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.

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

Cannes and Covid go together like a horse and carriage

Published in Films

Dennis Broe concludes his review of the Cannes Film Festival 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wealth-washing

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

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

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

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

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Colombian Protest in the 1990s and now in Amparo 

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

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

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

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

 
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Justin Chong and Alicia Vikander in the Immigrant Melodrama Blue Bayou

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

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Ukrainian Nationalists parading under the Swastika in Babi Yar 

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

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

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

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

Published in Films

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The best are well-intentioned but empty

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

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

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The Gravedigger’s Wife 

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

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

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

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

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

The worst are full of sound and fury

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

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A devilish Adam Driver and a bedevilled Marion Cotillard in Annette  

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

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

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

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

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Menacing Croatian patriarchy in Murina 

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

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

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

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

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

Published in Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Frakas

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published in Visual Arts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Social Expressionism to Abstract Expressionism and back again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Raymond Chandler: The Man Behind The Mask

Published in Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Marginalised and forgotten: indigenous and working-class people in TV series
Monday, 21 December 2020 21:15

Marginalised and forgotten: indigenous and working-class people in TV series

Dennis Broe reviews TV series that focus on indigenous and working-class themes, including Mystery Road, Don’t Forget The Driver, The Connors, and Superstore. Image above: Aaron Pedersen as Jay Swan in Mystery Road

Few series on television focus either on both the earth’s first inhabitants, the indigenous, now mostly quartered in slums across the world, or on workers, their lives and their daily concerns. The Australian series Mystery Road, now back for its second season, bucks this trend in focusing on the scattered remnants of the country’s Aborigines as they find themselves besieged in new ways by their Anglo colonizers.

Likewise, the BBC’s Don’t Forget the Driver (available on Britbox in the US) deals with a lonely and depleted working class playing out the string in a rundown shell of what was once a seaside resort, while The Connors and Superstore describe the effects of Covid. The Connors begins its new season with the extended family jobless and unable to pay the rent and Superstore recounts the effects of Covid on its essential workers, caught between a company more concerned with profits than workers’ safety and customers hoarding supplies that are in too short supply.

This is the second season for Mystery Road (BBC in the UK and Acorn in the US), a series based on an Aboriginal cop, Jay Swan (Aaron Pedersen), a character already established in two previous films. The mystery road that Jay travels is the wide-open country of Australia’s great and impoverished North, populated by its indigenous people and everywhere now the subject of a land grab by the Anglo tenants of its overcrowded cities looking for a property bargain. Season one centered around the death of a ranch hand in one of these towns and illustrated the monopoly on power a ranch owner exercised on the surrounding land and peoples.

Season two has Jay pursuing a crystal meth drug ring that radiates out from the town he arrives in and showers death and destruction on the entire region. Jay quickly traces the potential source to a local trucking company in cahoots with another powerful ranch owner, and suspects there is someone behind them. Part of season two is directed by Warwick Thornton whose Sweet Country was as astute examination of how the Australian treatment of its indigenous people in 1929 was closer to 19th century American slavery, as an Aboriginal ranch hand who strikes a blow in self-defence against a cruel and tyrannical owner must flee into the bush country and eventually stand trial before a white jury for his crime.

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Swedish anthro-colonialist in Mystery Road  

Warwick brings that understanding of this perpetual oppression to the series, which also highlights through several characters, often revolving around the indigenous female cop Fran (who partners with Jay) the complexities of modern Aboriginal life and its encounter with colonial capitalism. A subplot involves a Swedish archeologist, Sandra, working on a dig in the town that she claims will illustrate the continuity of indigenous life and thus serve as an answer to the claims that it is simply primitive.

Just as in how anthropology has been criticized as in its attempt to “understand” other ways of life which it imposes Western concepts on these customs, the locals see her as intrusive. This distrust comes to a head when she conceals the traces of a crime she finds on the dig because it would imperil her work and when her offer to have the town keep her findings is refused by the university that stakes her claim. She is neither completely well-meaning nor innocent of the same exploitation that the Anglo crystal meth dealers are engaged in.

Of course, it is possible to argue that the national Australian Broadcasting Company is engaged in the same process in the symbolic realm in using the country’s indigenous as a source of digital profit in creating a globally popular series. But something more is going on here. The series employs the iconography of the Western, with Jay Swan as the prototypical silent Western hero, a kind of Aboriginal Shane. He is both stoic and blunt but behind those qualities is the hardiness of a cop who is unwanted in Anglo law enforcement – represented here by the local racist police chief who disparages him and may himself be implicated in the drug running. He is resented also because he is an independent and powerful Aborigine and a stalwart defender of his people.

Season two illustrates these qualities in his steadfast and dogged pursuit of the Anglo dealers in the service of breaking their hold on the lives of those from which they are growing rich. Late in the season, a secret pad of one of the dealers stresses the lavish lifestyle acquired by the profits of this purveyor of misery. Jay, as opposed to the Western sheriff, is not a defender of justice and the rule of law in the abstract but rather a proponent of justice for his people and they are the source of his strength and resoluteness.

Jay’s ex-wife Mary seems to follow him along the mystery road as she turns up here again, this time involved with an ex-cop who suspiciously offers Jay aid. Mary is a nurse and hospital orderly who cares deeply for her patients and over the course of the season also demonstrates a propensity for police work in her aiding of Jay. She seems headed in that direction in season three, but the move from caregiver to cop is a questionable one. Jay’s daughter’s friend Shevorne, who functions as a surrogate daughter, also reappears, involved with a meth-head boyfriend in a relationship that she must sort out.

The series does a remarkable job of embracing the complexity of a people attempting to cling to their own traditions and forced to transition to a world that is ever more not of their making.

Working-class TV: few and far between

Network, national and streaming TV is filled with characters living a lavish lifestyle and/or one relatively untouched by the problems that beset the majority of populations under Western capitalism. The richness of the interiors of most television series is designed to blend seamlessly either with the advertisements which surround them, where a problem is solved in one minute by an appropriate commodity, or with other streaming service fare which reinforces the idea that lavishness is omnipresent and to be aspired to. Can you say Emily in Paris?

A series which counters this characterization is Don’t Forget The Driver, a recounting of the put-upon life of an ageing English seaside bus driver. Peter Green (Toby Jones in a series he also co-wrote) lives in the dying seaside resort of Bognor Regis, a smaller and more desperate Brixton – or in the US a Coney Island or Asbury Park, – past its day in the sun and haunted by memories of former glory.

Peter is a single father whose daughter can’t wait to leave the town, has care of a racist mother plagued by dementia, and ignores a would-be girlfriend. His plight is summed up each morning by his beat-up old car that only starts when he takes a hammer to it. Toby Jones is hilarious in the role. He’s a British Bob Newhart, able to grind every laugh possible from the dry acceptance of his lot in life, including putting up with a brother (also played by Jones), the apple of his mother’s eye who has cheated and swindled his way to his “promised land” of Australia where he affects an Aussie accent.

In each episode the beleaguered driver pilots another group of passengers to an obscure destination, none more hilarious than the group of septua- and octogenarians (the series is set in the 1980s) who barely survive the trip to Dunkirk in France to cheer on the British fallen at their gravesite. Unbeknownst to him, on the way back he is unwittingly part of a smuggling ring, bringing in a teenage African female stowaway Kayla in search of her brother in London.

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Beleaguered driver Peter (Toby Jones) and his stowaway Kayla (Erin Kellyman)

It’s Kayla’s presence that enlivens not only Peter’s life but also those around him, making his daughter more resolute about the path her life will take and prompting Peter to accept the relationship the erstwhile owner of a rundown sausage stand by the sea is offering him.

This crossing of an elderly European with an African refugee is becoming a staple of Euro representation. Its original and best rendering is Aki Kaurasmaki’s Le Havre where a retired fisherman encounters and hides an African boy, assisting him on his journey. (A bleaker and dystopian version of this trope is the Dardennes’ La Promesse.) The current Netflix film The Life Ahead has Sophia Loren as an aged prostitute who takes an African boy under her wing in a relationship that seems arbitrary and never grounded in mutual acceptance.

The point of the encounter is that it is enlivening for the European, stuck in the deteriorating patterns of the Old Continent to encounter the youth and enthusiasm of the young African refugee. Don’t Forget the Driver doubles this pattern as Peter’s prejudiced mother also succumbs to the caring and fellow feeling of her Indian neighbour. Against the wave of anti-immigrant sentiment sweeping the continent, this trope offers the counter-argument that the encounter of the two continents is a lifesaving breath of fresh air and necessary for the survival of an atrophied Europe.

The Connors is another series which deals with working-class life and which has in its current season taken as its point of departure the increased burden that Covid has brought to the working class in the US – now almost synonymous with the working poor. The series was a hit in the 1990s for its co-creator Roseanne Barr, but after its successful revival she was removed after a racist tweet. The fictional family is intact with Roseanne’s absence on the show being explained by her death from an opiate overdose, a sneaky way of describing her tweet as the product of a fevered drug-induced existence.

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The Connors besieged with Covid

In the pilot of this new season, this extended family of Roseanne’s husband, two daughters, son, their children and her sister each struggle due to the Covid shutdown to find work. The Connors’ plight acutely mirrors workers in the US, largely employed in the service industry, now finding those jobs have disappeared due to accelerated automation and online selling. These workers are encountering a difficult retraining process from semi-skilled to skilled laborer, so that in one recounting a theme park stage manager must become an electrician, a taxi driver a plumber and a cook must acquire the expertise of a software manager. Dan, Roseanne’s husband, meets a family friend who has found work as a process server announcing the eviction of working families from their homes.

In the conclusion of the first episode, after fruitless attempts at finding work, the “family friend” appears at the Connors house to announce it is being repossessed. This is the presenting problem for a season in which the Connors’ plight increasingly will become the new normal for American workers, who must risk their lives now in search of dangerous work in the midst of a pandemic because of a government that refuses to expend money to take care of its most needy – while its congress schedules a special session to pass a bill appropriating more and more billions for war and armaments.

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Superstore’s diverse labor force dealing with Covid

Finally, NBC’s Superstore, returning for its sixth and final season, began the season tracking the effects of the Covid first wave, from March to July, on its diverse workforce in their attempts to both serve a public growing increasingly more hostile in its hoarding of diminishing supplies like toilet paper and a corporate hierarchy that salutes the workers as heroes for showing up for work but is unconcerned with supplying them with the masks that might keep them safe.

The pilot was supposed to be about America Ferrara’s leaving the show, having anchored it for five seasons and with her departure delayed because last season's final episode could not be shot, as the show was forced to shut production in the first wave. Instead, that storyline was delayed an episode so that the series could focus on how workers in the store coped with the pressures they were, and continue to be, under in the pandemic. In a remarkable instance of a series putting its social worth over more standard entertainment values, Amy’s departure and the resolution of the standard romance between her and her co-worker Jonah took a back seat to a pilot that stressed the overall impact of the crisis on a diverse workforce.

The success of these three instances, antidotes to Emily in Paris, prove not only that working-class television that deals with actual hardship and suffering is possible, but that there is a thirst for it on the part of precarious viewers, who at this point constitute the majority of the audience.

Coal mines become gift shops: Black Suns at Louvre Lens
Tuesday, 18 August 2020 11:42

Coal mines become gift shops: Black Suns at Louvre Lens

Published in Visual Arts

Dennis Broe reviews Black Suns at Louvre Lens in France, on until the end of January 2021

Lens was a small but highly important town in the industrial era of the late 19th century, located in the former French-Belgium coal belt. It is now the home of the satellite museum Louvre-Lens and the site of the first major post-coronavirus lockdown exhibition in France – and perhaps the first in the world.

Soleils Noirs, or Black Suns, traces artists’ use of the colour black. It also reminds us of the spell that coal – visible in two pyramidal slag heaps just outside the town and visible from all parts of it – has cast over a city which has now transformed itself from a coal-exporting to a tourist economy.

This change from a productive to a symbolic economy is all the more startling because Lens was at the heart of a Franco-Belgian region that was the industrial capital of the world in the late 1800s, outdoing even northern England, the centre of industry in the earlier part of the century. It was near here that Emile Zola came to do his research for Germinal, his seminal work on a strike in a coal mine.

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Louvre Lens: Corporate Glass in a Verdant Park 

The last of the mines closed in 1968, at the beginning of the Western transformation from an industrial to a service economy, as European jobs started to be shifted overseas or to Eastern Europe. Today, Louvre visitors eat lunch outside, on the covered-over entrance to mine shaft number 9. The Louvre Lens building itself, in the centre of a verdant park that was constructed over the mining grounds, is a ’90s flat corporate glass structure by the Japanese firm SANAA, that seems to have been airlifted into Lens from some alien space. It’s the opposite of Frank Gehry’s Bilbao museum, a fish-like structure that suggests that city’s historical relation to the sea. Here the museum design effaces history.

The town itself, besides being subjected to the environmental devastation of the coal economy, was also in the centre of the fighting in World War I. This second assault by Capital on the working class wreaked even more havoc on the town. Lens was utterly destroyed as a result, and had to be rebuilt from scratch after the war.

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Lens, February 1918

A mini-tour which the city offers of the miners’ quarters outlines the power structure of a mining town. The mine’s owner lived in the more cosmopolitan nearby city of Lille, comfortably sheltered from the suffering at the mine. The workers lived in mostly single family units built by the mining company, which also ran the school their children attended – where no doubt they were informed this was the best of all possible worlds. The place of honour and the larger homes in the town were occupied by the mine’s engineer, the mine’s police and security director, and the pastor, each concerned with maintaining order and profitability.

The workers’ cottages seem ample. However, when one recalls that black lung disease claimed many of them at an early age, the neat, white entrance doors are perhaps closer to an upright coffin, which echoes a clip in Black Soleils from FW Murnau’s Nosferatu in which the vampire’s exit through his castle door suggests an eerie tomb.

The lobby exhibit is another pyramidal pile of coal, but unlike the actual slag heaps just outside the city, this one is made of pieces of black confetti. It suggests the way the town, whose industry is now a combination of tourism, banking and retail, has transformed itself from the heaviness of actual coal into an economy that is lighter, airier but also – especially in these COVID times, more fragile. The Lens attempt at transformation is echoed in England in Liverpool’s and Manchester’s recreation as arts centres, and in the US of Pittsburgh’s incomplete changeover from coal and steel capital to an eastern US version of Silicon Valley.

The exhibition itself is a major examination of darkness, and the thrill and energy it exerted in the history of art. To its credit, the exhibition also never strays far from the pall that black in the form of coal has cast over the town and that artists have represented.

Though not present in the exhibition, the originator of the contrast between black and white, darkness and light, in highly distorted settings, is Caravaggio and his traces are everywhere in the show. Prior to Caravaggio’s early 17th century chiaroscuro, there is Tintoretto’s 16th century Renaissance portrait of a man holding a handkerchief, clothed almost entirely in the darkness of the Venetian nobility, with the handkerchief being a single splotch of white. Piero della Francesca’s portrait of an Italian nobleman with brown skull cap, which subtly takes on the black sheen of the background, is outdone by Leonardo da Vinci’s startling depiction of another nobleman whose black bonnet blends utterly with the murky background in a way that suggests that regal bearing returning to primordial ooze.

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van Honthorst's Christ Crowned with Thorns

There were Northern European Caravaggistes, represented here in the Dutch Gerrit van Honthorst’s illumination of the faces of what looks like Dutch merchants peering out of the darkness to torture Christ. And there is Rembrandt’s etching of a white mass of figures wrenching Christ’s body down from the cross and out of the darkness.

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Ribot's St. Vincent and The Raven

The Spanish Caraviggistes are more bountifully represented with Jusepe de Ribera’s Plato holding a book of ideas, seeming to wrench light from the darkness, and with Murillo’s Christ chained to a column, his gaunt body about to succumb to the shadows behind him.

The most stunning Caravaggio-influenced paintings though are those by the French artist Theodule Ribot, more than 200 years later. His 1870 Good Samaritan shows nothing of the Samaritan of the biblical story, instead focusing in the foreground on the twisted frame of a man beaten and robbed by thieves and in shadowy background the Pharisees, the religious zealots, passing him by. Ribot’s other work, which echoes Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven, is the contorted corpse of Saint Vincent with a black bird perched on top, cawing and eager to feast.

The Romantics are well represented in the exhibit in their combination of a welcoming of the mystery of the night and of the force of nature. Emile Breton’s Storm has four peasants as tiny specks on a landscape, trying to find shelter from a monstrous wind that is tormenting and twisting the trees around them.

Equally tumultuous is the landscape that Mephistopheles and Faust gallop across on their steeds in Delocroix’s lithograph, which has the Devil importuning the scholar as he invests him with the glamour and decadence of the night.

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Robert Mitchum’s murderous minister in Night of the Hunter

Just as stunning are three film clips that recall the Romantic era. Hitchcock’s opening of Rebecca has the innocent young bride in voiceover recounting her entry into the haunted estate, a bastion of male power, as the camera pans up a road covered with underbrush to alight on a dark and foreboding mansion. The evil and seduction of the night is also highlighted in the man’s midnight meeting with his mistress in Murnau’s Sunrise, and the pursuit through a swamp of the children by Robert Mitchum’s rampaging murderous preacher, in Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter. This is a film that lays bare the subconscious evil that was the underside of pristine corporate, capitalist America in the 1950s.

The Symbolists of the 1880s and 1890s also embraced black and the night for its shimmery, translucent, ethereal qualities. Odilon Redon’s illustration of a combination of Poe’s poem The Raven and his short story “Elenora” has the woman and the bird appearing as if from beyond the grave, with each shaded in black. Gustave Dore’s woodcutting The Wolf and The Lambs displays the penned-in creatures being eyed in the moonlight by a crew of hungry wolves, in a night not only where all cows are black but where all lambs are eaten.

It is in the Realist and Impressionist era though that the night begins to symbolise the dark weight of industrialism in the lives of the bourgeoisie – and more pointedly on the mass of workers who suffered from it. Manet’s portrait of the future Impressionist painter Berthe Morisot in black dress has her gaunt fingers twisting around a fan as she stares pensively at the painter. Philippe-Auguste Jeanron’s 1833 A Paris Scene is more class conscious, with three children in the foreground crouched around a slumping, bandaged father, as in the background a bourgeois couple stroll blithely across the same bridge. The father’s bandage represents the unsuccessful attempt at a Paris uprising in 1832, which the royalty and industrialists put down as they increased their wealth through capitalist exploitation.

In the same vein, in 20th century photography, two photos from the 1950s by the aptly named Jean-Philippe Charbonnier (charbon is the French word for coal) capture first a little girl running though a mining tenement, her clothes taking on the omnipresent dark element of soot, which is also captured in a second photo of a garment on a mining tenement clothesline. Near the end of the mining period, in 1960, a series of miners’ photos are highlighted by one of a stolid, unblinking face of a miner in whose gaze is captured both the pride of his work and the hardship it inflicts on him.

Malévitch Kasimir (1878-1935). Paris, Centre Pompidou - Musée national d'art moderne - Centre de création industrielle. AM1980-1.

Malevich’s Cross

Painting in the 20th century moves toward an embracing of the symbolic economy, as representation gives way to abstraction. The Russian Suprematist Kasimir Malevich’s 1915 Cross is a huge oversize, weighty black cross, almost tipping over on its white background. This is not pure abstraction though. The bulk and oppressive weight of the cross, with Russia at war with Germany on nearly the eve of the Russian Revolution, suggests not only the Iron Cross, the German military badge of honour, but also the pulverizing weight of the Orthodox Church in maintaining the Czar’s power as he sends his subjects off to die. The painting predicts that both are about to collapse.    

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Reinhardt's Ultimate Painting    

Finally, there is Ad Reinhardt’s Ultimate Painting from 1960, a black rectangle where one can only dimly perceive even different shades of black. This void is perhaps meant to signify the end of painting, but what it may also signify, given its place at the beginning of the changeover in the West from an industrial to a service economy, is the dawn of a symbolic regime where finance and fictitious capital will outpace industrial and productive capital. That is, Western capital itself is at the beginning of a movement to a level of abstraction where the stock market, currency speculation and a nascent digital economy will dominate the productive and industrial economy. This moment thus also calls into being Abstract Expressionists such as Reinhardt who represent it on their canvases.

This transformation is also strikingly visible in the geographical setting in which the painting is displayed – the transformation of Lens from mining economy to museum economy.

Green Frontier and Wild District: The Bolivarian vs. The Bolsonarian Revolution
Sunday, 16 August 2020 08:30

Green Frontier and Wild District: The Bolivarian vs. The Bolsonarian Revolution

Dennis Broe reviews Green Frontier and Wild District, two shockingly different approaches to South American struggles for political liberation. The image above is from Green Frontier

Two series from Colombia, Green Frontier and Wild District, both Netflix originals and both made by the same production house, Dynamo, stake out the left and right of Colombian politics.

The iconography of the progressive series, Green Frontier, links it with a history of Latin American films dealing with the continent’s indigenous peoples, a part of the tradition of Magical Realism which charts the expression of indigenous cultures in a colonized landscape. The theme of the series is the destruction of the Amazon on the Colombian-Brazilian border, and a lost tribe trying to ward off the loggers who would destroy them and the forest, along with the deeper, more insidious and more persistent menace of Western colonialism.

Wild District on the other hand employs the iconography of the American action film in its more reactionary and caricaturing forms. It depicts guerilla forces as savages, and its characterization of the slums of Bogota is racist and classist – just another jungle, as primitive and untamable as the actual jungle inhabited by the rebel group FARC, rather than the habitat of one of the continent’s poorest and most deprived populations.

Progressive ecological and political awareness

Since both series are Netflix originals, it would seem the streaming service is interested in covering all bases. With the more independent, left-field Green Frontier, whose pilot is directed by the superb Ciro Guerra, it’s trying to attract a progressive audience who are committed to the ecology of preserving the rainforest and the country’s indigenous people. With the straightforward action series, which boasts a superb performance by Juan Pablo Raba, veteran of Narcos, the service seems to be playing to the populist and far right, in a show that openly rationalizes the work of the death squads, an auxiliary of the former Uribe government.

The pilot of Green Frontier owes much to Guerra’s visual acuity and his thematic concerns. His first global success, the film Embrace of the Serpent, was about the relationship between two aging members of their respective civilizations. One was a German social scientist in the jungle at the turn of the last century, in the vanguard of what would become a pillaging and patenting of its secrets for Big Pharma, and the other was his guide, an indigenous last member of a tribe wiped out by the European colonizers. The indigenous guide recalled this devastation in a series of scattered images that operated more from an intuitive and unconscious logic than the Western scientist’s rational mapping of this world. In Green Frontier a warrior, one of the last members of his tribe, communicates with a female member both in this world and in another, with the otherworldly images shown in a negative silvery tint.

Guerra’s second film, Birds of Passage, adopts codes from the gangster film to recount how an Amazon tribe succumbs to the profit-making inducements of the drug trade and how the ensuing greed for material objects utterly demolishes their centuries-old customs and ways of life. It’s The Godfather or Scorsese’s Casino in the jungle, as it maps the changes wrought by money. It is even closer to Gangs of Wasseypur, a stunning Indian film about the changes in an Indian province over 40 years by the introduction of a profit-making gangster economy.

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The jungle under the heel of a Nazi demon in Green Frontier

Green Frontier also presents the jungle under attack from the loggers who are stripping its assets, from a mysterious white man who is a demon with a history that extends back to the Nazis, and from the local corrupt police whose leader “Uribe” orders the killing of the Bogota female agent who instinctively acts to protect the jungle.

The series opens with the slaughter of both an indigenous woman Ushe and a group of nuns and is in the present an investigation by the Bogota agent Helena and her partner Reynaldo, who has been outcast from his indigenous community, into the killings. A flashback narrative recounts the relationship of Ushe and Yua, the male protector of the jungle. The jungle itself is defined as both holder of the secret of life and as female.

The flashbacks are not so much backstory, as they would be in a more Euro-centered narrative, as they are a parallel world with the jungle itself acting to protect Yua and at times making him invisible. The series is elegantly filmed on the Colombian-Brazilian border and the loggers, whose boisterous chainsaw at one point interrupts a conversation between Ushe and Yua, are the visual and aural sign of the Bolsonaro-Trump assault on the environment, waged in the Brazilian case against the rainforest and in Trump’s case against public lands which he is now opening to drilling and mining.

The series ends with an epic battle between the Bogota agent Helena, now in touch with her roots in the earth and allied with the jungle, and the white demon Joseph, a remnant of the Nazis, the ultimate degradation of Western civilization. It’s a monumental struggle and one those who want to save the earth are engaged in each day.

Far-right nonsense

Wild District on the other hand is far-right nonsense that misses completely the changes that are going on in Colombia, a traditional bastion of Latin American conservatism and a U.S. ally which is in the process of attempting to get out from under the thumb of its history of violence and right-wing death squads. The recent arrest of the hit-squad aligned former president Alfaro Uribe for corruption is a sign of these changes.

The question in Colombia at the moment is the question of peace as the FARC, the revolutionary guerrillas, have been more than willing to lay down their arms and accept a peace deal in order to challenge the right wing at the polls as a political party. However, despite overwhelming popular support for the peace process, the current president Ivan Duque, a protégé of Uribe’s, opposes it and allows the guerrillas to be assassinated by still highly active right-wing killers as the former guerillas, having surrendered their weapons, are now defenseless.

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“Untamed savagery” in a poor section of Bogota

None of this is even hinted at in Wild District which is not much more than a sounding board and rationale for far-right sentiment and continued slaughter in the country. The FARC are portrayed as bloodthirsty kidnappers of children, ignoring any rooted connection they have with the peasantry, and as simply sadistic killers and grudge-bearing executioners of those who would desert them, forgetting that the FARC as a unit has pushed for peaceful disarmament. There is no mention of the far-right death squads who hunt them.

The series is so far right it would have difficulty even finding a place on the Fox Network, though it might fit comfortably in an evening slot on the Fox News Network between discredited Fox commentators Bill O’Reilly and Megan Kelly. This series makes Jack Webb, the McCarthyite-era creator of Dragnet, look like Bernie Sanders. It lacks the subtlety of even a 24 or a Homeland where at least the ideological message is more complicated, and subtly obscured.

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Juan Pablo Raba as an ex-guerilla fighter in Wild District

Its one positive feature is the lead character, Jhon Jeiver, a “light foot” FARC former assassin who creeps up on everyone but whose effort to insert himself into everyday life is touching and includes his attempt to reestablish a relationship with his son. In a well-drawn scene in the market where he has found work, Jhon tells a female customer seeking a solution for a burn to forget a pharmaceutical remedy, and instead shows her how to apply the healing plants aloe and calendula (marigold) that he learned in the jungle. His nemesis on the series is of course the snivelling, sadistic jungle revolutionary who wants to continue the fighting, the exact opposite of the contemporary Colombian reality.

The difference in the two series is strikingly apparent in the use of the names of the Colombian leaders. In the far-right Wild District, “Duque,” the current leader now accused in the press of corruption and who opposes the peace process, is the name of the tough on the outside but heart-of-gold female detective who is Jhon’s handler. In Green Frontier, “Uribe” is the corrupt head of the local police who orders the assassination of Helena, the eventual protector of the jungle and of the authentic Latin American heritage.

The ideological difference between the two series is shocking, although ultimately of course both series contribute to the profits of Netflix. However, there is still a stark contrast between two views of Latin America. Green Frontier is allied with the Bolivarian Revolution which attempts to redistribute wealth and raise the living standard of the continent’s poorest, often those with an indigenous or African background. Wild District aligns itself with the Bolsonarian Revolution which attempts to sell off both the natural and cultural heritage of the continent in its return of wealth back to the richest.

One revolution attempts, as does Helena, to preserve the continent. The other, which like Wild District characterizes all efforts at change as savage, instead attempts, as can be seen in the murderous spread of the coronavirus out from Brazil to its neighbours, to destroy the continent and keep it under the colonial heel.

A Strange Bird: Comcast and Universal's Peacock streaming service
Monday, 27 July 2020 09:59

A Strange Bird: Comcast and Universal's Peacock streaming service

Dennis Broe continues his review of series TV with a sceptical look at Comcast and Universal's Peacock, the latest streaming service from the world of capitalist media conglomerates

Do we need yet another television network/movie studio/cable station conglomerate turned into a streaming service whose main contribution is to put its back catalogue online?

This question is prompted by the conservative cable network Comcast’s launching of Peacock, its entry into a crowded field. The name summons up the NBC logo and is designed to invoke fond memories of that network, bought by Comcast to combine with the Universal film studio and challenge the likes of Netflix, Amazon, Disney+, AppleTV+ and HBO Max in what is becoming an increasingly crowded not to say polluted field.

Not very progressive......

These “hyperconglomerates,” media giants combining telecommunications, satellite systems, and digital delivery and transmissions, are often reactionary in nature. AT&T, the parent company of HBO Max, called “the most Republican of any publicly traded company” has long pushed for increased business deregulation and deeper tax cuts. Comcast, now spreading its tentacles across the world with its acquisition from Rupert Murdoch of the main European satellite service Sky, only recently withdrew from the thinktank ALEC, which promoted the murderous and racist stand-your-ground laws and is involved in a voter ID campaign to disqualify black voters.    

The Office: An American Workplace (NBC) season 1Spring 2005Shown: B.J. Novak (as Ryan Howard), John Krasinski (as Jim Halpert), Jenna Fischer (as Pam Beesley), Rainn Wilson (as Dwight Schrute), Steve Carell (as Michael Scott)

The Office: a brutally honest look at corporate capitalist office culture

The answer to the question of Peacock’s relevance, given what has been proposed to anchor the channel so far, is a resounding ‘No!’ The streaming service flagship series is Brave New World, based on the Aldous Huxley dystopian novel. Peacock is using the old cable model of trying to make a splashy debut with a high-powered series which will conceal the fact that most of the content, as is always true on cable channels, is not new but simply cable-ready reruns of old shows and movies. A major draw here is The Office, whose brutally honest look at corporate capitalist office culture has made it one of the most watched shows in the world. The show ran on NBC but at this moment is still lodged in Netflix and won’t premiere on the streaming service until January 2021.

There will supposedly be an Office reunion episode which is designed to make viewers remember the magic of this highly satirical and often hilarious series. However, if the 30 Rock reunion is any indication, what it will do instead is evoke anger as viewers of the 30 Rock “reunion” thought they were tuning into an hour-long episode of the series and instead got what was predominantly an extended infommercial for Peacock, with some bits from the series sprinkled around the promos.

Not very hard-hitting......

Instead of fond memories, the show might have made viewers question how hard-hitting or edgy 30 Rock, whose title celebrates NBC’s corporate headquarters, ever was to begin with. The series was always made up more of slight jibes rather than actual pokes at the industry. It didn’t bite the hand that fed it in the way that actual satires of the industry such as The Larry Sanders Show or Episodes, did. Instead it sprinkled magical fairy dust over a network that had been largely out of touch since The Office ended, perennially caught between the aging conservative heartland audience of CBS and the hipper, female, urban and sometimes progressive audience of ABC. For the better part of a decade it has not been able to make up its mind what it was, while frequently floating blandly between the two poles.

The stellar program on the network at the moment is Seth Meyer’s Late Night. His segment “A Closer Look” (available on YouTube) has become much harder-hitting during the lockdown, at it pounds away at Trump, Senate Republicans and police and paramilitary strongarm tactics in the streets. Increasingly grabbing the spotlight though, especially in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protest, has been one of its writers, Amber Ruffin, whose recounting as a black woman of her daily humiliating and intimidating experiences with the police was a series highlight.

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True Television Satire: Seth Meyers and Amber Ruffin 

The funniest and baldest satirical moment on network TV this season was Seth and Amber’s faux “trailer” for White Savior, a send-up of trash like The Green Book where Meyer’s white guy constantly appears to take the credit and get the attention for the hard work Ruffin’s characters carry out. At the end it is Meyer’s liberal sitting on the bus who invites Ruffin’s Rosa Parks to “take a seat” next to him, hogging the limelight in her challenging of racial inequality. Amber Ruffin’s show on Peacock is being rushed into production, and given the lack of quality material on the service so far, it can’t come fast enough.

Not very accurate.....

Which brings us to Brave New World, (soon available on Sky in the UK) a soft-focus gauzy mess of a show that gets Huxley completely wrong. It turns his criticism of the way technology in the wrong hands is capable of promoting conformity into an Ayn Rand, Trump-like paean to narcissistic and suicidal individualism. There is indeed a way the novel could be effectively updated in the digital age to talk about how all experience is being flattened by monopolistic entities like Amazon, and by streaming services like Peacock. But that might be hitting too close to home!

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Trump era 'individuality'

Instead the series has the ultra-rich mainly worried that they can’t have multiple dates with the same lover as monogamy is outlawed, replaced by titillating soft-focus orgies. Outside this Valley of the Dolls shtick are the poor who live in the Savage Lands in a kind of Mad Max broken-down world. But here too their major concern is not that they have no food, shelter or employment but that they have “lost their individuality,” whatever that means. The satire and description of a devastated world with a rich urban centre and an utterly left-for-dead periphery, one where our world is heading, is much sharper and accurate in the dystopian movie series The Hunger Games. Compared to it, this version of Huxley doesn’t even have the heft and weight of Netflix’s version of Sabrina the Teenage Witch.   

Far more effective and affecting is Peacock’s other revival, the second film of the long-running USA series Psych, titled Lassie Come Home (available on Prime Video in the UK).  USA is owned by NBC, as the major network’s owned many of the prime cable channels, but did not own up to that fact, making it appear that cable was a land of plenty divorced from network television when in fact it was dominated by it.  

The heart of Psych, a series about a fake psychic detective, was always the repartee between the bumbling would-be Sherlock Holmes Shawn Spencer (James Roday who co-wrote the film) and his number two, his sidekick Gus (the African-American actor Dulé Hill). There is certainly an uncomfortable element to the unequalness of the bantering, with Shawn always coming up with his own names for Gus, barely addressed in the follow-up film as Gus now gets to choose which name Shawn comes up with for him that he can tolerate. But their playfulness and knowledge and revelling in the more obscure and degraded back alleys of pop culture can be infectious.

The second film follow-up to the series is built around affectionately honoring a member of the cast, Timothy Omundson, who played Lassiter, the hard-edged official police foil to Shawn and Gus’s lackadaisical – but ultimately always more effective – sleuths.

DB23 Timothy Omundson in Lassie Come Home

Timothy Omundson in Lassie Come Home 

Omundson had a stroke and was unable to be a part of the first film. This second film is written around him, with the stroke explained in the film as the result of a gun battle, resulting in his actual inability to speak in the former stern voice of the character, and with his physical paralysis incorporated into the film. The last sequence has him overcoming both in a way that is touching and heartfelt, a tribute to working with the disabled, who themselves are rightly beginning to demand a place on network television and at the centre of modern life.

....so really, not very necessary

The sincere and warm sentiment of the cast and writers for the actor and his condition comes through strongly in the series and makes it authentic, everything the promo hucksterism of the 30 Rock reunion and the misguided banality of Brave New World are not. There is a long way to go before Peacock spreads its wings and displays its colourful plumage, or for that matter even justifies its existence.       

Perry Mason and The Case of the Missing Case
Sunday, 05 July 2020 08:51

Perry Mason and The Case of the Missing Case

Dennis Broe reviews the new HBO Perry Mason series on Sky.

There are many things to like about HBO’s new version of one of the most popular book and television series of all time, Perry Mason, which is available in Britain on Sky and in France on OCS. This young Perry Mason, set in the Los Angeles of 1932, is traumatized from his experience in World War I, à la Peaky Blinders. Perry is also a lost generation private detective not above sleazy blackmail himself, à la Jake Gittes in Chinatown. These defects give the character a long way, and multiple seasons, to go before he becomes the staunch defence attorney who enjoyed taking the toughest and most hopeless cases.

Matthew Rhys from The Americans is pitch-perfect in the role of the talented but befuddled and mixed-up Mason. To this origin story is added that of a bright young African-American beat cop, told by the white officers on the force that on the LAPD he will never become a detective because he is black, and who we know will eventually become Perry’s investigative ally, Paul Drake.

The period is lovingly and extravagantly recreated, including a flashback trench warfare battle scene with bullets whizzing by that rivals the opening of Saving Private Ryan. The same episode ends in a wide shot of an LA downtown street populated with autos and both suggest that the budget here and the set construction are akin to that of HBO’s last global hit Game of Thrones. The costumes also are a marvel of period design and recreation.

But but but.....

So what’s the ‘but’? It lies in the legal case, which must in some way be the justification for the elaborate reconstruction. A single case stretches across all the episodes and it involves Perry helping to free a client who appears to be as the older Mason might say “guilty as sin.” The problem is that in the initial episodes the case is a sort of more gruesome Lindbergh Baby Case, updated to the Silence-of-the-Lambs-serial-killer era, involving murder instead of kidnapping. The crime is ruthless but seems to have no wider implications, and seems stuck there just to have Perry and his future assistants Della Street and Paul go through their machinations. 

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Perry as Private and Camera Eye 

There is a terrific long shot in the opening of episode two which features a disconsolate, dejected and tattered Perry slumped in an alley in the foreground, a drunk collapsed in the middle ground and two men in tuxedos in the background. This shot illustrates the hopelessness of the Depression, not so different from what is being experienced today as even CNBC is declaring that in the wake of the Covid-19 crisis almost half of the US population is without a job. There is also an elaborate construction of a Hooverville, the impromptu collection of shacks that sprang up as the Depression worsened in ’32. You can find their equivalent today under any bridge in LA, as the always burgeoning homeless crisis adds economic victims of the Covid-19 crisis to what may soon be named Trumpvilles.

The equally elaborate showbiz temple of a female Christian revivalist Sister Alice is a spectacle that rivals Hollywood, but seems extraneous because in the 1930s there is already Hollywood as Depression-era diversion. The creator’s explanation for inclusion of this set piece is that it hasn’t been done in noir period pieces before.

All of which leads to what might be called the ‘period fetish fallacy’ in American film and television. Instead of attempting to grasp and express the wider social and economic significance of the period, there is an exact and painstaking reproduction of the minutiae of the era. In the case of Sister Alice, novelty replaces analysis. 1932 was a moment in American history where momentous social forces were brewing, generated by the unemployment caused by a capitalist crisis. These forces resulted in both the New Deal and the advancement of American labour and labour unions. That background is absent except as colourful detail from this Perry Mason, which instead lavishes too much time on middle-class diversions like faith healing or tabloid sensationalism.  

This is especially damaging since both the former series and the Perry Mason books are extremely plot-driven and require an intricate case. Because so much of this series works, let’s hope that in the second season the creators will choose to turn their attention away from the minutiae and toward the meaning of the period they have so successfully begun to plumb as a highly original starting point for the show.

Perry Mason and The Case of the Curious Contradictions

“Da, da dum.” These are the opening bars of the Perry Mason theme, as indelibly etched in the brains of viewers of the time as Dragnet’s “Da, da dum dum.” The series itself, which premiered at what was still the height of the McCarthy era in 1957 and ran through 1968, tended to remake the Perry of the novels, which debuted in the early 1930s in the midst of the Depression, into a more stalwart defender of the law than in his literary manifestation.

The Mason of the 1930s novels, once he determined the client was innocent, often went to great pains to deceive, outmanoeuvre and trick the police, who were often portrayed as not just incompetent but dishonest. In The Case of the Rolling Bones, from 1939, Perry orders clients to wipe down their fingerprints, confounds the DA in the necessarily revelatory final courtroom scene by setting up a rummy witness in the audience, and reacts angrily to finding his phones tapped by the LAPD.

When that novel is transferred to CBS in 1958 the counselling to break the law is gone, the rummy witness is left out, and the wiretapping is done by an obscure private shamus who informs the police. The last scene has the series’ cop Lieutenant Tragg visiting Perry’s office and informing him of the rogue wire-tapping which results in the trope at the end of each episode, the group guffaw with Perry, Della, Paul and Tragg all having a good laugh. What could be funnier than wiretapping an attorney in an attempt to jail an innocent defendant? The key difference in cultural politics is the transposition from the more wide-open Depression era 1930s to the more closed down corporate climate of the late 1950s.

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Perry at work in a court of law 

The show though did have its moments. In one of the series’ best episodes, season one’s “The Case of the Moth-Eaten Mink,” Mason has had to face the wrath of the police for supposedly defending a cop killer. He confronts – not in the courtroom but in his own law office – the actual killer, who is himself part of the justice system. Mason is still the defender of the weak and wrongly accused, though there is some flattening out of experience, as the Klondike prospector in “The Rolling Bones” is shorn of his early 20th century rough and tumble appearance and outfitted instead in ‘50s corporate attire. It’s a whitewashing of the character and the barbaric gold rush milieu from which his fortune springs.

Stains on a spotless America

There is also in the subtext of the Mason TV show the tragedy of Raymond Burr, a Hollywood homosexual who could not come out because it would not suit his image on the show as a staunch defender of the principle of law. This Perry, although he was supposedly enamoured of his gal Friday Della Street, probably preferred the handsome debonair “bachelor” investigator Paul Drake. Burr went so far as to create a fictitious wife and child who he claimed had died in a plane crash. When questioned about being a “bachelor” of an advancing age, which could lead to the accusation of being gay, he replied that he was not a bachelor but a widower.

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Burr as Perry hiding behind the law 

In the end it seemed he devoted his life to the show in the maintaining of his public image and the denying of his private desire. He was accused of being complicit in not taking a stand, but he was equally the victim of a system and an era that demanded its heroes be stripped and shorn of their human qualities. The TV Perry was often a blander version of the Perry of the novels, in an era where repression and dull conformity ironed out the human wrinkles that were viewed as stains on a spotless America. 

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