Dennis Broe

Dennis Broe

Dennis Broe is the author of The Precinct with the Golden Arm, the upcoming third volume in the Harry Palmer mystery trilogy whose subject is the LAPD, the pharmaceutical industry and Mexican culture in LA.

One Nation, One King
Monday, 10 September 2018 09:28

Class, gender and race issues: the Venice Film Festival 2018

Published in Films

Dennis Broe reviews this year's Venice Film Festival.

The top prize at the Venice Film Festival went to Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma, a black and white, long-take, masterpiece about class relations in Mexico distributed by Netflix. All of these factors will make it a challenge for the Hollywood Film Academy to award it Best Film, but here’s hoping that the Venice award and its prominence at the festival – where it was the overwhelming choice of both critics and public – helps its chances of success.

44320 Roma Alfonso Cuaron Film Still

My award for best actress goes to Yalitza Apparicio, the Indian non-actor who played the maid in Roma, alternating between warmth and affection for her charges and stoicism at their alternate contempt, neglect and appreciation of her. My best actor, along with the jury, goes to Willem Dafoe for his role as Van Gogh in At Eternity’s Gate, a film that refuses the recent ‘heritage treatment’ of the Impressionists (in French films about Renoir and Gauguin), opting instead for a concentration on a sentient depiction of the artist. However, it elides much of Van Gogh’s social import as champion of a disappearing peasantry.

the nightingale rev

A continuing story throughout the festival, after the march of 82 women on Cannes for the screening of a film by a female director, was the exclusion of female directors from the competition. Only one female director was represented in the official selection – Jennifer Kent, whose The Nightingale won third prize at the festival.

Festival director Alberto Barbara was criticized for this lack of representation, responding that the problem did not lie with the festival since female directors as a whole submitted a little over 20 percent of the films and represented about the same percentage of films in the festival. But it was pointed out that as perhaps the most important world festival, its choices could help alter this balance. Barbara refused a quota system but did sign up to a Venice Pledge, for increasing participation of women in all aspects of the festival.

Kent’s film, like her previous film The Babadook questioning the sanctity of motherhood, does challenge both male and colonial prerogatives, in its journey across an Australian landscape in the 1820s. In it, a righteous and embittered British officer sanctions the murder and rape of a Irish ex-convict’s husband and baby. The woman speaks and sings in Gaelic and is the nightingale of the film, seeking revenge on the handsome British lieutenant who has tortured her. She is joined in her quest by a young Aborigine, who, similarly, is called the blackbird. The most stunning effect of the film is of a landscape riddled with Aborigines, in chains or hung from trees, and infected with the constant brutality of the British colonizers towards the country’s native inhabitants, towards the Irish, and towards women.

The problem with the film occurs at the end, when the Irish woman and the Aborigine man stand in their own space watching the sun rise. The film refuses a sexual relationship between these two oppressed people, and unfortunately provides the perfect Identity Politics moment where each remains in their own space, with an unbridgeable distance between them, not acknowledging the common bond that their struggle has created.

With the exception of the ending – which also happened in a sudden benign transformation of a rampaging mother threatening her child in The Babadook – this is a tough, bitter film. It continues the current, noteworthy confrontation of Australia with its particularly cruel history in television series like Mystery Road.

The top five films for me were The Nightingale, Roma, American Dharma, the Italian film A Story Without a Name whose English title is The Lost Caravaggio, and the French film A People and Its King, horribly retitled in English, One Nation, One King.

There was a surprise appearance of Steve Bannon at the screening of Errol Morris’ phantasmagoric depiction of the evil that is Bannon, in American Dharma. Bannon, who is on a tour of far-right parties in Europe, was not invited as part of the delegation of the film. He seems to have slipped in and slipped out. Morris’s film comes after last year’s Venice stunner Wormwood, about CIA assassination, and builds on that monumental work.

The film ‘gives the Devil his due’, as the saying goes, incorporating film clips as Bannon explains films that inspired him, and has a confrontational interview with Morris. In the end a conflagration that demolishes the airplane hangar where the interview took place illustrates Morris’ contention that Bannon’s wish is simply to destroy. This is again an embellishment of the documentary using fictional techniques pioneered in The Thin Blue Line, and taken to an extraordinary level in Wormwood.

Morris compares Bannon to the Devil in Milton’s Paradise Lost, a comparison Bannon does not deny. In Morris’s The Fog of War, Robert McNamara, who helped plan the Vietnam War, seemed to use the film to burnish his legacy. Here, while acknowledging Bannon’s genius in returning white workers en masse to the Republican Party through messages of keeping out foreign workers and bringing jobs back home, Morris also ensures that the racism, hatred and white supremacism implicit in Bannon’s messages are also acknowledged.

The most telling moment is Morris and Bannon’s differing interpretation of the end of Orson Welles’ Chimes at Midnight. In the film, Welles’ Falstaff is betrayed by Prince Hal who assumes the mantle of power and turns his back, literally and figuratively, on his friend. That is how Morris sees it. Bannon’s interpretation is that Falstaff realizes Prince Hal must harden himself in order to rule. This could be Bannon’s own excusing Trump for cutting him loose from his administration but it also does reflect the fascist attitude that power is everything and ruling is all.

Two other films about Trumpism disappointingly fail to deliver. Fredric Wiseman’s Monrovia, Indiana is a supposed attempt to understand Trump’s supporters but is so focused on an institutional view of this slice of life in small-town America that it fails to generate much insight on anything.

On the other hand S. Craig Zehler’s Dragged Across Concrete with Mel Gibson and Vince Vaughn as bitter, resentful cops – Gibson’s 60 year old for never being promoted, mostly because he has a history of violent treatment of suspects – just ends up excusing their resentment by having them sacrifice themselves, instead of pointing out in what ways their resentment is warranted. The film goes soft and fuzzy on police violence and corruption, where fifties noir films such as Where the Sidewalk Ends or Private Hell 36 illustrated the full brutality of the police.

The antidote to this coddling was Roberto Minervini’s What You Gonna Do When The World’s on Fire, a tracing of paths of resistance in Mississippi at various levels of the black community in the wake of a police shooting. We get a tender story of one older boy taking care of another with his mother’s warnings that it is no longer safe to go out at night, a group that calls themselves the New Black Panthers that marches on neighbourhoods and confronts the police, and a saucy female bar owner, whose indomitable spirit even when her indebted bar is closed expresses the will of the community to survive under pressure. However, it is all strangely unaffecting and might have been better had it provided more background on the community as a whole and the racial power structure in the town.


On the subject of working class revolt – and history itself was a powerful subject at the Festival – there was Mike Leigh’s talky, polite Peterloo about the organization and subsequent slaughter of the members of the largest mass gathering in history at the time, in 1819.

un peuple et son roi still 1

Far better was the French film One Nation, One King. This was about the French Revolution told from the point of view of the sans-culottes, that is, of the ordinary people who made and were often betrayed by the Revolution, while continuing to push it forward. The French film begins with Louis XIV washing poor children’s feet, comparing himself to Christ, and ends with the triumph of the king’s beheading, seeing this as a victory of the people over the emerging bourgeoisie, many of whom defended a king who had deserted the nation.

Peterloo begins with the clamor of Waterloo and a wounded soldier’s return to the factories of Manchester. The film details the endless debates of working class organizations in the wake of the French Revolution, struggling to find their voice. Unfortunately, what it also documents is the passivity that defines the English working class, who with all the numbers in their favour talked themselves out of arming for a potential confrontation in their rally for universal (male) suffrage.

They don’t even bring a knife to the gunfight, while the upper class lawmakers have no qualms about unleashing the soldiers on them, as the empire turns its full might on its own people, including the soldier wounded at Waterloo. The contrast in the two films, one about a people acting to make and enforce a revolution, and the other about a people tricked into arguing not about their grievances but about whether they should be peaceful or not while their rulers simply embrace violence, is extremely instructive in the history of the resistance of the two classes. But it also makes one film active and somewhat exhilarating, and the other passive and ultimately flaccid.

una storia senza nome still 1

Finally there was the Italian film Story Without a Name which in English is retitled The Lost Caravaggio. The film is, on the surface, a reflexive feature about filmmaking, concerning a screenwriter who uses a female ghostwriter. The script that the female writer is working on is also a major part of the film, and it concerns the actual theft by the Mafia of Caravaggio’s The Nativity from Palermo 50 years before, and the negotiation between the Mafia and the state for its return.

Here, a film about filmmaking, a kind of cliché after , is also about the way that in Italy truths can only be told in fiction and even fictional representation involves a certain amount of danger. Story is thus both a wily romance between the screenwriter and the resourceful female ghostwriter, and a film with a reflexive purpose other than that of the tiresome and somewhat dishonest focus on the process of an art that is becoming more and more commercialised.

Still from Sulla Mia Pelle
Friday, 07 September 2018 17:11

Fiddling While Rome Burns and Venice Sinks: the Venice Film Festival

Published in Films

Dennis Broe reports from the Venice Film Festival.

It was again extraordinarily hot in Rome this summer, so hot tourism really halts mid-afternoon to early evening. Meanwhile, the city of Venice continues to sink with the Moise project which is supposed to save it poised to go online, so to speak, next year but with much of the money to fund an enviromentally iffy project already depleted through acts of corruption that forced the last mayor from office.

The Venice Film Festival continues to be more spectacular than ever. In the wake of a retreat by Cannes into almost solely auteur film fare, Venice has made itself now the primary opener for Hollywood Academy Award Films, having premiered three of the last four Academy Award winners. It has defined its version of a film festival as a truly ecumenical platform for all types of visual media.

The festival boasts a more expanded Virtual Reality section this year, a continual incorporation of television, and an outlet for the film product of the streaming services Netflix, which has a number of films rejected by Cannes opening here this year including this year’s possible Academy Award winner and an absolute masterpiece Alfonso Cuaròn’s Roma and Orson Welles’ Other Side of the Wind. From Amazon it has Mike Leigh’s Peterloo, a depiction of working class slaughter.

the golem

At the same time, the festival has maintained its position as promoter of global auteur films, presenting restored films like this year’s stunning reclamation of The Golem from 1920 and promoting Italian film and directors, including this year Robert Minervi’s Black Lives Matter docudrama What you gonna do when the world’s on fire. The Venice Film Festival can now lay claim to being the most prestigious and perhaps the best film festival in the world.

It is difficult though not to be struck by the gap between the richness of the spectacle, where images are ever more luscious and enticing, and the seeming disintegration of the country around it. Two weeks ago the bridge in Genoa that essentially connects northern and southern Italy collapsed. Last week the roof of the church of San Giuseppe dei Falegnami located in the heart of Rome, in the Roman Forum, built on the site of a jail where Peter and Paul were supposedly imprisoned, collapsed, destroying part of the interior of a baroque church that had been restored as recently as 2012.

Infrastructure and cultural heritage are disintegrating at the same time the Republic is in danger itself of collapsing with Matteo Salvini, the head of the far-right League, and headline maker in the ruling coalition, continuing to evoke the iconography of a Mussolini in posing on vacation with a mug of beer, sequestering migrants, and trumpeting a meeting with Hungary’s far right pillar Victor Orban. The meeting and Salvini’s distortion of the immigrant question was met with a protest of tens of thousands in Milan, the country’s multicultural capital, and repeated when he appeared at the Venice Film Festival.

If one story this year is the rise of the festival itself, the other is the dominance of the streaming services and particularly of Netflix, which is using the festival as a launchpad for its film branch, having firmly established itself in terms of the quantity – if not the quality – of television series.

Traditional Hollywood opened with its Oscar and popular fare, namely Dreamworks’ First Man and Warner-MGM’s fourth remake of A Star is Born, with Lady Gaga more than ably conjuring up the ghost of Judy Garland.

First Man is an insipid, uninspired look at whiteness in space, or in the words of a criticism at the time, it’s “Whitey on the Moon.” Just like its director Damien Chazelle’s last Venice entry La La Land, becoming a restoration of the ultra-white musical after its stupendous opening evocation of a truly diverse Hollywood

In the director’s own words, the film focuses on the most boring of the astronauts, Neil Armstrong. Armstrong is played by an actor, Ryan Gosling, whose lack of emotional range is constantly alibied for by the American press, and on a boring topic that needs to be enlivened – which does not happen here.

Armstrong is asked, “Why go to space,” and the best he can do is mumble something about expanding our vision, with the film itself giving little of the feeling of both isolation and grandeur of space that was conjured in Alfonso Cuaròn’s Gravity.

This is Hollywood’s Best Picture entry but as such it’s flat and limp, possibly the last iteration of producer Spielberg’s ratification of the nuclear family, which here reaches its emotional nadir. The film was loved by the American critics who did their work in prepping it for the Oscar, but recorded a lukewarm reaction from the European critics. Perhaps this indicates also that the US landing of a man on the moon in these America-first days reads more as a feat of the empire that did not provide a giant leap for mankind.

gaga as garland in a star is born

The studio entertainment piece is the remake of A Star is Born, which does at least feature the divine talent of Stephanie Joanne Angelina Germanota, Lady Gaga, who is here brought back to her Italian-American roots and whose emotional song stylings enliven a film that is dead at its core.

The problem is her co-star and director Bradley Cooper, who grinds the film to a halt with an unconvincing addiction story and pithy sayings about “the business.” He is constantly telling Gaga to be true to herself though the film is a process of interpolating her under the sign of American Sniper Cooper’s more lax and lazy definition of an old-style heavy metal that denies for the most part Gaga’s actual roots coming, as Madonna had done before her, out of the New York transgender club scene.

The meta-story of the film though is Gaga’s success in remaking her career as mainstream film star, her evocation of Garland in the role, and her eclipsing of Cooper’s limited idea of popular music – though that is not enough to make this more than simply a story of success. The title of the song that unites the two and is supposed to sum up their relationship is “Shallow.” Nuff said.

Netflix has been the real star so far of the festival, with its film entries, something the streaming service is not known for, outshining the Hollywood studios. The streaming service facilitated the finishing of Orson Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind, a project Welles shot from 1971 to 1975, boasting a film within a film that is a mock European arthouse, plotless, scenic excavation, and a main film that presents in Robert Altman like ambient sound, well before Altman perfected it, the ramblings about art, life and the film business on the last night of an ageing director, in a Citizen Kane type scenario with the death shown to us at the beginning.

The film though too often circles back on itself and is not as trenchant as some of Welles’s sporadic work as actor in appearances that he also directed and wrote, such as his masterful cameo in The Third Man.

Police execution in On My Skin

The streaming service, which for its theatre logo, replaced the brand name and musical flourish—which were booed at Cannes two years ago-- with a simple “N,” also is distributing Sulla Mia Pelle, (On My Skin), the Italian film which also opened the festival. It is about the last week of life of Stephano Cucci, a drug dealer in Rome who was brutally beaten by the Italian police and who died from his wounds in a famous case that is still in the Italian courts.

The film centres on the almost mute sufferings of its protagonist as he is warned not to identify the source of the beating. It might have been better if it had also focused on how the family, led by his sister, were able to bring the Carabinieri to court.

On the opening night on the red carpet for First Man, Netflix was present also since it was the streaming service which brought to prominence that film’s co-star Clair Foy, in its series The Crown. Foy’s criticisms of the space race lodged from the point of view of the wife who waits are the best thing about that film, and she is a likely Oscar winner.

Roma the student slaughter

Finally, Netflix also distributes the film that is the triumph of the festival so far, Alfonso Cuaròn’s Roma, a lovingly detailed reminiscence of the director’s own growing up in the Roma section of Mexico City in the early 1970s. The film is a kind of 400 Blows portrait of the film director as a young man, as the boy goes to see a schlocky science fiction vehicle which will inspire his Gravity, and as the family takes a trip to the beaches of Vera Cruz that will become Y Tu Mama Tambien.

Roma is a gorgeous film showing the brutal destruction in agonizing long shot of students in Mexico City in the Corpus Christi massacre, and a fire that burns village land at New Year, watched by two American guests of the landholders who drink champagne while the peasants battle the flames in a scene that recalls Rules of the Game.

What makes it a masterpiece though is its viewing the family not from the young Cuaròn’s perspective but from the point of view of the Indian maid from Oaxaca. Her capacity for love, even of a family that alternately exploits and recognizes her, is shown in a stunning sequence where though she cannot swim she risks her life by wading in the water to save a boy and girl from the family who have wandered too far out in the waves at Vera Cruz.

At the core of Cuaròn’s memoir is the indignity of class relations in a Mexico which has, as he said in an interview at Venice, only changed for the worse since then. I should add that the Variety critic, who seemed to have no feelings for the maid or grasp of what the film was about, found Cuaròn’s “objectivity” tiring. The same critic flipped over the privileged whiteness of First Man, proving class and race prejudice put on the screen by filmmakers is readily validated by the critics.

Next week Dennis is back with the Coen Brothers uneven Western, Mike Leigh’s working class massacre, as elsewhere Errol Morris meets Steve Bannon and Frederic Wiseman meets small town America.

The Russian Pavilion
Thursday, 30 August 2018 10:41

Free Space: a place for creativity or a hollow marketing concept? The Venice Architecture Biennale 2018

Published in Architecture

Dennis Broe critically reviews the 2018 Architecture Biennale in Venice.

Free Space: A Place for Creativity or a Hollowed Out Marketing Concept

This year, the Venice 2018 Architecture Biennale, the once-every-two-year exposition of architects, architectural firms and nations, takes as its organizing principle the concept of free space. This is defined loosely by the curators as the generosity of the architect in working with nature’s gifts of light, air and gravity, to give shelter to our bodies and lift our spirits.

If this sounds like architechy speak, that’s because it is. The language is a way of ignoring the contemporary conditions under which an ever greedier capitalism forces and shapes the way architects work, often designing private spaces for the super wealthy or, as happened recently the collapse of the Genoa bridge, designing public spaces that don’t work.

genoa bridge

The curators, Dublin architects Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara, are guilty of their own obfuscation, adopting the concept of “the earth as client.” So, no more Mother Earth of the indigenous as summoned up in the Canada exhibit – now the earth itself is fit into the neoliberal framework of development, where all these natural ingredients are for sale. Clients of course can not only be satisfied, they can also be cheated, sued, and abandoned for other wealthier clients, so the concept doesn’t put the earth in a very good position – but does reflect the modern neoliberal ethos.

The concept Free Space in actuality suggests the limited amount of space left over after capital has had its way: what Bertolt Brecht called the nooks and crannies of capitalism. Neoliberalism is all about filling in those nooks and crannies, both physically through the marketization of land, air, and water and in mental space, through the colonization of consciousness.

Free space, rather than expanding, is being closed down by neoliberal capitalism, and that is a fundamental issue often not addressed in the Biennale. The Luxembourg pavilion did it best, noting that only 8 percent of the country was currently in public hands, the rest being private, and constructing a thin corridor in the middle of the pavilion taking up 8 percent of the space in the exhibition which the spectator walks down to give the sense of this confinement.

The result of this privatization is that architects, in order to best use the limited space left to them, must build upwards. So the pavilion is taken up with all kinds of ingenious building patterns which also in their own way are a cry for help and give a sense of how architects working in public spaces are confined.

The Biennale translates the concept of Free Space into several languages, and it is the Indonesian reworking of the concept that gives it a more dynamic and living aspect. Here, Free Space is defined as “a place for all.” Too often in the main exhibition, however, free space is simply jargon for a formal application of spatial principles that effectively excludes the social, political and economic formations in which the work is being done.

Again this year, as in 2016 with the earthquakes in central Italy, reality intervened and cured the neurosis, as Freud would say. Or in this case, exposed it. That is, in the middle of this wealth of architechy speak, the Morandi Bridge in Genoa collapsed. More than 35 people plunged to their death, and the city’s economy has been devastated, as the bridge links the city to the harbor and is a key to travel to the South of Italy.

The neoliberal idea of the state outsourcing to far more efficient private firms has been called into question. The collapse of what was seen at its inauguration in 1967 as the symbol of Italian modernity, a sleek structure that seemed to be light as air, was perhaps due to the use of reinforced concrete, a material that was thought even at the time to last perhaps 40 years, but not the 80 to 100 years most bridges are expected to endure.

Other Morandi bridges in Venezuela and in Sicily in have also either collapsed or are in danger of collapsing. The company the maintenance of the bridge was outsourced to – Autostrada, a subsidiary of Benetton, the streamlined clothes company which now looks much more mercenary than its projected image – has now had their communication devices seized by the prosecutor’s office. The prosecutor wants to know why the company ignored numerous reports claiming the bridge was unsafe, including one in September 2017 which predicted the collapse of pillars 9 and 10, which ere the culprits in the actual collapse.

The business press last week, in the wake of the anger of Italian citizens at the company and the government for its faith in neoliberal outsourcing, counselled moderation, urging people to not get too angry at the whole architect/state/corporate complex which led to the collapse – though 20 families of the victims banded together and refused a state funeral as a sign of its culpability.

Standard and Poor’s, rallying to the company’s defense, warned that a huge bill for the damages could wreck the company and forestall repairs to the bridge. The new populist government meanwhile, influenced by its far right front with the Northern League, was too preoccupied with holding migrants hostage to care.

Free Space as Ergonomic Real Estate in Switzerland

Needless to say, this complex web of issues was mostly absent from a Biennale that is desperately in need of expanding its reach beyond architechy speak, to address a populace that if they were engaged might be flocking to the show. As it is, the show is mostly for architecture students. Along with the neoliberal redefinition of no space as free space, the Swiss Pavilion which won the award as best national exhibition was a rounded “user-friendly” non-hierarchized house with sometimes tiny doors and rooms to accommodate all family members. The viewer in this so-called “free space”, however, is put in the position of real estate buyer, touring a house that is for sale. This is much more privately rented or bought space, rather than free space.

Similarly, with the at-first-audacious idea in the British Pavilion of the pavilion being entirely empty with an outside staircase leading to an equally vacant roof where 4 o’clock tea was served. Again, what was summoned up below was an unfurnished apartment, with the viewer treated as renter or real estate speculator. The view at the top was an imperial one of Venice – one former empire looking out over another.

There was also much left out that a more daring and less rigidly formal definition of free space might have encompassed. The French pavilion was about reclaimed urban spaces – reclaimed CentQuatre, a rap and cultural space that is overflowing with creativity. But the real story of French free space is the ZADs, the environmental zones of defense, one of which is currently being dismantled. These are examples of actual anarchist experiments in how to conceive new kinds of spaces formally and culturally, and there was not a word of these zones, which are located outside the state-corporate nexus.

Indigenous Architecture

Nevertheless, there was much to like. My prize goes to “Unceded: Voices of the Land”, the Canadian Pavilion turned over to First Nations, and about applying indigenous architectural principles to contemporary building. These principles begin with the idea that architectural form is inspired by the spirit of nature (picked up satirically outside the exhibition in Dalya Luttwack’s striated red iron plant, termed the first tropical mangrove in Venice, a result of displacement due to global warming). The indigenous pavilion reminds us that we all have a shared responsibility in regards to the land – the actual commons, not Client Earth.

The Russia Pavilion took up the ecological theme by validating the country’s romance with energy saving railroads. It included an imaginary film of a train trip to Vladivostok with the viewer watching out the window and the musings of famous Russian train travellers of the past, including not only Lenin and Trotsky but also Moma’s Alfred Barr, and the cultural theorist Walter Benjamin. Likewise, the Slovenian exhibit, a persistent fountain in a place where frequent floods occur, discussed that country’s relation to water, access to which is a constitutionally guaranteed right.

The US and Israeli pavilions, which were located next to each other, signifying their position of alignment as empire and chief client state, both had a thoughtful exhibit. The Israeli pavilion discussed the concept of Status Quo around the Holy Land, showing in matching videos how Jews and Muslims quickly set up and break down the shared space in Hebron of the Cave of the Patriarchs and the Ibrahimi Mosque. In these contested religious spaces, the exhibit argues, status quo is a way of maintaining equilibrium, although the exhibit elides the way that the status quo is being disrupted in the wake of Trump’s Jerusalem relocation of the US Embassy, and the new Israeli policy officially making Palestinians second class citizens.

The US Pavilion ,whose topic is Dimensions of Citizenship, takes a somewhat critical view of Trump’s anti-immigration and wall-building. It notes the similar geographical region around where Trump’s wall would go and documents the desire of the people on either side of the wall to cooperate. Elsewhere, a colonial aspect of the exhibition shows the US expanding into space mining, a part of the Musk and Bezos race to privatize space, in abrogation of a 1967 treaty prohibiting national appropriation of materials on other planets.

Belgiums reimagining of the EU

Both the Belgium and Greek pavilions returned to the concept of free space as that of the Greek forum, a place of free exchange of ideas. The Belgium exhibition simply recreated the forum in blue, with sound vibrations. It suggested that this return to an actual democracy in Brussels, the capital of the EU, was needed in light of the blatantly undemocratic way EU institutions and the European Central Bank now behaved. The Greek reconstitution of the forum was an ideal spatial reimagining of a university as more open exchange of ideas, against the current enclosure of the university as simply neoliberal thinktank.

Public housing as both success and failure was the subject of two exhibits. The Victoria and Albert Museum’s exhibit remembered Robin Hood Gardens, a public housing complex destroyed under Thatcher so that the area could be declared a free enterprise zone for more profitable development. The Star Apartment complex in LA, home to 102 homeless artists and city dwellers, with each apartment individually designed, was also the subject of an exhibit.

Finally, much developing nations’ architecture designated itself around the concept of informal space, with one Chinese exhibit noting how people’s existing spaces around laundries, gardens and urban growing might be maintained. An Egyptian exhibit suggested that if in slums the problems of sewage and clean water were solved, the people’s housing would be beautiful.

This is not a shirt

Finally, an architecture firm presented an exhibit of Bangladeshi women using their own sense of creating abundantly coloured garments to clothe themselves, and sell them, instead of working for pennies for global corporations. This critque of commodification was called “This is not a shirt”, and it also replicated the tiny shacks these women live in with newspapers for wallpaper, with a television as their only solace and sole piece of furniture. Their free space must be carved out of taking back their own means of making a living.

This is Bro on the Art World Beat reporting from the Venice Architectural Biennale. I’ll be back next week with a report on this year’s Venice Film Festival.

Tuesday, 10 July 2018 18:25

Scandi Noir Comes of Age: The Best of European Television

Dennis Broe reviews some recent European TV series.

The EU itself may be breaking apart over the question of refugees as the 28 – now 27 – try to hammer out an immigration policy essentially driven by the far right, which is making hay on exaggerating this issue, since Europe has already clamped down on the migratory flow which is significantly reduced since 2015.

Meanwhile, however, European television is alive and well with co-productions and cross-border collaboration increasing. All this is being led by the Scandinavian countries, who are shedding their particular brand in the world market, which is Scandi Noir, or series about a tough male or female cop returning to a rural or northern bleak setting often where they grew up to pursue a murderer or the kidnapper of a child.

The form is tried and true – see The Killing, Midnight Sun, Jordskott – but Scandi makers of serial series are now retaining the mystery or thriller aspect, but branching out to deal explicitly with key social and economic problems in their societies. This deepens the mystery and strengthens the conspiratorial aspect of the work in a way that might – but probably won’t – serve as a model for U.S. series.

These observations are drawn from the just completed Serie Series conclave outside Paris in the chateau city of Fontainebleau. The conference was presided over by the erstwhile and dedicated curator of what is becoming a very popular website in Europe and elsewhere, “Walter Presents.”

The site originates from Channel 4 in Britain which is, along with Arte in France, probably the public station that is the most progressive commissioner of film and television series in the world. The site is a free listing of its master Walter Iuzzolino’s choices of the most interesting European series in a variety of genres. He is sort of a one-person Netflix algorithm who chooses series based on fascinating but popular concepts and not – as in Netflix – on what will attract the most new subscribers. It’s a great place to watch new series.

DB conspiracy of silence

Walter pointed out that European series had gotten somewhat straightjacketed into the quirky, local police detective genre and hoped they would soon escape that bind. Scandi TV makers then illustrated that this was indeed happening. Conspiracy of Silence for example uses a Count of Monte Cristo tale of revenge about a Swedish arms runner now trying to make up for his past transgressions who goes back to Sweden to find his former co-arms runner is more engaged than ever in the trade.

Sweden, which is generally associated with pacifist endeavours like the Nobel Peace Prize, is the 11th leading manufacturer and global pedlar of weapons. Perhaps, though, this is less surprising when you recall that Alfred Nobel’s money came from gunpowder. The series details how imbricated the society is in an industry that attempts to muzzle the press and that, as in the U.S., spreads its wealth into every electoral district and in that way corrupts legislators.

Elsewhere a Swedish-Finnish series, now in production, The White Wall, inspired by the documentary Into Eternity, takes up the subject of the storage of nuclear waste, since the refuse of atomic plants is said to contaminate the environment for 100,000 years. This is a major issue especially in Finland where the sites are often located. The series, set in Sweden by a Finnish showrunner, has a kind of Lost aspect to it as miners discover a mysterious locked vault that seems to radiate mystery and catastrophe. The series is being shot in the deepest open pit mine in Europe where the actors themselves with have a taste of the experiences of the characters.

Finally, there is State of Happiness which is the second Norwegian series to take up the subject of Norway’s oil fields in the North Sea, which had brought prosperity to the country, with the oil fund invested in only environmentally sound enterprises and with the contradiction growing sharper every day between where the money comes from and the progressive purposes to which it is being put. This is also the subject of a Norwegian sitcom titled The Oil Fund.

State of Happiness at first takes a positive view of oil drilling returning to 1960 when Phillips Petroleum like all the Anglo-British oil companies declares the area dry and is retiring. The show in its first seasons details how oil is actually discovered and how it comes under public control, pointing out that the U.S., one of the least efficient drillers of oil, is one of the few countries that considers the natural resource to be private. Later seasons though will deal with the environmentally devastating effects of a fund that has enriched all Norwegians.

Also now starting to circulate around the globe is Home Ground, a kind of female Friday Night Lights about a woman soccer coach in a men’s premier league in Norway. The series doesn’t skimp on the soccer, but its subject is mainly the multiple layers of prejudice the coach experiences at all levels of society as she attempts to infiltrate a male enclave.

On the psychological front – while retaining a deep involvement in the social – is the Icelandic series, now in production, The Minister, about a manic-depressive leader of the country. At the presentation in their pitch the series creators asked “What would it be like to have a crazy person as your ruler?” Everyone in the U.S. now knows the answer to that, and the writers revealed that in season one the prime minister would be manic and in season two depressive, which may be an accurate description of Trump’s first and coming second term in office. Iceland has it on TV: the US is living it.

The conference also featured Danish scholar Ib Bondebjerg talking about European televisual cooperation and co-productions, which most often involve public television, the biggest player in European TV. The most fascinating aspect of his study showed Germany in the centre of European production, as a country that mediated on the one side between the Scandi countries of Iceland, Finland, Sweden, Denmark, the Dutch territories of Holland and the Northern or Flemish Part of Belgium and, on the other side, France, Spain and Italy.

Language is also a factor in Germany’s centrality, since there is a linguistic relationship between Scandinavia, the Dutch area, parts of Switzerland, Austria and Germany. The other similarity in the Northern hub of television is that all of these countries use English as a second language, a factor that binds them but that also opens them up to penetration by the American streaming and television services.

DB clashoffutures

A transnational series which garnered a good deal of attention were Clash of Futures – or Ken Burns meets the apocalypse. The series, with six countries producing, details through dramatic recreations, diary readings and found footage, the disintegration of Europe in the years between the two world wars, 1918 to 1939. It’s a smaller budget series on a big topic with the found footage often substituting for what in U.S. TV or films would be fictional recreation, a sort of ingenious use of existing footage to present the sheen of a much more expensive series.

In general the better funded, more dominant British series were disappointing. A Very British Scandal with Hugh Grant and Ben Whishaw is a comedy of errors set in the 1970s, where a minister attempts to assassinate his gay lover to silence him. Grant looks like an anaemic Patrick McGoohan and Whishaw, who is always interesting, is served much better in the far more substantial London Spy, a series with actual political teeth to it, now on Netflix. Likewise, the coming World on Fire recounting World War II from the German and English perspectives sounds in comparison like a paler version of Clash of Futures.

banking disrrict

On the brighter side were two series now starting to circulate that both boasted excellent first episodes. Banking District is a Flemish-Swiss co-production set in a pristine, gleaming and dangerous Geneva about a private banking family feeling the heat from the Obama Administration, which after its giveaway to U.S. bankers then went after the secrecy of the Swiss banking industry to recoup its funds.

The pilot, extremely well-written, details the downfall of the lead banker, the family’s connection to the mob, the backbiting within the family for power and how its outsider members, – the black sheep sister who had refused to work in the industry and her whistleblower journalist ex-husband – begin to unearth the family’s secrets. The pilot focuses on the change in the sister and brings her sharply into focus in a way that bodes well for the rest of the series.

DB Fenix

Fenix is a Dutch-Belgium co-production that manages to expertly put a new wrinkle in a cop/drug wars series. The pilot episode focuses on a kidnapping with a special prosecutor and a drug lord trying to have the drug lord’s stepdaughter returned. The series is filled with gritty, tough locales, and in its look and seediness recalls Flemish film noirs such as The Ardennes, about the hollowed-out lives of what looks like Belgium’s Appalachia, and Dark Inclusion, Hamlet in the Antwerp diamond district.

The series manages a turn at the end of the pilot which utterly shocks and makes us realize that Fenix is indeed the Dutch word for Phoenix, as in rising from the ashes. I won’t add more except to say that it is the most startling and one of the best constructed pilots of the year which at its end utterly throws the series in a new and unexpected direction.

You can watch more coverage of Euro and global television on my show TV on TV available at the Art District Television website,

Cannes 2018: Best of the Rest
Monday, 28 May 2018 18:38

Cannes 2018: Best of the Rest

Published in Films

Dennis Broe gives us his Best of the Rest from Cannes 2018.

All the other critics have gone home but I’m still on the Croisette, the Cannes Boardwalk, sweeping up after them. This week I’ll finish my Cannes reporting with a look at the best of the three other competitions: Directors Fortnight which generally features newer directors; Un Certain Regard for more established directors; and Critic’s Week, generally for directors new to the festival. These are films that will be released throughout the year that can easily get lost in the Hollywood and American Independent glut. Keep an eye out for them because though deserving they are likely to be the films that if they get reviewed at all get stuck on, for example, The New York Times page of eight reviews.

In general the Director’s Fortnight, not officially a part of the Festival and begun the year after Godard and Truffaut closed Cannes in 1968, tries to be more of a breath of fresh air. Its choices tend as much toward the social as the aesthetic, whereas Un Certain Regard is more staunchly and purely aesthetic and its choices are sometimes harder to swallow or sit through.

This year the Directors Fortnight had a distinct Latin and South American flavor as did the original program in 1969, awash with the aesthetics and social consciousness of Latin American revolution. The 2018 films tended to center on indigenous peoples and many of the better films at the festival were about the damage being done to native customs more in line with nature.

Before we go to that, I do need to add that there was a calling out of the critics as well at the festival in this year of MeToo. It occurred around the screening of Girls of the Sun, a film about a squadron of Kurdish female fighters engaged against ISIS. This was the film where 82 women mounted the steps of the Palais to urge the industry to employ more women. The film was directed by directed one of only three female directors in any area of the festival and the reviews afterwards, by mostly male critics, roundly panned it. Several of the women in attendance then denounced the reviews as indicating that the ranks of reviewers needed to open up also.

This reminds me of moments in both comedy and rock and roll when women needed to call attention to the fact that their humor and ways of making music was different rather than not funny or not listenable. Female comedians and female bands have both gained in attention and both fields have been the better for it. Michelle Wolf is currently perhaps not only the fastest rising but also the funniest and most politically astute practitioner of contemporary comedy. Hopefully next year there will a swelling in the ranks of female reviewers as well.

Here are four of the best films outside the main competition followed by a review of some of the others.

 woman at war

Woman at War – This onscreen extension of MeToo about an Earth Mother battling global energy companies in Iceland opens with a razzle-dazzle sequence with this lone warrior with bow and arrow bringing down a power plant. Hala is a choir teacher by day but an environmental activist by night attempting to keep Rio Tinto and Chinese developers out of Iceland’s rural highlands, one of the last bastions of nature in Europe. This is the real Wonder Woman who battles for justice for the world’s climate victims. The film’s concluding segment has Hala visiting the Ukraine to adopt a girl orphaned by a war that is seen as having unleashed untold natural devastation on that country, a war provoked by U.S. and NATO aggression in the region. Aiding her in her quest are on-screen musicians and Ukrainian folk dancers whose music is a cultural echo of the natural life Hala is sworn to protect.

 canneds gentleindifference of the world

The Gentle Indifference of the WorldBonny and Clyde in Kazakhstan in a film whose title is a quote from Camus. The title is facetious. The world the film describes is far from gentle and, rather than indifferent, it is cruel, as a young girl is sent by her mother from the country to the city to be betrothed to a rich man to settle the family’s debts. She is accompanied by a village compatriot who loves her and becomes a kind of guardian angel. What they encounter is a world where businessmen and gangsters look and act alike. After multiple deceptions, the duo takes to the road in the film’s strongest sequence in a desperate bid for freedom that both recalls and outdoes the final scene of Bonny and Clyde. This is a bitter but enchanting look at the region and the coming of neoliberalism to it.

 cannes the snatch thief

The Snatch Thief – This film noir from Argentina about the motorcycle getaway driver of a purse snatching duo, which might have been better titled The Motorcycle Thief, is a reminder that Argentina has an expert history as a creator of crime films with doomed heroes from the 1940s and ‘50s. The thieves drag an old lady with them as they make off with her pocketbook which disturbs the driver Miguel who then slowly insinuates his way into the victim’s life with the two becoming intertwined. The film features shots framed in the 1940s Hollywood style with the thief in foreground watching Miguel’s righteous father in the background bidding for the affection of his son, “choker close-ups” of Miguel facing off with his partner who wants him to continue his life of crime, and a sense of foreboding affecting the lead as he attempts forgiveness in a perilous way. The film with its low-caste characters is also a look at the other side of a suffering Argentina that its right-wing market-oriented government is bent on denying.

 birds of passage

Birds of Passage – Yes this is Scarface in Columbia with its tale of the rise and fall of a drug dealer in the North of that country in the land of the Wayuu Indians, but it is also so much more. Directed by the team that created The Embrace of the Serpent, about the encounter of a German “explorer” and the last of an Indian tribe, this follow-up is about a similar theme only writ larger. It details the 20-year history of the tribe’s involvement in selling and shipping marijuana and what it adds to the typical gangster film is an acute awareness of the ways the greed, violence and customs of the West penetrate and ultimately destroy not only the gangster capo but the tribe as well, as one by one the customs that had allowed it to survive are surrendered to a substitute thirst for material goods. We watch collective pride be replaced by vengeance in a way that deepens the gangster genre while delivering all the expectations of that genre based on the lead dealer’s rise and fall. This is Narcos from the Columbian perspective which both quotes that series--in a parallel scene where the police stop the drug runners not to imprison them but to make sure they get their cut—while also outdoing the Netflix vehicle in its inner understanding of its subjects.

Two other films also dealt with Latin American turmoil. Los Silencios, The Silences, is a kind of passionate plea to end the war in Columbia between the government and right-wing paramilitaries and the revolutionary group The FARC. The film is actually many movies in one, about a refugee family fleeing the war trying to get access to Brazil, about the remote island they arrive at somewhere between Peru, Columbia and Brazil at the gentrifying moment that it is about to be overrun by a casino, as well as a coming of age film of a young girl, perhaps the strongest moments of the film. The Brazilian director Biatriz Seigner appeared before the film appealing to the audience to take a stand against the false imprisoning of Lula, the Workers Party Candidate, who is, even from his jail cell, leading the presidential polls. She also said that Kleber Mendoca Filho, the director of Aquarius, a film with Sonia Braga, who at Cannes in 2016 had called attention to an earlier legislative coup against then president Dilma Rousseff, was forced by the neoliberal Temer government to give back the grant he had received as punishment for calling attention to the coup.

Elsewhere The Dead and Others follows a young Amazonian Indian family while a heavy air of loss by the father for his father hangs over him and threatens to overcome him. The family goes to the nearby town to work to raise money for the burial and there is a heartbreaking scene where the father for his own reasons at the moment refuses to return with his wife and son. The recounting of the attempt to live in their own way and the tenderness of the family is excellent but the constant tarrying with the dark side of the lead character feels like an extraneous western imposition.

Another kind of indigenous wandering takes place in Tenet or The Charge, a film from Serbia that recalls the 1999 NATO bombing of the country and that opens with a display of shock and awe as the skies are ablaze above a lone truck gliding though the night. The film focuses on its driver who cannot listen to the radio because NATO satellites have jammed the signal and who risks his life on the road in a way that recalls the truck drivers’ hauling dynamite in Wages of Fear. There is an air of sadness about the film for the breakup of Yugoslavia and particularly the Serb partisans’ opposition to the Nazis that the farce of the NATO invasion in the Kosovo war only mocks.

Finally there were two horror films that left their imprint on the festival. The better of these was Borders from Sweden written by the author of Let the Right One In, a socially critical vampire film. Borders introduces a new type of monster with its own carefully calibrated rules while focusing on a female customs sniffer with a face not even a mother could love, which is one of the questions of the film, and an apparently missing tail. Much of the film is absorbing as it questions our tolerance for the other, but finally it succumbs to what it is questioning with one of the monsters seen ultimately as terrifying other while the second moves to become a more liberal part of the society, that is, becomes acceptable because she tames or sheds her otherness.

Die, Monster, Die on the other hand, is an Argentine film without the soul of The Snatch Thief. Its overflowing of bodily fluids from all cavities is simply an example of Art Splatter, as Noel Carroll once described more aesthetic examples of the genre as Art Horror. It adds up to little and in its gross out effects make it seem more like a Master’s Degree highlight reel designed to get the director Hollywood recognition once he jettisons the pretentious existential overlay of who is and isn’t a monster. Oh well, there’s room at Cannes for blatant careerism also.  

This is Bro on the World Film Beat Breaking Glass and winding up my coverage of Cannes 2018.

Cannes 2018 vs. Cannes 1968: What a Falling Off Is This!
Monday, 21 May 2018 18:53

Cannes 2018 vs. Cannes 1968: What a Falling Off Is This!

Published in Films

Dennis Broe's final report on the hyperspectacle which is Cannes 2018.

I would like to begin this Cannes Festival wrap up with the opening of At War, a film about the immolation of the French working class, which is an apt quote from Bertolt Brecht for these media-induced apathetic times: “It’s possible to struggle and lose but if you don’t struggle, you’ve already lost.”

Now to the hyperspectacle. The dust has settled, the prizes are bestowed and Cannes 2018 is in the books. The American trade papers subjected the festival to consistent attacks with The Hollywood Reporter suggesting, as one of its “Five Reasons why Cannes is no Longer so Relevant”, that there are not as many billboards along the Croisette or Boardwalk for American blockbusters. The Festival is having problems but lack of billboards championing masterpieces like Cars 12 and Fast and Furious 27 are not among them.

Hollywood boycotted the festival, perhaps figuring that Venice, which is closer to nomination time, works better for highlighting Academy Award fare. On their side, the French cinema owners also closed ranks, threatening to fire the Cannes director Thierry Fremaux if he again allowed Netflix films, which do not open in French cinemas, in the main competition.

Foreign profits

Fremaux, whose natural disposition is more ecumenical, then returned the festival to arthouse competition only, but without Amazon and Netflix, two of the main American producers currently of independent fare. The open war that broke out at Cannes is really the expression of a competition between Hollywood/Netflix and the rest of the world. Foreign profits are now more crucial to the Hollywood/Netflix bottom line and when the studios and the streaming services took their toys and went home they wanted to make it seem like the sandbox would then collapse, though both were highly active in snatching up films in the Cannes market.

That aside though, many of the films this year were problematic. They often began well but succumbed to various faults. The Godard film was a milestone, but the Lars von Trier and Jia Zhangke films were both lacking. Two Italian films, Happy As Lazzaro and Dogman have wonderful first halves, then seem to succumb to the same malaise that is afflicting the country as a whole, which this week saw the first far-right party take power in a Western democracy. Blackkklansman, which did win the second prize at the festival, is the best and worst of Spike Lee. Under the Silver Lake begins in Hitchcock/David Lynch ecstasy in its perceptive presentation of capitalism’s compulsion to erase mystery and wonder from the world, but then substitutes lazy Hollywood pseudo-philosophizing for critique.

Nevertheless, there were films to like and a top five in and out of the main competition. They were:
- Yomeddine, an Egyptian road movie that is a tour through a brutal neo-liberalized Egypt;
- Cold War, a unexpected complex examination of both sides of that conflict;
- The Image Book, Godard’s masterful indictment of and paean to European civilization and its troubled relationship with the Arab World;
- The Spy Gone North which begins as a Cold War missive itself then morphs into a revealing look at the powers on the peninsula wanting to maintain the war; and
- At War, Stephane Brize’s penetrating examination of what may be the last stand for French workers losing their place in the globalized capitalist economy.

There were also films not to like. Two of these were: Solo: A Star War’s Story, where we find out how Hans Solo met Chewbacka and a whole lot of other things we didn’t need or want to know in Disney’s attempt to push the franchise well beyond oversaturation, and On the Road in France, a cross country trip by May 68’s Daniel Cohn-Bendit. He is now a Macron backer, and his grilling of the workers he encounters about how they can be more productive and relevant is a very Macroniste take on a French working class which now must justify its very existence.

The best

First the best. Yomaddine is better and more trenchant than most critics here thought. An ageing leper in rural Egypt, whose wife has just died, goes on a quest with the boy he has adopted to find his long lost parents who had dropped him at the colony. What he finds though is an Egypt full of corruption, competition and greed as the police shackle him, fellow travellers steal from him and his family at first shuns him – in short a trip though the American backed Al-Sissi dictatorship which betrayed the Arab Spring.

Hope though comes from social outsiders and outcasts including the Muslim Brotherhood member who escapes from jail with him, three cripples, including one a former truck driver run over by a drunken scion of a wealthy family, who re-instill his confidence, and the boy Obama who will not forsake him. A chilling scene is his watching a cruise ship at night in his first time gazing at the Nile from his perch next to his beat-up mule-drawn wagon with the Egyptian elite streaming by and partying in the face of and oblivious to his misery.

Godard believes in the power of images and in their constant juxtaposition and The Image Book somewhat akin to Elegy of Love, Film Socialisme and his 3-D Goodbye to Language simply overwhelms with his quoting and mixing of films from Johnny Guitar to Vertigo. He also quotes art, Delacroix for example. The film mixes works of creation of Western civilization with footage of napalming and massacres in Vietnam, atomic explosions, and devastation of the Arab World. The overall impact though in this case is not the celebration of the images as in his Histories of Cinema but a sense that the image culture which Godard loves/hates is complicit in the destruction and devastation that the West has unleashed on the rest of the world.

This festival’s other masterpiece is Polish director Pawel Palinowski’s Cold War, an instant Oscar contender for Best Foreign Film. The film, which covers a decade in frayed European relationships because of the Cold War, is shot in resplendent black and white. The monochrome approach catches the drabness of the Eastern bloc, but also in more high contrast the glitter that is not gold of the West, and particularly Paris.

The film explores the way the aspirations of artists – here star-crossed lovers, a singer and an composer/accompanist – were similar in the Second World to the First World, with the performers from the Polish countryside wanting to get to Moscow instead of New York and London, and with divided Berlin as their meeting point. The Cold War of the title also refers to men and women but that conflict between the two leads takes second fiddle by the end to the way they can find no peace on either side of the socialist/capitalist curtain and are eventually consumed by this war among peoples who were more alike than different.

Cannes 2 At War

The presentation of Stephane Brize’s At War received a 15 minute ovation at the end. The film details the way that French workers at a factory, who were promised work for five years and who gave back hours and wages after two years, find out that the German owned company, which is making a profit, is going back on its word. It is closing because it can reduce wages even further by moving to Romania.

The film premiered the day after Oxfam announced that of the leading industrialized countries French businesses returned the greatest share of their profits, 68%, to shareholders who simply pocketed the money, a factor which is revealed in the film as also driving the plant closing. The film concentrates solidly on the attempts to resist the firing of the factory workers with little psychologizing of his characters in a way that keeps it focused on their economic plight. The only problem was the overemphasis on one worker, played by Vincent London, one of the only professional actors in the cast, but miscast in a film whose subject was the collective group of workers. This character though does come finally to expresses the near hopelessness of workers caught in the global corporate capitalist vice, and the ovation at the premiere seemed to be as much for French workers themselves as for the cast, crew, and film.

Cannes 2 the spy gone north cannes

The Spy Gone North, a taut espionage and suspense thriller, begins in promoting the Cold War itself as a South Korean spy dressed up as an entrepreneur attempts to ferret out in the 1990s whether the North is constructing atomic weapons. Strangely, that task is forgotten in the film’s much stronger second half, as it details the ways that military men on both sides want the buildup to continue and in the South the way the intelligence service was used to attempt to sabotage the election of a peace candidate. The films feelgood ending affirms a friendship between the spy from the South and his corresponding contact in the North validating the will of the people on both sides for peace.

Cannes 2 blackkklansman

Not so good

Now to the problem films. Blackkklansman, like its bombastic title, is a narrative that too often stays at the level of style in this story of a black police officer in Colorado in the 1980s who helped infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan. The presentation of Stokely Carmichael and the black liberation rebels is superficial sloganeering and the celebration of police informants, here both black and white, hews too closely to the current Democratic Party strategy of celebrating the FBI’s investigation of Trump. Be careful what you wish for and who you are celebrating.

The strengths here are Spike’s mixing of materials and use of documentary including:
- the magnetic presence of Harry Belafonte telling a story of a 1916 lynching intercut with the Klan’s watching of the film The Birth of a Nation;
- Alex Baldwin’s impersonation of a Grand Klan wizard in the opening using Trump phraseology;
- the closing montage which highlights the resurgence of right wing street violence at Charlottsville; and
- a transcendent dance sequence in a black club to the Cornelius Brothers and Sister Rose’s “It’s too late to turn back now.”

jie zhangkes Ash is Pure as White

Jie Zhangke’s Ash is Pure as White has another miraculous performance by his muse Zhao Tao in a film about three phases of contemporary China’s transformation into a freewheeling, profitable, but less communal, economy and society. Her performance recalls first her role as ingénue gangster's moll in Unknown Pleasures at the moment of the country’s initial capitalization, then as female action figure from A Touch of Sin as here she saves her gangster boyfriend and takes the rap for him, as wronged wife in Still Life in its critique of vast expansions such as the Three Gorges Project which shows up in the film as a place. Here, she is swindled by a would-be entrepreneur, and finally as gambling parlour elder which recalls her struggles to triumph over a hard life in Mountains May Depart. The problem is we have seen it all before and though this adds to Zhao’s luster as perhaps the greatest actress in the modern cinema it does not add so much to Jie’s work or deepen his concerns.

Two films which initially appear promising but then end up vacant are Lars von Trier’s House That Jack Built and the actually more ambitious and penetrating film by It Follows director David Robert Mitchell, Under the Silver Lake. House was von Trier’s return to Cannes after being ousted for a previous provocation.

The film begins as a characterization of the American male as that of a serial killer. It’s an orgy of male violence against women and the kind of film, even as critique, that perhaps the MeToo movement will change so that we get the other side of this violence, and indeed 100 people are said to have walked out at the premiere.

It then descends into a parable of the artist as serial killer with Matt Dylan/von Trier as Dante visiting hell accompanied by Bruno Ganz’s Virgil, and at this point becomes simple, meaningless and offensive provocation, citing Albert Speer as tortured artist. It’s a far cry from von Trier’s better work, which had cast a penetrating gaze on the American psyche. House is the violent companion piece to the equally lifeless Nymphomaniac – von Trier has managed to make two boring films about sex and violence.

Cannes 2 under the silver lake

Under the Silver Lake begins very promisingly with hints of a mystery in this gentrified capital of Los Angeles hipdom, as an out-of-work slacker attempts to solve the disappearance of a girl who lives next door, as in Rear Window. He follows her friend in lush travelling shots via Vertigo, only this time as farce in a paddle boat; acts like Jeffrey in Blue Velvet in his claim that there is a mystery he is trying to uncover; and watches at one of the numerous parties he attends a whispered version of “To Sir With Love” that recalls the “Crying” sequence in Mulholland Drive.

The film’s enlightened conceit though, is that while Lynch and Hitchcock explored genuine social and psychic mysteries, late capitalism has destroyed the idea of mystery and replaced it with nothing but brands. The slacker Sam in a conversation with his nominal girlfriend after having sex, during which they watch celebrity news, talks about the first magazine he masturbated to and then asks his actress-friend what was her first – not her first lover or first person she had sex with, but the first image she masturbated to. She answers that it was a character, a logo, on a tube of tooth paste, a double remove from human experience. Where Hitchcock had the Raymond Burr character in Rear Window as a murderer, Sam spies instead in the window of the missing girl, the landlord looking for the rent. The film does eventually dissolve into a haze of ramblings about pop culture, as the so-called solutions to the mysteries become more and more trivial, actually unintentionally illustrating its thesis that what is meaningful in culture has been destroyed by profit mongers, unfortunately that includes the latter half of this film. The real secret of Silver Lake - the gentrification that has moved Hispanic peoples out of the area and replaced them with hipsters - is elided in these pseudo-solutions.

Problems also beset two Italian films, both about the contemporary issues plaguing that country. Dogman has an astounding performance by Marcello Fonte as a dog groomer in a forgotten, left-for-dead, suburban wasteland somewhere in Italy. Fonte is the new Dino Risi, the Italian everyman actor of the 1950s. Only where Risi was a conformist who somehow managed to do the right thing, Fonte’s character is a decent man who is drawn into a net of violence as his way out of the poverty facing the country’s small business class. The opening sequence where he is gingerly washing a vicious bulldog is recapitulated in the film with his relationship with a local thug Simone, who is Mussolini-like in his brute violence. The film though in the end succumbs to that violence and can find no other way out.

Happy As Lazzaro exhibits director Alice Rohrwacher’s gift for recalling the ‘50s golden age of Italian social comedy, especially in its opening serenading of a young girl by a villager, seen not from his perspective but from the jaded view of the girl’s older sister. The film is about the village enslaved and in debt to a contessa who does not inform them that their medieval sharecropping relationship has been outlawed in modern Italy and who claims they are better off enslaved.

The second half purports to be a fable about how these times continue in the present but by the bumbling of the peasants in the modern world instead simply illustrates that what the contessa claimed about them needing their own domination is true.

A similar problem besets the Japanese film Shoplifting, which won the Palme d’Or as best film. A gang of loving misfits live by pilfering but form what the film contends is a better family unit than the more traditional one, adopting a girl who is beaten in her supposedly more loving, upwardly mobile family structure. Ultimately though the film does not sustain its critique and ends up taking it back, by showing that the outsider family is as morally bankrupt as those it seems to oppose. Wonderful performances highlighted by Ando Sakuro, the wife of the lead character, who is alternately carefree, seductive and maternal.

Patriarchal capitalist culture

Finally there is the documentary Whitney, which opens with shots of the Newark Riots and places its subject Whitney Houston in the middle of the riots where she grew up. The film details her rough schooling and abandonment by her mother Cissy Houston, who was on the road with Aretha Franklin, her father stealing from her, and her husband Bobby Brown beating her and leading her further down the path of drugs. It also details her remarkable vocal ability nurtured in her gospel background, her energy, and the way her voice and the famous kiss at the end of The Bodyguard with Kevin Costner, a relationship with a white man in which the black woman has the upper hand, was a point of pride for the black community.

Unfortunately, this type of tell-all film can easily degenerate into its own form of exploitation. The moment where a friend reveals that Whitney was molested – and then pauses and reveals by whom and we find it’s a celebrity molestation – feels simply designed to sell the film rather than to get to an inner truth about the singer. Her desperation was indeed there from the beginning in her first mega hit “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” where the next line is “with somebody who loves me.” She searched her whole life to find that somebody, did not find them, and the search in all the wrong places and her pumping up by the male dominated, profit-seeking celebrity machine, combined to kill her. Like so many other black female singers, she was a victim of patriarchal capitalist culture.

Art versus Commerce at Cannes 2018
Tuesday, 15 May 2018 13:27

Art versus Commerce at Cannes 2018

Published in Films

Dennis Broe reports back from Cannes 2018.

There are three big stories at the festival and in each the work of the artists, the film directors featured at Cannes, is countering or deepening the official story.

The first is the MeToo anti-harassing and women’s rights campaign which two extraordinary films, one contemporary, Woman At War, and other a progressive blast from the past, Blow for Blow, take beyond its sheltered confines and open up to women in general.

The second is the move to revalidate traditional movie going with the forbidding of Netflix, countered by Godard and the Chinese director Jia Zhangke’s embracing of cinema in its multi-formats and distribution patterns.

Finally, the presence of Saudi Arabia as a purveyor of money and a new, supposed modernity as a means of erasing its part in drawing the Middle East region into a war with a supposedly terrorist Iran, contrasted with the plethora of Iranian directors and their humanist concerns utterly giving the lie to this characterization.

MeToo and the real Wonder Woman

On the part of MeToo Kate Blanchett the jury president led a delegation of women onto the red carpet at the premiere of the female director Eva Husson’s Girls of the Sun about a group of Kurdish women fighting ISIS. They were calling attention to the fact that of the 1866 films in competition over Cannes’ 71 years of existence only 82 of them, the number of women on the red carpet, were directed by women, and only two female directors won the Grand Prize, the Palme D’Or. One of them was Agnes Varda, who was on the red carpet for the protest and co-wrote the women’s statement which urged gender equality not only in the film industry but in all industries. The Cannes Festival prides itself on being a director’s fest so this was the place to make this statement.

Agnes Varda and 82 women on the red carpet

In the past Cannes had its part to play not in promoting but in condoning and ignoring sexual harassment. Harvey Weinstein’s reputation was made at Cannes with films such as the Palme D’or winner Sex, Lies and Videotape which his company distributed and Quentin Tarentino’s Pulp Fiction which he produced. (By the way Spike Lee was always astounded that Sex, Lies and beat out his Do The Right Thing that year and he has finally returned to Cannes this year in competition with Blackkklansman.)

Asia Argento was harassed by Weinstein at Cannes as was Blanchett elsewhere, a factor perhaps in her being chosen as jury head. Cannes needs to make up for its ignoring this behavior, and its director Thierry Fremaux was called to task this year by the women for claiming that though only three of the films in the main competition were directed by women, he had no control over this since the films were chosen for their artistic merit – though by a selection committee that was predominantly men, unlike this year’s jury which is majority women. 

So far though, MeToo has remained for the most part a white, upper or upper middle class movement, with the idea being that these women are more vocal and will speak for working class and third world women, an idea that is classist and colonialist in its own right. It is important that MeToo does not become merely “I’m Getting Mine” for a set of privileged women.

woman at war

Extending the boundaries of the movement were the Icelandic film A Woman at War about a choir teacher by day but an environmental activist by night, who with her bow and arrow is shown in the opening segment slaying power companies in an attempt to keep Rio Tinto and Chinese developers out of Iceland’s rural highlands, one of the last bastions of nature in Europe. She is quickly attacked by American CIA and Israeli monitors but is savvy enough to put her cell phone in a microwave while talking to a co-conspirator in a ministry office.

This is the real Wonder Woman who battles for justice for the world’s climate victims, and in the film’s concluding segment visits the Ukraine where she will adopt a girl orphaned by a war that is seen as having caused untold devastation on that country – a war provoked by U.S. and NATO aggression in the region.

Even stronger is a revival in the Cannes Classics section of Coup Pour Coup or Blow for Blow from 1972, about female workers in a garment factory who rise up against their male foremen, factory owners, and union leaders who all conspire against them. The opening sequence has the women chained to their sewing machines, unable to take even a bathroom break, while also having to fend off the unwanted touching of the foreman who restricts their movement.

French female workers on the march in Blow For Blow

The film details the women’s occupying the factory and as such recalls Salt of the Earth, a film from the Hollywood blacklist period where women win a strike. This is the one of the best films on labour ever made and hopefully, in the age of the French president Macron’s attacks on the railroad, plane and academic workers, will soon be revived in France and be able to be seen in the U.S. as well.

The forbidding of Netflix

The second major story is a turning away from the experimentation of last year in terms of formats and distribution patterns toward a more standard theatrical emphasis, with the forbidding of Netflix films, which often do not open in cinemas, from being in Cannes competition. That meant this year no Jeremy Sauliner with Hold the Dark and whose Green Room was one of the great surprises of the festival two years ago, no Alphonso Quaron with his film Roma, and no original Orson Welles whose unfinished Other Side of the Wind had been restored by the streaming service.

France’s distribution system forbids showing other than in a cinema for three years after release though this is suspended for Canal Plus which can show after 10 months. It would surely be much better to tax the Netflix films and, as is done with Canal Plus, use that money to finance French film and television production which is currently suffering from depleted funds because Canal Plus is losing French subscribers to Netflix. The motto here should be if you can’t beat ‘em, tax ‘em.

Virtual Reality was also not highlighted here as it was in last year’s Venice Film Festival though there is a Virtual Reality cinema in the market section of the festival, an indication that that form is gaining credence. Also struck this year is television, a place where at least in Hollywood and increasingly across the globe, what used to be mid-level more intelligent film production has migrated.

There has as well been a doubling down on the rules surrounding the festival in another effort to turn back time. There are no selfies allowed on the red carpet this year, though in a way taking a selfie on the tapis rouge diminishes the glow of the event and says anyone can be a star. Press screenings this year have also been altered, with no screenings before the red carpet opening, on the idea that with the speed of the internet, a film that is seen by critics in the morning may have already generated bad press by the time it premieres in the evening. The American digital critics were upset claiming this was censorship while the French critics instead were opposed to the ban because it did not give them time for reflection, since the red carpet screening review at night was due immediately for the next day’s newspapers.

Cannes though in attempting to keep the aura of the red carpet premiere and retain the emphasis on the director as creator also scored two coups. Terry Gilliam’s Death of Don Quixote, over a decade in the making, was ruled by a French judge able to close the festival, over the protest of its producer Paulo Branco, who probably because of a previous Cannes snubbing, did not want the film to show. The judge specifically cited the need of the artist to have his film seen and Gilliam who had a brain haemorrhage the weekend before, will likely make it to the festival to walk the red carpet.

Also stunning is the new career of Martin Scorsese, who was here to open the Director’s Fortnight section of the festival with a talk and a screening of Mean Streets. Scorsese’s producing company Sikelia last year accounted for three of the most outstanding indies in cinema I Ciambra, The Witch and Patti Cake$, all of which harken back to and recall Scorsese’s own initial energy and verve in Mean Streets.

jie zhangkes Ash is Pure as White

Two filmmakers belied the pure film ideal in their work. Jia Zhangke in Ash is Purest White traced the history of a rapidly capitalizing China by also shooting in the various formats Jia has followed in his path from independent, outlawed filmmaker to world cinema icon. The film opened in digital video, then switched to High Def video and then to film which marked the change in the prosperity of the country, though he returns in the end to primitive security camera footage to show that that prosperity also has a price as his lead female character in the shot finds her world now emptied of fellow feeling.

Godard in The Image Book also mixes or collides a variety of film and video styles and formats in a film that will also become a travelling museum exhibition and where the rapid clash of formats also figures a chaotic world moving rapidly towards its own destruction.

Saudi money

A third major story is Saudi money attempting to conceal and paper over the kingdom’s aggression in the region and instead emphasize its modernity with a 35 year ban on cinema and theatre construction lifted by Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, who has also allocated 10 billion dollars, more than the yearly allocation of Netflix, to entertainment.

The Saudis have already cut a deal with Imax to install cinemas and are promising a 35 percent location rebate for shooting in the country, and a 50 percent rebate for employing Saudi personnel, a sign the country also wants to develop its own industry. Of course all this is happening as the kingdom rains death and destruction down on Yemen, promotes Wahabiism, the most virulent strain of militant Islam, and readies itself along with its U.S. and Israeli allies for a potential war with Iran.

Meanwhile Iranian directors are present at all levels of the festival, and are everywhere belying the state terrorist claim. It was impossible to miss the contrast, though it was nowhere emphasized in the press, that at almost the exact moment Trump was tearing up the Iran Anti-Nuclear Accord, Asghar Farhadi, who made a passionate plea for understanding and tolerance by the U.S. for Iran in his Academy Award acceptance speech for A Separation, opened the festival with Everybody Knows, about infidelity in a Brazilian family in Spain. There was also HBO’s Fahrenheit 451, an anti-fascist plea based on the Ray Bradbury Novel directed by Ramin Bahrani, Border a Swedish film about tolerance for The Other by Ali Abasi and Jafar Panahi’s Three Faces, the third of Pahahi’s films made under protest of his censorship by the Iranian state but featuring a complex portrayal of an ancient civilization.

There must be a revolution

The last word though went as usual to Godard. The last section of The Image Book is about the destruction rained down on the Arab World by the West, with the clips frequently returning to what look like atomic explosions after Godard in voiceover announces “War is Here.” His answer to this chaos and destruction is a title in this section that harks back to his work in the period of workers and student strikes in May ’68, 50 years ago to the day. The title reads: “There must be a revolution.”

godards image book

This is Bro on the World Film Beat Breaking Glass at Cannes 2018. I’ll be back next week with a Polish masterpiece, Lars Von Trier’s return to Cannes, and a critical trip through contemporary Egypt.

It’s Netflix’s world: we just live in it
Tuesday, 08 May 2018 19:03

It’s Netflix’s world: we just live in it

Dennis Broe hits the global television beat, reporting from the biggest and most prestigious television festival in the world, Series Mania, in Lille in Northern France.

France is trying to establish itself as throwing the best TV party, attempting to create at Lille the equivalent in the television world of the Cannes Film Festival. The main rival for this honour is, oddly, Cannes, which a few weeks earlier staged its own festival with creators of series in competition walking the Cannes tapis rouge, or red carpet and with as well a large global television market.

Series Mania though is bigger, more expansive and is becoming if not the purveyor of global television – there was no real Asian presence to speak of, only one Japanese series, Invasion which will open in France next week as a film – then at least the meeting place of Anglo and Continental Television, with prominent series from, of course the U.S. and Britain, the world’s two leading producers of series, alongside series from Scandinavia, Russia, France and Australia.

DB Casadelpape

Case del Pape!

All series were free and open to the public and there was also three days of industry meetings, led by the appearance of Netflix CEO Reed Hastings where the hot topic was the overnight success of Spain’s Casa del Pape! This is a show which Netflix has renamed Money Heist, about a misfit group of outsiders who break into Spain’s currency mint. It’s doing tremendous numbers for the streaming service in Europe, and they have taken it over from its Spanish producers and commissioned a second season. The series with its ragtag band of losers cashing in on manna from heaven which will allow them to do things like pay for their children’s education is obviously wish-fulfillment for an impoverished Europe still ravaged by the effects of the banking crisis and austerity.

There is of course a completely different feel when the suits and the money people show up for three days of talk about new modes of distribution and finding the next hit series. The festival then turns from the Cannes of TV creators to a Davos of TV marketers, as the latter is the global meeting of the world’s finance heads. An element of the festival unique to France is its celebration of writers, with TV showrunners featured here over actors. The guest of honor was Chris Brancato, who created Narcos and there was also a master class with Carlton Cuse, famed for Lost but who also worked on two early cult series well regarded in television circles, Crime Story, sort of The Untouchables on the trail of government drug smuggling ala Iran-Contragate and The Adventures of Brisco Country, Jr. a mock Western with Evil Dead’s Bruce Campbell.


Netflix is now valued at 138 billion, just under and catching up fast to the most profitable Hollywood studio conglomerate, Disney, at 150 billion. It has announced that this year for the first time its overseas profits will exceed its domestic, which means that it has truly gone global. In Europe, the company pledged one billion to creating European series, and it premiered its first Danish Series The Rain, an ecological disaster show with a unique pilot about a teenage girl and her brother trapped inside a bunker for five years, but that in its second episode becomes a kind of teen Walking Dead, a sort of Fast Times at Zombie High.

The Netflix president Hastings appeared in the same panel with a European Commissioner for Digital Markets with the commission soon to impose a quota system so that 30% of the content of streaming services must be European. This certainly is a factor in the company’s spreading 1 billion across the continent and it is also rumored to be interested in buying in France Luc Besson’s Europa Corp, as a way of meeting the quotas similar to the way Hollywood studios bought production companies in Europe after World War II to produce low budget “quota quickies” in order to not disrupt the flow of Hollywood studio product.

This dominance of an American company across the continent – which comes in the wake of the proposed mergers of Time Warner and AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile and the Comcast Disney/Fox competition to buy the Sky Satellite system, Europe’s most popular purveyor of content – all points to a potential new homogenization of Series TV and entertainment in general, with local producers scrambling to meet the expectations of better financed outside competitors.

This tug of war between the global and the local was certainly on view at the festival. Two Russian series were featured and both were disappointing given last year’s Salaam Moscou!, an exhilarating series about Russian social tensions. This year we had the very glossy The Counted, about a mysterious bacteriological outbreak in the Siberian Taiga that did not deal at all with the recent revelation of landfill pollution but rather sidestepped this issue with a phony plot about isolated survivors of a former freak accident.

Worse still was An Ordinary Woman, a black comedy about a madame which turned the death of a young female prostitute into a supposedly hilarious problem of how to get rid of her body. Russian series before this imperative to globalize used to be distinguished for their communal values in series such as Dead-beat Dad, available on Amazon Prime, about a woman trying to get fathers who left their families, including her own husband, to pay child support.

DB Mystery Road

Mystery Road

Australia, on the other hand, has responded to the global challenge by focusing on its own history and exposing social tensions in a way that highlights the local but makes it understandable for global audiences. Two of the best series at the festival were Mystery Road, what is sometimes called Outback Noir about a mysterious disappearance that highlights the plight of Aborigines and Romper Stomper, a consideration of the country’s fascist past and present based on the film that (needlessly) gave the world Russell Crowe.

The best and the worst

Time to get to the best and worst of the series that will be coming your way in the following months. There were a number of big budget disappointments, series where the high production values concealed somewhat empty moral values. Opening the festival was HBO’s Succession, King Lear in the entertainment industry with Brian Cox as the aging patriarch and CEO of a media conglomerate who in his wily madness wants to hold onto his empire rather than leaving it to his privileged and incompetent offspring. The problem with the series is it is quite clearly based on Rupert Murdoch, with the sons as James and Lachlan and the Cordelia-like daughter choosing politics over media which supposedly establishes her integrity. Murdoch, a right-wing purveyor of war for money, does not have the stature of Lear and the Cordelia figure in the analogy suggests the female Murdoch employee whose wiretapping led to the death of young girl. What a falling off is this.

Worse yet was the BBC series McMafia, a globe-hopping gangster-financial series about a banker with integrity in London who gets sucked into a money-laundering scheme. The series accomplishes some whitewashing, some laundering of its own, taking the conspiracy that John Le Carre exposed in Our Kind of Traitor that the City, the British financial industry, was saved after the collapse of 2008 by an infusion of cash from the Russian mob and instead presents the banker as upstanding victim of Russian gangsters. Not only off-putting in its politics but also racist in that the violence in the show comes either from Russia or from Arabs in the Middle East.

DB The city in the city

The City in the City

Also disappointing was the Season Two Premiere of Westworld, where the random and habitual violence was rationalized by a supposedly sophisticated consideration of what’s human and what’s machine and The City and The City, a much more ambitious British attempt, based on the novel by China Mieville, to suggest the tensions in its two cities side by side in the same space-time continuum between the life of immigrants and the poor and those established members of society who do not see them. The theme, which recalls Victorian two-level society as well as our present one, is pertinent but the metaphor remains too oblique and tame to adequately make its point.

DB Kiss Me First

Kiss Me First

Now to the best series. Channel Four’s and Netflix’ Kiss Me First, available on Netflix at the end of June, takes a positive view of online life somewhat in the vein of Spielberg’s Ready Player One. The character’s offline line as in the Spielberg film, is plagued by their social position on the fringes of a society whose only value is money. Their online life is verdant as they turn away from the militarist thrill of gaming to the creation of a utopian site where they can meet. The series is interested in the relationship between on and off-line life and the characters in real life look somewhat bleached and expressionless, much like their avatars, which could be seen as the way on-line life is for a new generation conditioning personality.

The aforementioned Mystery Road explores Australian’s colonial past in the rough region of the Northwest where the white power structure remains still in place, in the form of a large cattle farm which still resembles a plantation. Judy Davis plays a grizzled cop investigating the disappearance of an aborigine aided, abetted and thwarted by the Aborigine actor Aaron Peterson who projects the charisma of young Mel Gibson. Like Mystery Road, Romper Stomper is based on a film and explores tensions between Australian nativist white fascists, left activists and Muslims and other minorities caught in the middle. There is a surprising moment in the pilot where the head of the fascists explains that his ancestor coming from England, rather than being the refuse from British prisons, was unjustly jailed for stealing a biscuit. His conduct in promoting insidious hate-mongering though belies this whitewashed history.

DB Animals of War

Animals of War

On a similar topic but with a different approach is the French series Animals of War, weirdly retitled in English as War on Beasts. Based on a novel of the same name, the series focuses on a forgotten region of the country, the Vosges, in a town where the last factory, the only thing that stands between its members and utter poverty, is about to close. The series details the way its characters are then inexorably drawn to crime while also focusing on the tensions between the temptation to turn to the far right for solace instead of the workers organizing in their own defense. Very pertinent examination of France and indeed the Western democracies as a whole as the majority of their citizens become disenfranchised.

Finally there is the nostalgic Icelandic series Stella Blomkvist, an older-style lawyer-, who-dun-it in episodic format that, amid the sexually liberated behavior of its female lead, focuses on male power within the Icelandic state. A welcome throwback to a time when series could expose corruption and power relations without the moral ambiguity about power that mars today’s more expensive productions.

This is Bro on the World Television Beat Breaking Glass and signing off from Series Mania. Next week I’ll be coming to you from The Cannes Film Festival.

Marx and the cinema: labour on screen
Monday, 23 April 2018 12:36

Marx and the cinema: labour on screen

Published in Films

Dennis Broe traces the history of the representation of labour on screen, and finds inspiration for celebrating May Day and continuing Marx’s struggle against capitalism.

This is Bro on the World Film Beat Breaking Glass on the subject of Marx and the cinema, as we approach May Day, a worldwide day of honouring labour, and falling this year just four days before the 200th anniversary of Karl Marx’s birth.

To talk about Marx is to talk about labour, since one of his main contributions to econmics is his labour theory of value, which reversed the typical view of economists, who saw value created by the owners. Marx called these economists ventriloquists (mouthpieces) for capital and instead proposed that value was created by workers, and that capitalist value amounted to what might be called social theft, stealing the time of the workers who were forced to work well beyond the hours needed for their subsistence. These excess hours, Marx said, were where profit was created. Capital though did serve a function in that it brought these workers together, conglomerated them in a way that actually meant that all labour, rather than privatized and individual, was now social. It was just that capital appropriated this labour and redistributed the profit from it into the hands of a wealthy few. And of course, in our day, that few is forever and rapidly shrinking.

Marx’s goal was “to render the world more conscious of itself,” that is, to make this process, which capitalist scribes had obscured, clear. If we start to speak of labour in the cinema and imagine how Marx would have conceived it, we might first look at a history of representation of labour on the screen, then a history of off-screen labour, that is, of organizing in the cinema which also affected what appeared on the screen. Finally, we might look at how the cinema itself is an intense process of all kinds and levels of labour, which its owners continue to efface, claiming that they are its ultimate creators.

Labour on screen

The very first image to appear in the first public showing of any film is workers exiting a factory, in this case in the 1895 screening in Paris by the Lumiere Brothers of male and female workers streaming out of their father’s photographic factory in Lyon. The camera is set up in front of the exit and records the various moods (elated, morose, bored) and modes of travel (bicycle, foot, horse) of the exiting employees. So labour takes front and centre as the cinema begins and in many ways there has been a gradual process of erasing that image, shunting it to the side and obscuring it.

DB Marx Workers Exiting a Factory

Steven J. Ross in Working Class Hollywood details how workers and unions organized their production houses in the early silent period following the Lumieres, and how much a subject class struggle was in these films. D.W. Griffith’s greatest film is perhaps the 1909 Corner in Wheat which intercuts the poor struggling wheat farmer barely making it from season to season because of the low price paid for his labour, the besieged consumers of wheat who once the market is cornered must pay an increased price for bread, and the speculator in wheat, the wheat king, who in the commodities market crushes his foes by buying all the wheat and then raises the price.

DB marx a corner in wheat

A follow-up, longer film titled Contrast, directed by Griffith actor Guy Hedlund cross-cut the poverty of coal miners with the extravagant and lush lives of the owners of the mines. This is not even to mention the more overt depiction of worker’s struggles in Russia after the Revolution in Sergei Eisenstein’s Strike and Battleship Potemkin.

Workers and their lives were a continual subject until their stories were purposely struck from the screen with the coming of the Motion Picture Producers' Code, the Hayes Code, which along with interracial relations and more frank displays of sexuality essentially forbid working-class modes of relating and ushered in an era of a more whitewashed middle-class cinema in the middle to late 1930s. This embargo was broken somewhat as the crime film, the film noir, began again to deal now in a more disguised way with workers’ lives and attitudes, often around the law, which was constantly encroaching on them. This period of re-emergence begins around 1940 with Warner’s film about truckers They Drive By Night and continued into the 1950s with Fritz Lang’s murder in the fishing or cannery industry in Clash by Night.

This was the story in Hollywood but across the globe workers and their lives were emerging onto the screen in the period in France in the 1930s in what is called Poetic Realism, with Jean Renoir’s The Crime of Monsieur Lange about a publishing collective where the owner returns to re-appropriate the profits of the collective and is killed by the writer whose work has led to its success, and Marcel Carne’s Le Jour Se Leve, which has factory worker Jean Gabin, who is dying slowly from the factory fumes, instead gunned down in a sudden burst of violence by the police for his destruction of a jealous bourgeois type who attempts to ruin his life.

DB marx le jour se leve

The film was remade in the U.S. under the title Daybreak with Henry Fonda, a worker prototype from his role in Grapes of Wrath. There were also outbursts of working-class or middle-class fugitives in trouble with the law in Britain (They Made Me a Fugitive). In Italy, the neo-realist movement dealt more directly with the lives of the poor in such films as Vittorio de Sica’s trilogy of the three ages of humans: Shoeshine, about destitute boys in the street; Bicycle Thief, about an unemployed worker in the prime of his life with a last chance at salvation which fails; and Umberto D. about an old-aged pensioner trying to pay his rent. In Japan Akira Kurosawa in Drunken Angel and Stray Dog highlighted Japanese poverty and Kenji Mizoguchi in The Victory of Women and Street of Shame focused on the role of female workers in a patriarchal society.

DB marx street of shame

The McCarthy anti-communist witchhunt in Hollywood which spread across the globe again tried to curtain these outbursts and erase them from the screen. But concerns with labour reemerged in the wake of the 1960s cultural and social upheaval in the U.S. in such films as The Molly Maguires about a secret society of Irish workers in the Pennsylvania coal fields and later in Norma Rae about the unionizing activities of a female textile worker. This film though, in 1979, was on the cusp of the neoliberal period in which the cinematic focus was and has remained much more on the owners and the elite, with workers or the majority of the population now seen as a special interest group.

This has been countered by filmmakers whose subject has remained the working class, with the most prolific and most committed of these being Ken Loach. His cinema is also critical of the way the working class has contributed to its own demise in films like Family Life, about the stifling of a young girl to make her ready for factory labour, and the vastly underrated It’s a Free World about how the entrepreneurial logic destroys working-class modes of collectivization.

Labour off screen

The cinema also has a long history of its own workers, like those in the Lumiere photography plant, organizing for their rights. This ranges from the Hollywood screenwriters’ contract in the 1930s, and the beginning of the creation of the creative workers’ collectives, to a crucial strike by the Disney cartoonists in the early 1940s, and the organization of painters and other trade workers called the CSU, which around the ending of World War II closed Warners and other studios, before being blacklisted in the HUAC and McCarthy periods. In Japan likewise, after the war, film workers struck at the major studio Toho and closed it for a number of months, celebrating their own independence inside the studio gates before being threatened to be bombed by General MacArthur and the U.S. authorities.

Finally, the cinema processes themselves are the creation of a collective of workers, often concealed within the corporate framework of the studio. One of the great technical creations of Hollywood was The Wizard of Oz which is often talked about as the crowning achievement of the studio system, and of it epitome, MGM. A crucial scene, which begins in black and white has Dorothy then opening the door of a drab Kansas house to reveal the panorama of colors and flora that is Oz, shown in a crane shot that highlights the work of a whole range of cinema technicians and is more a tribute to the labour of these studio workers than to the studio itself.

DB marx wizard of oz

Part of the work that is effaced in the contemporary era is the work of the spectator who in the Netflix scheme is constantly providing information on themselves that is then fed back to them in viewing suggestions, with the data also used to rope in ever more viewers.

Marx’s solution to all this was to note that the new challenge, after capitalism had centralized work but kept the profits in the hands of a few was, in the final stage, the expropriation of the “ill-gotten gains of this little number of usurpers by the mass of people.” As May Day dawns, and as the internet draws us all closer and continues to centralize our work, by looking to the history of labour in the cinema we may find the hope and perhaps the means of continuing the economic, political and cultural struggles struggles against an ever more rapacious and ever more bellicose few that in their desperation are becoming more and more dangerous to the rest of the world.

This is Bro on the World Film Beat signing off and wishing everyone a Happy May Day.

Let's think about bread: the internet moves from community forum to shopping mall
Sunday, 10 December 2017 21:22

Let's think about bread: the internet moves from community forum to shopping mall

Dennis Broe compares the current attempts to overrule the principle of net neutrality with 18C French economists' rejection of bread price controls.

The U.S. regulatory body the Federal Communications Commission is set to overrule the principle of net neutrality where all speed on the internet is roughly equal and instead allow internet carriers and providers to themselves regulate speeds and charge more for what is now an internet right. This provision is happening at the same time as the Justice Department debates allowing a merger between one of the main content providers, Time Warner, and one of the major broadband companies providing access to the American home, AT&T. Trump's Justice Department is so far blocking the merger but this may amount to only a minor roadblock with Time Warner being forced to divest CNN as a penalty for that company’s attacks on Trump, since to attack him is a ratings booster.

DB netflix graph

Overthrowing net neutrality and a new wave of media mergers are related. If the FCC ruling passes, content producers will seek alliances with internet providers so that their own services are not overpriced by this new unregulated “freedom” to slow speeds and then charge for what is now the internet standard. This is a massive merger since AT&T already owns DirecTV which reaches over one-third of American homes. The ruling will most likely further other mergers of this kind with, in the Serial TV arena, Amazon, Netflix and Hulu then needing to find internet providers to team with. These providers then may also exert direct or indirect pressure on their content and the mergers will also most likely result in increased monthly charges as well as a narrowing and stabilizing of the field to its current heavy-hitter participants. Television watching on the internet would then move closer to the high prices of cable which drove viewers to these content providers in the first place and content may become more stabilized so that the new services start to look more like the old television networks.   

DB not broken

What will the internet itself look like if this ruling goes through? The New York Times claims it will look more like a mall and less like a community forum, though perhaps the more accurate assessment is that the internet already looks like a mall and with this ruling the last traces of the old idea of the internet as a community forum will be erased. It is possible to effectively block content by simply slowing down access to it since a Microsoft study shows that the average internet user’s attention span is 8 seconds between clicks. Longer than that and the content will often be abandoned, not to mention that the practice of training this short attention span means users are being conditioned to pay more not to have their attention interrupted. 

The overthrow of an internet open to all is being rationalized in the usual neoliberal way by claiming regulation is bad and evil, though the government is not really regulating, it is simply keeping an open internet and it may be much more involved in regulation under the new rules which pit everyone against everyone else. Net neutrality, the design of the internet since its inception, is now being branded “government micromanaging of your personal freedom.” The Republican head of the FCC promoting the end of net neutrality, Ajit Pai, says that competition, which is claimed as the only real way to lower prices, is being stifled by the government’s heavy hand. Of course this “let a thousand flowers bloom” approach is somewhat tempered by the fact that Pai himself worked at Verizon, one of not the thousand, but the three or four flowers, along with Comcast, Charter and AT&T, which will assuredly bloom in this new climate.

What I like to point out is that these arguments were rehearsed three centuries ago in the 18th Century France of Louis the 15th and are detailed in a book by Stephen L. Kaplan called Raisonner Sur Les Bles - that is, “Let’s think about wheat.” The title comes from Voltaire who said that while it is nice to discuss and discourse about poetry, tragedy, comedy, operas, novels, morality and theological disputes, it is in the end necessary to think about wheat, the lifegiving staple of the majority of the people in Louis’s time who lived on French bread.

The book details how many of the Enlightenment thinkers, the physiocrats, who in the 1740s and 1750s turned toward economics, claimed that liberty was the prime value in the society, and for them liberty was tied to property. They said the hidden hand of the free market which encouraged unbridled competition and which was opposed to the heavy hand of the government would triumph in all areas. The liberty of property owners to engage in free market competition was a natural law that was above the law of the state and consequently the king and the state should get out of the business of acting as a safety net to keep people from starving and should instead become a king entrepreneur, or player, in promoting the free market which would lead to lower prices through competition and increased wealth and abundance for all. France, instead of keeping wheat at home, would export it, establishing its global market dominance which at that point belonged to Spain and the Netherlands, and which would add to the prosperity of the entire country.

Growth then supplants security as there is then so much abundance for all that there is no need of the state providing a safety net, just as encouraging competition on the internet will supposedly lower prices for everyone. The abbés, the managers of church landowning property, defended this policy which benefited the largest landowners and growers of wheat, and claimed that needs were not rights, that the liberty granted by the right to own property superseded the people’s need to eat. And that feeding people in times of bad harvests or regulating the price of their staple product so they could afford daily bread meant property owners' rights were subordinate to people’s needs.

In the end, they maintained, as does the current Republican tax bill, what was good for the leading classes was what was good for France. One physiocrat, Lemarcier, whose wealth came from being a slave owner on French plantations, argued that no particular class should be favoured, meaning that the small landowning class should have equal rights and consideration with the vast majority of the poor. The minister Turgot claimed the poor peasant was indifferent to life and more interested in the price of a cow then in their own wife and son, neglecting to point out that the cow might well be the only thing that stood in the way of starvation for the peasant, his wife and his son.

DB 6 bread riots

The policies were an utter disaster, as no doubt net reform will be, prompting riots both in the cities and the countryside and reducing the poorest peasants to begging, unemployment, and criminality, culminating in a slaughter of rioters in 1770 at the supposedly joyful celebration of the marriage of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, who later was in favour of letting her countrymen eat cake but here opposed them eating bread. The response of the physiocrats was that these “reforms,” - as the overthrowing of net neutrality is also being described - failed not because they resulted in hoarding to raise prices, in monopoly price fixing, and in the export of wheat which deprived locals of the crop they helped grow, but because they did not go far enough and were ill administered, that the state was to blame not the free market doctrine. And of course that will be the response when prices start skyrocketing with the net neutrality “reform.”

DB 5 marie antionette

The last word though in both debates belongs to two actually enlightened members of the Enlightenment. Denis Diderot, the publisher of the encyclopedia, was the first in this circle to recognize the people’s right to existence, the real breakthrough in the Enlightenment. Diderot repudiated the physiocrats’ idea that their economic laws substituted abstract principles for any consideration of what the results of the imposition of these principles looked like. It was the Swiss Banker Jacques Necker though who finally took the people’s own thought seriously, countering Turgot by arguing that the people see wheat as a sacred right delivered from nature, akin to the air they breathe. In the symbolic economy, free access to the internet is equally that kind of sacred right.

Finally, Necker said, these claims to the divine right of free competition organized around who controls the market and the grain supply, as the new internet pricing will be organized by those who control access to the American home, were nothing more than the momentary conquest of one class of society of the future of another. That is, under the principle of property, justice and liberty, there is nothing left for the most numerous class of citizens. Necker knew a thing or two, not only about French bread, but also about where the overthrowing of net neutrality will lead.




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