that it has been sold to another service.

European series are trying to nab viewers by bringing to television now more faded film stars, a trick that was formerly used on American TV. In France Isabelle Adjani (The Story of Adele H.) is starring in a series about family secrets and in the Netherlands Famke Janssen (Golden Eye) heads a cast in a series on the Amsterdam marijuana scene.

Another way of monetizing content without the peril of trying something new and original is selling the format to a different market, as the BBC has done with Ghosts, a hit on CBS in the U.S., harking back to, or trivializing, Hawthorne and the New England horror tradition and now being developed in a German version which commercializes the Romantic tradition in that country.

Sony TV’s Wayne Garvie explained to the Series Mania forum audience that the answer to the end of peak TV, “the boom,” is not necessarily “a bust” but rather just fewer shows with more quality. He almost immediately contradicted himself by then citing the superhero series The Boys which he said with its spinoffs “will go on for years”. In the same vein he noted that the problem with single season series, which have often been some of the most creative and awarded (think Chernobyl) is that “you can’t build a business on mini-series.”

The result of this cost-cutting and budgetary as well as creative retrenching, described at the Forum as the industry “looking for more reassuring content,” plus a demand on Wall Street that streamers show a profit, is that streaming audiences are declining to the point where the S&P accounting firm recently downgraded Paramount’s debt to “junk.”

The race is now on to see who will buy the streamer or if it will simply go under, since any buyer is now saddled with the company’s debt. In Europe the French streamer Salto is now defunct while the Scandinavian Viaplay, which was expanding into the U.S. and Britain, has had to cease that effort and return to its local audience.

Here Come The Machines

A main topic of both events was AI which, as in other industries, is being touted as a money-saving, cost-cutting entity. The “buzz” at the industry-oriented MIPTV centered around what the technology could do for producers and studio profit margins. Pre-conference,  The Hollywood Reporter ran a full page on AI’s “Buried Perils” without mentioning the thrust of its creators toward job destruction – and nowhere was there a conversation about how the lost jobs will be replaced.

The Series Mania Forum debated the issue but began with an opening presentation from two shills for the practice, who showed articles from the business press, including Bloomberg News, “proving” that AI was a boon to job creation. In The Future of Work, the French theorist Bernard Stiegler, citing an Oxford study predicting an ultimate 50 percent loss of employees when the technology was fully developed, decried the development as “the negation of know-how itself,” inducing “a functional stupidity.”


Shoshana Zuboff in Surveillance Capitalism described the technological solution which is dreamed of by producers and studio execs which offers the illusion of “omniscience, control, and certainty” but where “the idea is not to heal instability – the corrosion of social trust and its broken bonds of reciprocity, dangerous extremes of inequality, regimes of exclusion – but to exploit the vulnerabilities produced by these conditions.”

The Series Mania Forum day was titled benignly “AI: The Technology We’d Love to Like” with one panel called “Past the Sideration,” a French word that the panel defined as “fascination” but which equally – and in this case more accurately – means “disturbance.”

A YouTube representative, a company owned by Google which is a leader in the race to dominate the field, proclaimed AI would allow “unprecedented speed” and its use would be “bold and responsible.”

Curbing the power of the unions

Clearly the implementation of AI is one part of a studio attempt to curb, in the wake of last summer’s writers’ and actors’ strikes, the growing power of the unions. Kate Ballard from the U.S. Writers’ Guild acknowledged that AI is moving faster than any contractual or legal limits that can be imposed on it, and said that the Guild had done the best they could to ensure that AI be a tool for writers, not a way of getting rid of them and that they would revisit the situation again in two and a half years, when the current contract expires.

One of the claims for AI in job creation is that the machines need “prompters,” since it is crucial that what is fed into them be specific and limited, but the host of one of the panels revealed that she had just read an article stating that AI creators were now working on machines that could learn to prompt, thus eliminating the most fruitful arena for new jobs.

S5 cotton

The Cotton Club, the movie and not the AI fabrication, erroneously set in Chicago

At MIPTV, one developer, who claimed that AI could be used in every phase of film and television production, listed for example programs such as Storyfit, designed to predict whether a story will be commercially successful; Storyboarder, which produces storyboards for shooting; and SORA, which creates synthetic AI images and which produced an intriguing image of a smoky 1920s nightclub but which claimed that The Cotton Club, the title of the film, was in Chicago, not in New York’s Harlem.

A scarier development was that another CEO had trained AI to identify the predominant emotion of each scene (happy, sad, fearful, joyful) in a film or series and select clips aimed at enticing particular audiences. The ultimate goal, one CEO claimed, was “to be able to make a complete film from your bedroom.”

Craig Peters, from Getty Images, stated that the answer to controlling the device was not in legislation, such as the recent European Union Artificial Intelligence Act, but rather through “all of us putting our collective minds together.”

We are not in severance 1 

Perhaps the unions will also put their collective minds together?

This solution seems like a naïve way of warding off legislation in the U.S., but what Peters did explain was that with the drive to feed more and more data into the machines to train them, the IP of books, movies, films, songs would soon be exhausted. The current drive is to feed as much personal data into the machines as possible, that is, to turn each of our individual experiences into training vehicles and to “harvest” this “personal IP.”

It wasn’t long ago that the major catchphrase in the information industry was “big data” used for its predictive capabilities. Now that has been replaced by the quest for synthetic creation, which might someday eliminate the human element entirely and which would be the next level up in current cost-cutting.

Instead of, as the writer and showrunner Frank Lipsitz (X-Files, The Man in the High Castle) put it, making “us as writers, better, faster smarter”, studio heads envision using AI to ‘scale’ creativity, that is to simply produce more, faster.

The battle is on around AI in the film and television industry, like everywhere else. Will it simply become a cost-cutting tool fostering mass unemployment, or an enhancement to creators in the industry, enabling leaps in original and relevant content?

Dark Stories for Dark Times: The 2024 Crime Novel
Tuesday, 09 April 2024 12:11

Dark Stories for Dark Times: The 2024 Crime Novel

Published in Fiction

This year the Quais du Polar in Lyon, the largest European festival of crime novels and one of the largest in the world, in celebrating its 20th season, was marked by the intrusion into the spine of the novels by the real-world problems and catastrophes going on around the festival.

Each evening, just outside the festival walls, in front of the town hall, there was a vigil calling for a ceasefire in Gaza. Inside, there were novelists incorporating climate apocalypse, rabid income inequality, and the indignity of European cities, most notably Venice and Barcelona, that are overcome by tourism.

In a panel on encouragement of reading, sponsored by UNESCO’s “Creative Cities” initiative, the Icelandic crime writer Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, who helped create and chair the Reykjavik Crime Fiction Festival and has written 15 novels, explained that Iceland has money to give to support all kinds of arts because it is one of the few countries in the world that “doesn’t have an army.”

She suggested, and not totally facetiously, that instead of destroying each other on the battlefield Russia’s Putin and Ukraine’s Zelensky instead should duel it out by writing alternate chapters of a novel. Such an initiative is sponsored each year as two crime writers come together to do just that. This year’s combined work is The Steve McQueen which quotes the film The Thomas Crown Affair which starred McQueen, since both are about heists that go awry. The novel is authored by Lyon’s Caryl Férey and Northern England's Tim Willocks, whose most famous book however is Bad City Blues​, set in New Orleans.

peter may a winter grave res

Climate apocalypse hits Glasgow 

A panel innocuously celebrating cooperation between France and Britain, initiated in the Entente Cordiale signed in 1904 ending several centuries of armed conflict, took on a contemporary air when Peter May recounted why he had come out of retirement to write A Winter Grave, a crime novel set in 2051.

In this nightmarish future, the Scottish Highlands are frozen – but thawing enough for a dead body to be discovered in an icy cave while Glasgow is flooded, filled with acrid odours from the backed-up sewers and with cars replaced by Venetian-style water taxis. May related that after COP26, the 2021 Glasgow Climate Conference, he became convinced that the destruction of the earth was not going to be addressed. He was so shocked by this cavalier attitude that he wrote a book in which the context that surrounds the mystery is a failing Earth, where 2 billion people are forced to flee their homes.

He was not the only writer to address this issue. One panel focused on dystopic worlds to come, a subject that had previously not been central to the crime novel, which has always been an excellent way of highlighting contemporary and past corruption, but has generally steered clear of the sci-fi focus on the future. It’s a sign that the climate crisis is intruding everywhere.

Back in the present again, the devastating effects of fossil fuel and mineral extraction showed up as Karin Smirnoff, who is now charged with continuing Stieg Larsson’s Millenium series with The Girl in the Eagle’s Talons, explained that her sequel is set in the north of Sweden, home of Europe’s last indigenous population, the Sami, where mining interests unearthing material for clean energy batteries often claim they can drill and dig on the land because “nobody lives there.”

Smirnoff, the first female to write a volume of a series which is now subtitled “A Lizbeth Salander Novel,” pointing to the popularity of the female character, explained by way of her book that a good deal of harm is done to indigenous lands in the name of safe and clean energy where to get access to the minerals powering batteries the companies “kill six lakes surrounding the mine.”

A panel on white-collar crime suddenly took an unexpected turn when the Italian mystery writer Valerio Varesi, whose novels are set in Parma in Northern Italy’s Po Valley, explained that his subject is the change in his town in the wake of the Reagan-Thatcher ’80s. It was at that point that he observed the market economy driving human behavior, and the thirst and need for money and profits beginning to dominate human relationships.

Varesi, who is also a journalist for La Republica, explained that after the economic crash of 1929, banks and the financial sector were governed by rules that have since been evacuated, allowing the second crash of 2008. His latest The Lizard Strategy recounts the eerie disappearance of Parma’s mayor just as he is about the be the subject of a corruption investigation.

Considering the penetration of capital into all forms of life, he asked the panel a pointed question: “Who governs Europe, Christine Lagarde (president of the European Central Bank) or Ursula von der Leyen (president of the European Parliament)?” The rest of the panel refused to take up the question and the moderator ordered Valerio not to pursue the subject further.

A regular guest at the festival is France’s most popular crime writer Michel Bussi, whose novels are often diverting page-turners. This year he appeared at the conference with his latest, My Heart Has Moved, which confronts the problem of increasing inequality in his town of Rouen.

Bussi is a political geographer turned novelist and he explained that the town is now more strictly segregated into the rich, more conservative right bank, and the poor, more radical left bank, with the schools on the former now much less open to students from the latter.

His novel is about the lifelong quest of a boy whose mother is murdered, seemingly by his working-class father, but who then discovers that the apparent truth may not be the case.

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Donna Leon’s Venice 

Venice’s Donna Leon talked about another kind of interpenetration of capital into the lives of the city’s dwindling number of actual citizens who live there, with roughly 50,000 residents overwhelmed by the 30 million people who visit each year. Her inspector Brunetti, she said, does not operate in the land of the tourists but rather pursues his cases by interacting with the still remaining locals, where he often unearths corruption amid what she called “the most beautiful city in the world.”

She cited two examples. The first being the often-proposed tourist fee as a way of limiting visitors to the city by fining them if they do not have a permit. She described this as “unenforceable” because of the many ways of accessing the city and the limited number of officials verifying the passes. It was simply designed to appease public opinion.

A greater scandal she discussed is the often-cited project of a bridge from Sicily to the mainland, which has already consumed millions and which, if ever completed would greatly facilitate traffic from organized crime to the mainland.

One of the guests of honour was John Grisham, whose new novel The Exchange is a sequel 30 years later to his second and breakthrough novel The Firm. He recounted how the book came to be published, as a story that might inspire younger writers. His first book A Time To Kill, later a publishing success and a film, did not do well when it was initially published. He wrote the second and figured if it stiffed also, he would resign from writing and continue his law career.

The book at first got no traction but happened to make its way to Hollywood, where it became a sensation and prompted a bidding war among three top studios before being sold to Paramount. With that success, the book then also was the subject of a publishing house auction, and he was on his way.

Asked if he himself ever was in fear of the Mafia because of the expose in the original of a law firm controlled by the mob, he said he wasn’t, but that he had got a letter from the at that time Mafia godfather John Gotti who was in jail for life and “had plenty of time to read.” Gotti wrote that he really enjoyed the book but that the author “had gotten the parts on the mob all wrong.”

Grisham said he wanted Tom Cruise to play the character, who is now aged 40, in the sequel since Cruise is over 60 but “doesn’t look a day over 30.” He said the character Mitch is inextricably linked to Cruise and even referred to the character once as “Tom.”

In The Girl in the Eagle’s Talon Lisbeth Salander grows up and becomes a mature activist. This year’s Quais du Polar showed that the crime novel, long a staple of exposing graft and corruption, is growing up as well and taking on the steadily accumulating and disturbing problems of an ever more complex world.

The imperialist problem of '3 Body Problem'
Monday, 01 April 2024 13:10

The imperialist problem of '3 Body Problem'

Dennis Broe outlines 3 Body Problem’s imperialist problem. Image above: the Chinese Cultural Revolution as a moment of chaos 

In Culture and Imperialism, Palestinian scholar Edward Said details how the great works of Western literature are part and parcel of the fabric of imperial domination of the West’s, and in this case particularly Britain’s, exploitation of what is sometimes called the Global South.

Said speaks primarily of the 18th through the 20th centuries, from the “menace” of Sherlock Holmes’ Asian villains rematerializing in the imperial center of London, to the barely acknowledged Caribbean plantation, source of the wealth in the Bronte novels.

That mindset endures and is interwoven into the fabric of Western television entertainment, be it in the BBC One series The Driver, recently adapted for American TV as Parish, which highlights the savagery of the gangsters from the former British colony of Zimbabwe to the supposedly more sophisticated treatment of China, another former imperial territory, in Netflix’s Spring TV blockbuster 3 Body Problem.

The series was adapted for Netflix by Game of Thrones creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, from the trilogy by Chinese science fiction writer Liu Cixin. It opens with a scene, not in the novel, from the Maoist Cultural Revolution, set in 1966, where one of the lead characters Ye Wenjie (body number 1) watches her physicist father murdered on stage by Chinese Red Guards for refusing to propound revolutionary dogma.

Ye Wenjie later goes on to become an astrophysicist herself, but in episode 2 makes a fatal decision regarding extraterrestrials, based on her encounter at a labour camp with the female Red Guard member who refuses to renounce her participation in the death of her father.


Oxford, multicultural source of technological progress 

From the opening scene of revolutionary carnage the series then shifts to the present in Oxford and to a group of physicists centred around a particle accelerator, seen as the most advanced center of scientific development in the world and whose project manager is body number 2.

One of the “Oxford 5” group of alumni scientists and entrepreneurs Jess Hong, then enters a virtual world (her avatar is body number 3), which returns to the Chinese dynastic period where she observes Emperor Zhou’s territories threatened by a mysterious plague. She is appalled by this menace to the empire and wonders how to prevent it.

We have here then a classic case of Said’s Culture and Imperialism, updated for the popular entertainment medium of 21st century streaming TV. The Cultural Revolution, despite its glaring deficiencies, sparked proletarian literacy and was a first step toward the mass scientific breakthrough that has now led China to taking on the West in terms of technological advancement – Huawei and Tik Tok are both in the process of being blockaded by a West that cannot compete.

The entire revolutionary enterprise is presented as simply an exercise in savagery and intolerance and is immediately contrasted with the material and scientific sophistication of “Oxford,” the representative of multicultural openness. Here, even its capitalist “entrepreneurs,” in the form of GOT’s John Bradley as Jack Roony, a clumsy and likable practitioner of the art of streamlining jobs and work – i.e. firing employees – and the mysterious oil tycoon Thomas Wade, are concerned with saving humanity.  

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Reviving the dynastic emperor 

In order to find a positive view of China in the series, it is necessary to return to the dynastic period, before the 100 years plus of revolutionary struggle, both democratic and socialist, which freed the country from the “century of (Western) humiliation” and the yoke of the emperors, a period which is here presented fondly.

This imperial backbone should not come as a surprise from Benioff and Weiss, who undertook the project after three failures. Left on their own without the George R. R. Martin novels which they had followed through season six, particularly the final 8th season of Game of Thrones amounted to little more than battlefield carnage with a disappointing ending in which “Westeros” does not allow for a progressive leadership.

At that point, the channel HBO, flush from the overall success of the series, was ready to make whatever they proposed. The team came up with Confederacy, an “alternative history” series in which the South wins its freedom and re-establishes slavery, an idea so patently regressive that HBO was forced to reject, after an outcry. The pair then went to Disney proposing to apply the GOT combination of imperial blood and sex to Star Wars, the streamer’s key franchise, which was also rejected.

And so they found their way to Netflix, the most commercially successful streamer, which was more than willing not to re-institute slavery but to re-found the imperial myth of the Chinese and Global South “jungle” and the Western “garden.” Plus ça change......

'Zone of Interest' and Glazergate: The director’s challenge and the Zionist reaction
Friday, 29 March 2024 13:07

'Zone of Interest' and Glazergate: The director’s challenge and the Zionist reaction

Published in Films

Jonathan Glazer is the Academy Award and BAFTA winning director of Zone of Interest, a film that highlights the “dehumanization” going on outside the Nazi death camp of Auschwitz, where the carnage only appears on the off-screen soundtrack.

He has come under attack not for anything in the film but for daring to insinuate in his Academy acceptance speech that there is an echo of the film in the “dehumanizing” way the genocide in Gaza is being routinely fostered, facilitated and ignored in the West.

Glazer’s film is about the callousness of the family of the German commandant of the death camp, whose job it is to oversee extermination. The film’s perspective, in some ways all the more chilling, is that of an intimate glimpse of the family as it goes about its daily activities, surrounded by offscreen cries, screams and orders to shoot and drown the victims just beyond the family garden, as the commandant’s wife claims that in their privilege, with lush vegetation and swimming pool, guaranteed by Jewish slavery, they have fulfilled the Fuhrer’s dream of a living space in the east for Germans.

The most incendiary part of Glazer’s speech is not the claim about his Jewishness not being hijacked by the Israeli occupation of Gaza, which is what his now over 1000 Hollywood critics have focused on in a letter denouncing the speech, but rather that he had the audacity to state that his film is not just about the past but also about the present.

The parallel then in the present would be in the West with those who watch this new holocaust, for that is what it is being called in the Arab world, being livestreamed and not just ignore it but actively deny that it is happening.

By suggesting that it is not “look what we did then” but “look what we do now,” Glazer is in fact placing American and Western complacency, and in some cases active cheering on of the genocide in Gaza, in line with the commandant and his privileged family in the film.

In this case, benefitting from the carnage, as Israel remains the key to American dominance of Middle East oil oil necessary for fuelling its allies in Europe, and proving the U.S. and its puppet Israel remain the hegemon in the region.


The Zionist reaction

The attack on Glazer gives credence to this identification of the West as situating itself just outside of what has been called the concentration camp of Gaza. His attackers simply cannot stand the accusation that they are complicit in genocide. Instead they resort to Zionist arguments and talking points to refute his accusation, speaking of “an Israeli nation that seeks to avert its own extermination,” an “indigenous Jewish people defending a homeland” and a “distortion of history.”

The “extermination” is not being carried out by the Palestinians, but by the Zionists against the actual indigenous people of the region, who 75 years ago saw their homeland usurped by the creation of the apartheid state.

This was perhaps a new homeland but also, as members of the U.S. military have often described it, an “American aircraft carrier in the Middle East.” Each day we, in our privileged position outside the camp in the garden where life goes on as usual, hear the sounds and watch as the terror increases, now at the point with way more than the official number of 30,000 Palestinians dead and with Al Jazeera reporting that 25,000 of them are women and children.

Israel is of course worried that the gunshots are too noisy and might disturb us in our gardens, so now they have decided on the more “humane” method of mass starvation, though they are not above mowing down Palestinians who when one of the few food aid trucks gets through the clamour for the food.

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The Zone of Interest: Languishing by the pool 

If any voices are raised to challenge this carnage, as Glazer’s was, the attempt is to quickly silence them. Then, we can all go back to our finely manicured front lawns and backyards as we join Commandant Rolf, his wife, and their children at the pool.    

All Hail The Uni Party: Democans and Republicrats
Thursday, 14 March 2024 13:19

All Hail The Uni Party: Democans and Republicrats

All Hail the Uni Party: Democans and Republicrats

As the range of debate between the two parties in the U.S. shrinks, election season becomes a time of distorting the differences to make it seem there is an actual choice.

One of the greatest aids in fostering this delusion is the mainstream media, which in this election season focuses on the individual quirks, foibles, petty corruption and outlandish and outrageously regressive positions of one party while ignoring the more systemic evil and harm caused both in the U.S. and around the world by the other party.

In the last four years the party in power has brought the country to the brink of nuclear war with Russia, China and Iran, promoted and alibied away genocide, and through benign neglect fostered an ever more widening income gap amidst a deteriorating economy (except for fintech, that grouping of the finance and the digital industries) and a devastated physical and emotional infrastructure. The former now consists of broken-down railroads, bridges, and highways while the latter manifests in the Fentanyl crisis which has followed hard upon the opioid crisis.  

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Uniparty Karens: Bobbert and Greene 

Each party has its Karens and its Alpha Males. Karens, white suburban shriekers who came to the fore in their fear of all things non-white in the moment of the Black Lives Matter protest are represented by Lauren Boebert Clinton and Marjorie Taylor Pelosi. On the one hand, Lauren Boebert Clinton is noted for being so gun crazy that her former restaurant Shooter’s Grill was located in Rifle Colorado; for her Karen moment in claiming to be afraid of a terrorist action when Palestinian representative Ilhan Omar was standing behind her on the elevator line; and for loutish antisocial behavior such as being kicked out of a performance of Beetlejuice because she was vaping.

On the other hand, Lauren Boebert Clinton is noted for proudly boasting about destroying Libya, the country with the best education and health care system in Africa; for instigating the phony Russiagate story, given credence by the Steele Dossier manufactured by a former spy and Democratic Party employee and disproved by the Special Prosecutor assigned to the case; and for her refusal to deal with the real reasons for her 2016 presidential loss: her contempt for the American working class, calling them “deplorables” and claiming that rather than acknowledging their problems she was “flying over America,” that is brazenly acknowledging that she only related to the cultural and business elites on the East and West coasts.

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More Karens: Clinton, Pelosi 

Marjorie Taylor Pelosi is known on the one hand for her wild QAnon outlandish and diversionary claims such as drawing attention away from the challenge posed by global warming by claiming a wildfire in California was caused by lasers “beamed from space and controlled by a prominent Jewish banking family”; accusing schools educating their pupils about the history of racism in the U.S. as being “racist”; accosting a survivor of the Parkland slaying, and claiming an attempt to disprove her accusations was fostered not by the Gestapo police but by what she called “the gazpacho police.”

Marjorie Taylor Pelosi on the other hand has openly used her position in the House to engage in insider trading upping her net worth by $196 million; greatly increased tensions with China on a visit to Taiwan where she was also tending to the stake in a microchip company her son has invested heavily in; and when confronted by demonstrators outside her palatial mansion on the genocide in Gaza, accused them of being Putin agents.

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Uniparty Alpha males: Cruz, Graham 

Most prominent among the uniparty alpha males is Ted Cruz Sullivan, a widely disliked senator who a member of his own party referred to as “Lucifer in the flesh.” He is most famous for fleeing to Cancun at the time his Texas constituents, many without electricity, were facing the worst storm in their lifetime; for defending a Texas decision to renege on providing funding for healthcare for poor children and in a global continuation of the same type of policy opposing a ceasefire in Gaza to stop the starving of children.

Ted Cruz Sullivan, nickname “Jake,” who moonlights as the National Security Advisor, plays Jekyll to his alter ego’s Hyde. He claims to be for reasonable solutions while all the time fostering war in Ukraine, in Taiwan and Gaza. Sullivan helped to sabotage negotiations in Ukraine which could have  brought the war to a speedy end; fostered and promoted the U.S. military presence in the South China Sea, giving credence to the war-inducing idea of an “independent” Taiwan which neither the U.S. nor China acknowledge; and promoted Israeli-Saudi rapprochement as the solution to tensions in the Middle East, which would completely destroy Palestinian claims to end the apartheid state and which probably was the cause of the Hamas attack on October 7.

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More Alpha males: Blinken, Sullivan

No less an “A-type” male purveyor of uniparty loyalty is Lindsey Graham Blinken who as the stalwart senator for South Carolina last year flew off the handle, outraged that the U.S. defence budget was a measly $886 billion turning a blind eye to the amount of money that each year is bilked by contractors, amounting to $150 billion in Iraq and Afghanistan and in his home state deaf to twin sisters under his watch who defrauded the defence department of $20.5 million, including selling two 19 cent washers for $998,798.

If these dastardly deeds are done by night, his doppelganger Lindsey Graham Blinken by day plays a caring, hand-wringing head of the State Department who alibis for slaughtering Ukrainians in a war that ended almost before it started because of the overwhelming might of Russia’s industrial and human capacity to fight it; picks fights with China “alerting” the world to the danger of China’s lone military base, located in Africa in Djibouti, and concealing the nearly 800 U.S. bases around the world; and finally also claiming he is for a “humanitarian pause” and the building of a port in Gaza, a minimum six-week enterprise which will have many Gazans starving as they wait for sea access to food which is possible by land as trucks every day are lined up waiting to enter Gaza. Two sides of the same coin, Lindsey Graham Blinken plays good cop, bad cop but the operant word is cop, or global and local policeman.

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Tom Cotton Nuland handing out coup cookies in Maidan 

Finally, there is the gender-bending Tom Cotton Nuland whose male side, the Arkansas representative now running for senator, is in favor of restricting not only illegal but also legal immigration; has accused his colleagues waging a proxy war on Russia of being “soft” on Putin, a charge which he outlined in his book Only The Strong; has attempted to thwart even minimal justice reform in the country that has the highest incarcerated population in the world; and responded to the shooting in Uvalde not by proposing legislation restricting gun use but, before he even knew what was happening as the events unfolded, instead proposing “ways to improve security at schools,” that is bringing more guns into the schools.

The female side of this gender-bending duo, Tom Cotton Nuland, aka Victoria, has attempted regime change in Russia under five presidents; actively participated in the Maidan coup which led to the civil war in Ukraine, killing over 14,000 people; and pushed NATO to enlist Ukraine which prompted the Russian invasion leading to an estimated half million casualties on both sides.

She/he attempted to destroy the Russian economy through both sanctions and stealing Russian assets in Western banks, a spectacularly unsuccessful policy with Russia now the strongest economy in Europe, by some estimates expected to grow by 3 percent this year. This failure has prompted her dismissal or as the uniparty, which never admits defeat, would have it “resignation.”

Finally, there are its geriatric amnesiacs who it calls leaders, Donald Biden and Joseph Trump. Donald Biden is the openly racist candidate who launched his political career by attacking immigrants; assassinated the Iranian general who had led the fight against ISIS and who was in Iraq to promote peace in the region; bombed Syria while having dinner with the Chinese leader; and in a country where working-class people are so poor many live in their cars, has engineered a tax cut for the wealthiest, as his sole legislative accomplishment.

Joseph Trump was recently declared unfit to stand trial for pilfering security documents because of his inability to remember whether he did or not; presided over an attack on workers and the middle class by rationalizing the raising of interest rates, making it harder for cash-strapped and already in debt Americans to borrow; and championed a “rules-based order” which in effect has translated to “we make the rules and we keep the order”; effectively ruling out the United Nations Charter, the actual rules-based order, by continually vetoing proposals calling for a ceasefire to stop the slaughter in Gaza; and by not enforcing the International Court of Justice ruling that what Israel is doing tentatively amounts to genocide, all the time claiming to be “concerned.”

Labourives and Conservatours

This is the best a fading empire can muster, and it is a fit description of where the U.S. stands as its power and that of its allies begins to disintegrate. In Britain, Keir Sunak and Rishi Starmer represent labor and conservative parties who are more focused on supporting Israel’s genocide and keeping the war in Ukraine going, a boondoggle for British defense industries, than in delivering relief to a besieged populace which is every day watching the crown jewel of the British social aid system, the National Health Service, dwindle.

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Mirror, Mirror by Martin Gollan

On the continent, France’s little Napoleon, Macron, who like his namesake wants to send French troops to Ukraine, probably to share the fate of his countrymen more than 100 years ago. To maintain power he continues his mind meld with the right-wing Republicans and is now focused on “the right to die,” an issue that sums up the preoccupation of a West that itself is “concerned” not with growth and aiding its people but with ensuring they die in dignity, while at the same time, given Macron’s “reform” of the pension programme which forces them to work two more years, ordering them to live in despair.

The uniparty’s travesty of democracy, having brought home with increasing ferocity the kind of tricks they have been perfecting for years in their banana republics, features each party needing to win to prevent the other party from indicting them, with the truth being that they are both criminally negligent and easily susceptible to judicial condemnation, be it Donald Biden’s cheating of the government and inflating his worth, or Joseph Trump’s spreading the Russiagate lie or brokering his son’s involvement in Ukraine which he has partially covered up by allying with the far right  and Nazi elements in that country to lead it to war.

The only adequate reply to the nonsense of these politicians, fostered by their brother and sister elites in the mainstream media, is Mercutio’s response to the warring Montagues and Capulets: “A plague on both your houses.” The American people, the British people and the rest of the world deserve better.

Corporate and alternative media, now and in Los Angeles in the 1950s
Friday, 08 March 2024 12:31

Corporate and alternative media, now and in Los Angeles in the 1950s

Dennis Broe discusses the opposition between corporate and alternative media, now and in the 1950s. Image above: Charlotta Bass, editor of The California Eagle

Today with the wars on Gaza, in the Ukraine, and the possible coming war on China, there is a huge gap between what is being said in the mainstream media and what is being said on alternative sites on the internet.

Recently, for example, on the second anniversary of the war in Ukraine, the New York Times ran a Pentagon and State Department account of the war. In this account, the war was started by Russia on February 24, 2022. It included its reasons for being (Putin’s aggressiveness which now threatens all Europe) and its possible outcome (there is none, just continual fighting).

This contrasted sharply on every point with political organizer Brian Becker and Global South scholar Vijay Prashad’s view on the podcast, YouTube, and streaming show The Socialist Program. Prajad and Becker noted that what they called “The Ukrainian Civil War” started nearly a decade earlier in 2014, after a U.S.-backed coup aided by Ukrainian Nazis overthrew the elected head of the country and started bombing the Russian majority Donetsk region killing 14,000 people.

Russia’s “Special Military Operation” then was the response to NATO threatening to absorb Ukraine and put missiles on Russia’s border, with the Russians, almost since the beginning of the SMO, suing for peace in an agreement that was sabotaged by Boris Johnson and the West.

The line of demarcation between on the one hand corporate media and the political class, led by the nose by the arms and fossil fuel industries and by powerful lobbying groups such as Israel’s AIPEC, and on the other hand the legion of podcasters, YouTubers, bloggers and online publications that are every day standing against this deadly barrage, is more sharply drawn than ever. It’s social media versus what seems more and more like antisocial, bellicose and belligerent media.

Interestingly, these lines can also be traced beyond today’s internet alternative media explosion to an earlier period where, with the outlawing and excising of many of the ideas and social practices of the more collectivist and worker-oriented New Deal, there was an equally momentous battle between the corporate media – in this case the dominant newspapers – and newspapers which spoke to and represented audiences left out of the corporate consensus.

Nowhere was this difference starker than in Los Angeles between the high-circulation Los Angeles Times, which had also launched a second paper and its own television station, and the African-American paper The California Eagle, which began in the 1920s and championed the rights of Negroes to own property where they wanted in a heavily segregated city.

The former was run by the Chandler family, who were rabidly anti-union champions of an Anglo Los Angeles, spread out across the county in suburban, individual, single-family homes with a system of freeways and building projects that benefitted Chandler real estate interests. The Times utilized and promoted “anti-communism” as a way of smearing its opponents.

The Eagle’s editor Charlotta Bass stood instead for the vision of an integrated and equal Los Angeles, defending public transit and community institutions, and welcoming peaceful and harmonious intercourse with the socialist world of Russia and China.

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The House That Buff Built 

These differences are also sharply illustrated in my latest Harry Palmer detective novel The House That Buff Built where Harry, in the course of helping his Chinese client to integrate the town of Torrance, encounters both Charlotta and the Chandlers and is stunned by the difference between “The Eagle, [Charlotta’s] modest paper, and the gigantic, but for her monstrous, L.A. Times.

While The Eagle was supported by its African-American community, the Times was the largest newspaper in terms of circulation in the country’s most booming region in the post war period, read and advertised in by the city’s elite. In 1950, the paper, though improving, was still opposed to original unbiased reporting and according to David Halberstam in The Powers That Be was filled with wire service briefs, dispatches from city corporations that it partially controlled and “slanted political coverage that read more like memos from and to the Republican Central Committee than journalism.”

To Segregate or Not to Segregate: Housing in Los Angeles

A primary area of disagreement between the two newspapers was segregation versus inclusion, in the battle over Los Angeles housing. The Chandlers’ vision was of an Anglo Los Angeles with white flight peopling the suburbs and its new inhabitants manoeuvering through a system of freeways with the land, the building materials for the roadways and even the rubber for the automobiles coming from Chandler companies.

The city meanwhile would be remade, with the Times favoring a gutting of the low income habitats of Bunker Hill and Mexican-American villages in what is now Chavez Ravine and the buildup of the Northern part of downtown near the Times building with Norman Chandler, the heir to the fortune in the 1950s, being told when he took over the paper that the key to the editorial page was to “think of what is good for real estate.” The paper actively promoted these interests and this demolition. “Our future,” Dorothy Chandler tells Harry in a candid admission “was not in trying to be a paper for the black or the Latino populations or the low-income white population.”

The Eagle meanwhile was instrumental in furthering Negro expansion out of the tight quarters around Central Avenue where African-Americans had been confined, and instead moving into homes both north and south of this area. Prior to this period a method of enforcement of segregation was restrictive covenants, which forbid homeowners from selling to the “Negro or Mongolian” races, thus also limiting the Chinese to Chinatown. In 1948 the Supreme Court outlawed this use in a case argued by Eagle reporter Loren Miller who would succeed Bass in running the paper in 1951. 

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Buffy and Norman Chandler

A major site where segregation was either fostered or contested was the society or women’s pages of each paper. Norman’s wife Dorothy Chandler, nicknamed Buffy or Buff, took over those pages in the Times and used them to blackmail wealthy donors to support her vision of “modern” Los Angeles built around what would become gleaming corporate skyscrapers and cultural centres, perched on a demolished Bunker Hill.

Meanwhile, Charlotta Bass used the back pages of The Eagle to fashion women’s groups which she called on for support when homeowners moving out of Central Avenue were beseiged by aggressive “neighbours” who attempted to drive them out of their homes, and this was after the Supreme Court decision which applied only to federal housing projects.

As Harry puts it in the novel, “I thought about the contrast between The California Eagle’s Charlotta Bass, who used the society pages of her publication to rally Negro ladies to defend the hard-won housing gains of her readers trying to secure a better place in Dorothy’s society, and Dorothy’s organizing of the rich [through the Times society pages] in a way that excluded everyone else and furthered their own power.”

Collectivist vs. Individualist Futures

There was also two different visions of the city professed by each publication. The Times was rabidly anti-union, going back to its founder General Otis, who called union leaders “corpse defacers” and unions “the poison of the American future,” and actively resisted unions at the paper. The Times instead favored dividing working people by breaking up urban neighbourhoods and housing them in more isolated, individual units in the suburbs.

 Who framed

Who Framed Roger Rabbit and the plot to sabotage public transportation in LA

The newspaper was against public transportation, instead promoting the individual in his or her own car and declaring on its editorial pages that "Southern California throbs in unison with the purring motors of its automobiles." The paper championed the building of the country’s first freeway which connected the ultra-rich old wealth community of Pasadena with downtown Los Angeles and was then followed by the Harbor, Hollywood, Long Beach and Santa Anna freeways.

The Eagle defended the cheap and environmentally effective mass transit trolleys and buses which ferried its readers to and from work, and was a champion of trade unions, many of which were integrated. They also had African-American women not only as members but also as leaders, in the factories that had sprung up as Southern California became the country’s main motor of production during the war.

When Harry visits Charlotta Bass at the office of The Eagle she lays out this difference:

“She described a city that on one side was made up of the Klan, the National Rifle Association and property restriction organizations, and on the other the labor movement, the Negro, Jewish, Mexican, and Chinese minorities; ‘those people who do the work in the city and who are fighting against the threat of a new fascism at home.’”

Cold War vs. Enduring Peace

Following the lead of its founder General Otis, who led a slaughter against Filipino women and children in the aftermath of the Spanish-American War, named his homes “The Bivouac” and “The Outpost,” and organized the Times staff in an anti-union “phalanx” armed with rifles and shotguns, the Times in the 1950s under Norman Chandler was a huge supporter of the Cold War and the anti-communism campaign.

Union busting 

Union Busting at the LA Times 

The Times pushed Richard Nixon in his successful run for the Senate in 1950, calling his red-baiting attack on Alger Hiss “heroic,” as well as being a firm backer of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s paranoid finding of communists next door to every American, lauding McCarthy’s bullying tactics as speaking softly and “carrying the big stick of logic.”

The mainstream newspaper used the generalized attack on what amounted to the reforms of Roosevelt’s New Deal to eventually install their own candidate for mayor, Norman Poulson, in 1952, who would veto what the paper saw as the eyesore of public housing and apply the Cold War policy of “containment” on the home front to keep minority communities bottled up and limit expansion.

On the other hand, The Eagle in its pages constantly favored peace and understanding with both the established socialist republic of Russia and the emerging socialist state of China. The paper covered a global conference on women’s rights in Beijing in 1949 which promoted a transnational anti-colonial platform for women fighting imperial oppression, covered a speech by Paul Robeson’s wife in China, and reported positively on the gains of the revolution as distributing land “so now everyone has a home, a chance to go to school and a job with women treated as equals.”

womens conference 

Women’s anti-colonial conference in Beijing in 1949 

The paper also had a diametrically opposed view of containment, terming the reinstitution of personal homeowner restrictions in the wake of the Supreme Court decision “re-covenanting,” supporting activists who “made it clear that they had not fought to destroy fascism abroad only to have it camping on their doorsteps at home.”

As for the real post-war menace and threat, in the novel Charlotta Bass, who has just been assaulted by a gang of white teens, tells Harry that “They always talk about Negro and Mexican violence, but in reality, and it’s true in your case with the Chinese as well, the real fear is white violence.”

The past as mirror into the future

Today, the mainstream media is more adamantly than ever pushing for war at every opportunity, operating to confuse their audience and make unclear what is crystal clear. Thus a recent example was how Israel’s massacre of starving Palestinians as they clamoured for food was presented in the Western press, not a mass killing of defenceless people, but as a chaotic riot by a stampeding mob. The 1950s example of both the strident self-aggrandizing and bellicose Los Angeles Times and the courageous, resistant California Eagle tirelessly campaigning for equality and peace is more trenchant than ever.

The New York Times was recently the recipient of the prestigious Polk Award for its coverage of the assault on Gaza, a coverage that for the most part was distinguished by its shallowness, lacking any background coverage or treatment of the conflict pre-October 7, 2023. In this light,  Harry’s verdict on the Chandler’s imposing their will in the creation of modern Los Angeles stands as a warning of a too powerful media operating in a vacuum:

“The paper was everywhere. Buff’s ‘civilizing mission’ was part of remaking a town that, when it resisted that mission, might be compelled by whatever means necessary to accept it.”

The Way: confused resistance rather than class consciousness, in a muddled mix of genres
Friday, 01 March 2024 12:10

The Way: confused resistance rather than class consciousness, in a muddled mix of genres

Dennis Broe reviews The Way. Above image: Owen brandishing King Arthur’s sword - Mandalorian much?

“I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore,” about-to-be-fired news anchor Howard Beale screams in a television rant, urging everyone to go to the window and yell the same thing.

This scene from the film Network, much honored and claimed to be prescient, in fact represents simply mindless, ungrounded fear, vaguely articulated, not drawn from the specific material aspects of people’s lives and thus open to a kind of manipulation that can easily be converted into simple resentment and will become the basis of today’s populism.

Unfortunately, these ungrounded impulses, now 45 years on in the aftermath of the devastation wrought by Reagan, Thatcher et al.’s austerity and neoliberalism, are the basis of the BBC series The Way. Documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis helped conceptualize the three-part series, and there’s evidence of his strengths (eg in tracing advertising industry manipulation in The Century of the Self) but also his glaring weaknesses (eg in the more recent anti-revolutionary, rabidly anti-populist documentary Can’t Get You Out of My Head).

The Way blends a loosely constructed family fiction around the Welsh steel and former mining town of Port Talbot with documentary footage of the 1984 Miners’ Strike, and a mythical otherworldly aspect that summons King Arthur’s pulling the sword from the stone, the lifting of the series title phrase “The Way” from the Star Wars’ Mandalorian code of conduct, and Scottish folklore of a proselytizing Red Monk who kickstarts a town rebellion.  


Howard Beale’s populist rant in Network 

Into this soup of inluences is thrown the actual condition of the steelworks, with an Indian owner, in the series Japanese, who is always on the verge of closing the plant. The problem – and this is a Curtis mainstay – is that the characters are utterly deceived by a passive mediatized lifestyle. Owen, the lead character, who “can’t remember the last time I felt anything,” is, as his love interest describes, “a drug addict in recovery dealing drugs” to which her response is “I don’t care, it’s not my business.”

This passivity and foolishness influences their actions, as workers in the town strike the plant before it can close, though no immediate closing is threatened. Owen tosses a lead pipe which ignites the carnage with the police, which of course echoes the bone thrown across the ages in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Only this time it signals the utter breakdown of civilization rather than its terrifying advance, as in Kubrick’s film.

Wales is sealed off from “Britain”, and thus episode two begins with the family’s own odyssey as they attempt to march to safety in a now open police state. In the series, much hostility is summoned but it remains vague (“The British don’t revolt, they gripe”) with the actual problems of deindustrialization and a devastated economy expressed in generalized slogans.

These slogans do not directly confront the power structure and the massive redistribution of wealth that began in 1980 with the launching of the neoliberal era, just after Network premiered. In that film, people start throwing their televisions out the window, when they mighthave done better by storming the television station and taking over the means of production of the media.

Writers Guild of America 2023 writers strike rev

The 2023 Writers' Guild strike 

The ungrounded populism expressed in both Network and The Way does accurately convey the very real grievances felt by the population – but behind each lies the firm conviction that workers are too coddled and deceived by omnipresent media to be able to do more than threaten irrational action. But this mindset was just recently disproved by the massive strikes in the entertainment and service industry in Los Angeles, and which continue throughout the U.S.

These campaigns and strikes in the U.S. have specific demands, and represent a growing understanding and awareness by workers, not only of their situation but of how to use today’s media for their own purposes. This understanding is not present in The Way.

If the Port Talbot steel plant, along with another plant closes, Britain will only be fashioning steel from scraps and leftovers, rather than making it. The Way, with its muddled mix of genres and its deceived chaotic individuals is also fashioned from scraps – that is, the leftovers and the detritus of the entertainment industry and the subjectivity of its victims, who in this telling offer only confused resistance.  

Can’t Get You Out of My Head: An elite gaze on populism and revolution
Friday, 23 February 2024 11:29

Can’t Get You Out of My Head: An elite gaze on populism and revolution

There are always calls from the right to defund the British Broadcasting Company but they are now being joined by calls from the left as well, as one of the casualties of the genocide in Gaza is the BBC’s own vaunted “objectivity.”

That questioning was on display when BBC staff members wrote a letter published in Al Jazeera stating that the BBC coverage of this current eruption of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict was biased. The network spent a good deal of  time humanizing Israeli victims while failing to provide any context and information on the 75 years of occupation before the October 7 attack, thus rationalizing the Israeli response as “self-defense.”

These cracks in the armour are also apparent in the BBC’s Can’t Get You Out of My Head, a 2021 six-part documentary television series (now available on YouTube) by the prodigious filmmaker Adam Curtis. Curtis, in what he calls an “emotional history of the modern world”, attempts to trace the roots of the populism which is so much with us today. His reach is wide, encompassing the Mau-Mau in Kenya, Black revolutionary heroes and gangsters, the transformation and gentrification of London’s Notting Hill, Madame Mao and the Cultural Revolution, and the technological revolution which the documentary sees as resulting in mind control.

The reach is wide, but unfortunately the grasp is narrow. This is the Christopher Nolan school of filmmaking – that is, Nolan’s rapid-fire cutting and shooting through history at a pace that makes serious grappling with any moment of that history difficult. It’s Nolan’s scattergun fictional style, applied to documentary.

1971 Hold aloft the red lantern

Curtis finds all forms of revolutionary activity in the 1950s through the 1970s lacking, but his focus on the singular and the bizarre without much context. and almost devoid of an economic analysis which might underpin and ground his “emotional history”, ends up promoting the “chaos” which his elite gaze on the material seems to be so adamantly fearful of.

The montage, the clashing of various aspects of the counterculture as well as his tracking of the growth of digital surveillance and the various musics – reggae, rap, punk – which he uses as a backbeat to his story, suggest a new approach to documentary. However, there is one element that remains of an old and conservative style, and that is Curtis’ own all-knowing narration in a voice that in its supposed ability to grasp this totality remains the stentorian “voice of God.”

He treats populism as an end in itself, not as a symptom and coping mechanism of a wider breakdown of western capitalism. Under neoliberal capitalism, more and more wealth is being redistributed upwards over the time he is discussing, leaving people more and more desperate and searching for solutions that often include demagogic leaders – the best the system allows to be thrown at them.

When he does glimpse of the thought behind the detached veneer of his narration, the results are frequently disappointing. Thus, the Black Panthers were incendiary violent revolutionaries gullibly deceived by police informants, when in fact the Panthers’ greatest and most lasting contribution was the institutionalizing of their program of school lunches for poor children. The Cultural Revolution is seen as mass deception organized by Madame Mao, a disgruntled actor seeking revenge on the Shanghai film artists who had slighted her in the 1930s. In Curtis’ view the Revolution, which brought education to many poor rural Chinese in a country that was vastly illiterate, was only an unleashing of one-woman’s “resentment” that linked to a whole society’s anger at the past. The imperialist West is not blamed or even mentioned as a primary factor in generating this anger. (By the way, the footage of Peoples’ Revolutionary Operas is thrilling.)


Jim Garrison, who attempted to bring to trial those who he claimed had participated in the assassination of a president, and whose efforts Oliver Stone and the myriad researchers working in the shadows to bring this hidden history to light, is labelled as delusional. Curtis dismisses the possibility that elites participated in a violent coup at the heart of Western democracy as “complete fantasy.”

Behind the imperial voice, the objective and all-knowing veneer, Curtis’ documentary is not a history of populism but instead a history of elite fears of both revolution and populism. Can’t Get You Out of My Head in its frantic pace generates a whole lot of heat, but in the end, not much light. As such, it strikes another blow against the BBC’s false “objectivity.” 

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