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.

The global drug pandemic, police supremacism and the corruption of film-makers
Monday, 22 June 2020 10:10

The global drug pandemic, police supremacism and the corruption of film-makers

Dennis Broe focuses on the global drug pandemic, dealt with in different ways in three new series     

Three new series deal variously with the drug pandemic, that byproduct of the despair that has grown in the wake of neoliberal capitalism. As opportunities shrink because of a global upward redistribution of wealth away from both the working and middle classes and the socially responsible agencies of the state, more people turn to the powerful opioid fentanyl, the old reliable cocaine in both its middle-class (sniffed) and working-class and underclass (heated) form as crack, and to new imagined drugs to remove that pain.

These are the drugs du jour of three series, Hightown, Amo and Homecoming which deal in various ways with the culture, lifestyle and repressive mechanisms which surround their intake. However, because drugs are useful palliatives in societies that do not welcome change, for the most part the series, while offering detailed descriptions of the problem of drugs, do not offer constructive solutions on how to eradicate them.

Drug Dealers in Corporate Suits: Homecoming

 First and foremost is Amazon Prime’s Homecoming, whose second season stars Harriet, the film about the black abolitionist, Harriet Tubman. The first season had Julia Roberts – in this second season still exec producing – playing an at first compliant psychotherapist fronting for a drug and biochemical company, the Geist Group, which used veterans as guinea pigs to test a memory-erasing drug. Her mind was wiped also and she slowly started to wake to the callousness of the drug company’s exploitation of humans, who were already casualties of the corporate war machine.

The series’ first iteration was as a 20-minute podcast and it is exceptionally tightly structured, cramming more storytelling into a half hour than more series manage in an hour.

The second season begins with Tubman, also having lost her memory, waking in a rowboat and desperately attempting to piece together who she is and what has happened to her. There is a fractured storyline, as in the film Memento, that when ironed out is actually quite simple. The strength of the second season though is its laying bare of the ambition of the Geist Group which amplifies its first season program of expunging the memories of ex-soldiers to expand and join with the military to weaponize its memory-erasing drug to use on the battlefield and on the homefront. The effort is led by Joan Cusack’s Pentagon official whose utter lack of morality or responsibility, couched in corporate-military jargon, is striking.

As the series unfolds, we watch a grab for power by Hong Chou’s put-upon underling who quickly grasps that to get ahead in the biological and pharmaceutical corporate world what is required is an innate ruthlessness and a disregard for how the drugs being developed actually affect the users. She also imbibes a milder form of the drug which the company manufactures, a red roll-on – a “take the red pill and chill” – that allows her to live with the anxiety produced by her lack of conscience.

DBA

Stephan James’ dogged war veteran pursuing the truth

Fittingly, it is If Beale Street Could Talk’s Stephan James as a war veteran who doggedly pursues the truth who enacts a karmic revenge on the company that is unfortunately more wish-fulfillment that fact, but welcome just the same. A second strong season from one of the few shows to deal with the drug epidemic caused by the seldom discussed corporate and capitalist pharmaceutical industry.

High Times in Hightown

More problematic by far, but a reliable guilty pleasure, is Starz’s and Amazon Prime’s Hightown which describes its locale as Provincetown or P-town, as utterly riddled with drugs to the point that only users, sellers, cops and informers inhabit the space. The series focuses on the struggle of a lesbian Latina working-class addict, Jackie Quinones, who barely holds down his duties on Cape Cod patrolling the coastal waters for illegal catches. Her job is described mockingly by the macho cop she wants to impress as a “fish detective.”

DBB

Fish Detective Turned Real Detective in Hightown

She hits bottom in her addiction early in the series, and we watch her in her twin attempts to get and stay clean and to become an actual detective, a job for which she shows an aptitude. Jackie is constantly late on the rent for her dishevelled apartment, uses relationships to secure a next high, and sees nothing wrong with her oversexed life in P-town which she describes to a councillor as a “lesbian Shangri-La.” She finds the body of a young fellow addict and is the first to realize that another young female addict witnessed the murder and is in danger.

The plot cleverly intermixes her struggle to move up in her career with the detritus of her addict life, so that, in tracking a lead on where the witness might be she has to lie to a former lover to borrow her car and then drive carefully, since her licence has been suspended. Jackie’s struggle is intermixed with that of the macho cop she is trying to impress, who begins a relationship with the stripper-girlfriend of the drug dealer he is pursing, and an older-brother type fisherman caught also in dealing and using.

It’s an addictive mix, and the series well illustrates how drugs and drug culture have seeped into every aspect of life in the US, and how their use and pursuit propels the young adults in this series, informing every aspect of their existence.

Now the problems. The series is exec-produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, responsible for C.S.I, one of the most conservative of all series on television, where supposedly unerring but actually highly suspect forensic science negated any use for juries or trials and like Dragnet in the 1950s meant the cops were always right.

This is the new, updated Jerry Bruckheimer but some basic premises remain. The first is that, although treatment centres are a feature of the series, they are largely seen as useless, overruled by the need for drug use to be policed.

The second is the nature of the villains. The series takes the “daring” tack of having black and Latino dealers as its heavies. Daring because Hollywood will usually throw Caucasian dealers in the mix so as not to draw flak, but here we have simply unadulterated racism. The series can point to the prominence of drugs distributed by impoverished communities as an alternative source of income as a rationale for its characterization, but the problem is that the focus stays on the street dealers without any attempt to portray the wider socio-economic environment of a global and highly profitable drug trafficking economy which is sanctioned if not encouraged by many governments.

Recently, because of the Black Lives Matter protests against the police, Cops was cancelled. It was one of the television monuments to racism, a series that launched Murdoch’s Fox network and which viewed poor and minority communities entirely from the front seat of a squad car. Hightown has a lot going for it, most especially the engaging struggle of its Latina lead, but it would be better if it told some larger truths about why drug culture exists and why it is perpetuated, instead of sometimes falling back into C.S.I. police supremacist mode.

Drugs and the Duterte Death Squads

One of the Philippines’ better directors, a global darling of the film festival circuit, is Brillante Mendoza who of late has taken as his major subject the drug crisis fueled by President Rodrigo Duterte. Like Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Duterte has used the omnipresence of drugs in the slums of Manila as a pretext to wage war against its inhabitants.  

Two of Mendoza’s films on the subject present wildly different points of view, and both are in evidence in Amo, his series for the independent TV5 in the Philippines, distributed globally by Netflix. Ma’ Rosa, a nod to Pasolini’s Ma Roma, details the mom and pop desperation of an elderly couple who must sell drugs in order for their shop to survive and whose family is then brutally beset by the police.

Alpha, The Right to Kill, on the other hand, is told almost entirely from the police perspective as we follow a “daring” raid on the heart of the Manila slums that goes wrong. The right of the police to terrorize the populace is affirmed, while one lone cop is chastised for corruption. It is most likely that with the success of Alpha Mendoza was commissioned to undertake Amo, a series about a teen drug dealer and his uncle, a corrupt cop.

Why was Mendoza, whose own perspective seems to mesh with Duterte’s, chosen to fashion a series on this topic? Instead of (for example) the other most well-known Philippine filmmaker Lav Diaz, whose filmmaking style is more oblique but who has proved himself in films like The Halt and The Woman Who Left to be a far more strident and nuanced critic of the contemporary regime? The answer lies probably in commercial reasons, and government censorship.

Nevertheless, Mendoza is an extraordinary filmmaker incorporating in his series aspects of Italian neorealism, in his gritty portrayal of the slums, and European modernism. For example, in a reflexive joke where raps about the desperate situation of the populace appear on the soundtrack and then feature the band themselves as the teenage protagonist walks by them on the street.

Showrunners frequently describe their series as “like a long movie”, but that is seldom the case since they are mostly broken into plot-heavy smaller pieces. The style though that Mendoza employs, using an immediate and intimate hand-held camera and disdaining any kind of explanation, easy identification, or judgement of his characters does make this more like a movie than a series.

The 13-episodes are mostly in Tagalog, the national language of the Philippines, and follow first the high school student Amo, or Joseph, as he falls further into the amoral lifestyle of a dealer. He begins by skipping school and employing a young girl as a drug runner to escape a police barricade, and then moves to distributing all kinds of exotic party drugs at a club where when the drug turns lethal the English-speaking owners disavow him. He ends alone and on the run. It is in this first half of the series that the Duterte line rules, because we watch Amo’s casual corruption turn deadly and contaminate everything he does. This half of the series functions almost as a rationale for tough and lethal police action.

DBC

Corrupt Cops and the Drug Trade in Amo 

The second half of the series follows Amo’s uncle, a cop himself, as he and his squad carry out a brutal kidnapping of a Japanese drug dealer, coordinated by their superior, the most ruthless of them all. This half functions much more as a criticism of the police and their invovement in the overall corruption that drugs and money generate. And here it is not a lone wolf cop but an entire squad on the force, connected ironically with the anti-kidnapping unit, that plans the kidnapping and subsequent executions.

This is a very mixed series by an extraordinary filmmaker who has brought both his creative talents and his political baggage to television. What the series indicates in actuality is that Philippine filmmakers themselves are not above being corrupted – in this case not by drugs but by the general manipulation of drug culture by those who are not interested in solving the problem, but in profiting from it.

Da 5 Bloods: Black Lives Matter Meets Rambo
Monday, 22 June 2020 09:18

Da 5 Bloods: Black Lives Matter Meets Rambo

Published in Films

Dennis Broe reviews Spike Lee's new film

Spike Lee’s new film for Netflix, Da 5 Bloods, about the effects of the Vietnam War on African-American soldiers, opens spectacularly. A documentary sequence begins with Muhammed Ali detailing why he chooses not to fight: “My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother or some darker people... for big powerful America…..for what?..They never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me. They never robbed me of my nationality.”

Malcolm X explains the war as a continuation of a history of black exploitation in a country where “20 million Black people…fight all your wars and pick all your cotton and [you] never give them any recompense.” Over contrasting shots of the war and ’60s protests against it, comes the strains of Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues” where the singer plaintively pleads for an end to a system where while “bills pile up sky high” the response of a supremacist government is to “send that boy off to die.”

The film also ends strongly in the present summoning the Black Lives Matter protests, which echo again Marvin Gaye’s still prescient words about “trigger happy policing.” In between, unfortunately, things get a lot muddier.

In the fiction, the five soldiers return to Vietnam to recover a treasure trove of gold they had hidden during the war. Each of them, and especially Paul (Delroy Lindo) has been in some way damaged and traumatized by the war. Vietnam is now a prosperous country – a sex worker under the American regime is, under an independent Vietnam, a financial broker – but to return to it for these ex-soldiers is to re-invoke painful memories.

The film is aware of the idiocy of the Rambo myth, where Sylvester Stallone returns to fight the war and this time to win. Nevertheless it falls into a similar trap, as it recycles classical Hollywood images with the racist and imperialist residue of those images still intact. Lee’s film summons Francis Coppola’s Apocalypse Now with the Wagnerian “Flight of the Valkyries”, as the five travel upriver to find the gold. This is the least offensive of the references, because the original was cognizant of the lunacy of the war. Paul, wracked by guilt over what happened in battle, grows increasingly mad as they travel further upriver, suggesting that Joseph Conrad’s Kurtz and Coppola’s Brando character suffered from what would now be called PTSD –  not innately mad, but driven mad by war.   

db2

Bloods on the battlefield

Elsewhere though, the references are not so innocuous. Echoes of Treasure of Sierra Madre in the way the thirst for the gold divides the bloods give way to a direct quote in one scene which figures the Vietnamese as Sierra Madre’s scurrilous Mexicans, one of whom intones in a kind of Vietnamese/Hollywood/Spanish: “We don’t need no stinking official badges.”   

The film cannot acknowledge that the Vietnam War was won by the Viet Cong, freedom fighters whose struggle against US imperialism is the same struggle that African-Americans are engaged in today in the inner cities of the United States. Thus, one character, who can’t stop refighting the war, is executed in a way that depicts the Vietnamese as bloodthirsty bandits. The only male Vietnamese character the bloods trust is a bounty hunter, whose parents fought for the US puppet government of South Vietnam. A flashback to the ’60s battlefield continues the “othering” of the Vietnamese by showing them only in outline, an approach used in Oliver Stone’s far better Platoon and which has been criticised.

Finally, the film, since it positions itself within the traditions of the War Film and the Western, complete with the bloods in campfire scene (surrounded by hostile Indians/Vietnamese?), must end in a battle. This one features the bloods and their European NGO allies against Jean Reno’s bloated Frenchman, and again the nearly faceless Vietnamese are simply enlisted behind him in a way that suggests nothing has changed in Vietnam since the French were driven out in 1954.

With heavy casualties the bloods win the battle and so in a way replay the Vietnam War. We’ve come both a long way and not very far at all from Rambo.  

Statues also die
Saturday, 13 June 2020 13:01

Statues also die

Published in Visual Arts

Dennis Broe reflects on the recent attacks on European colonialism and support shown to Black Lives Matter, through the defacement and removal of statues

The first week of European and particularly French and Francophone protests in the wake of the US Black Lives Matter movement concerned parallel police actions against French minorities. This included the death on his birthday of Adama Traoré, held down by three French cops in a hold similar to that executed on George Floyd. Traoré was pronounced dead on arrival at the police station. The official verdict claimed that asphyxiation was caused by the presence in his blood of marijuana. But the family medical examiners reached the conclusion that he died as a result of the chokehold.

Last weekend protestors memorializing Traoré swarmed the streets, despite the Covid prohibition forbidding gatherings of more than 10 people. In the wake of the protests, the Interior Minister announced the chokehold was now banned. The protests were peaceful and most of the marchers wore masks and maintained social distancing. One effect though was that they broke the embargo on street demonstrations which were in full force before the confinement, opposing President Macron’s underfunding of hospitals and his attempt to reduce worker pensions.

This week the protestors widened their approach and took aim at the legacy of European colonialism, most prominently by scrawling “I Can’t Breathe,” George Floyd’s last words, on the Belgium statue in Ghent of Leopold II who presided over the genocidal exploitation of the Congo, referred to at the time erroneously as The Belgian Congo. Across the continent memorials fell, including the statue of Edward Colston, a Bristol slave merchant at the time when the British empire amassed a good deal of its wealth by transporting slaves from Africa to the Americas.

In Bordeaux, the city removed plaques on David Gradis Street which proudly proclaimed that between 1718 and 1789 Gradis’ company had powered 221 boats carrying African slaves to the Americas. Nantes, the center of embarkation of slave boats in France, was already ahead of this movement, having created a memorial to the cruelty of the slave trade. It’s an impressive monument – but so is the at times ostentatious wealth of the city, built on the slave trade, the legacy of which may outlast the memorial. All of which brings up the question not just of memorials but of reparations, a question that has so far not been raised here.

French president Macron was quick to take advantage of the situation having already proclaimed his African soft power policy of redressing colonialism by promising to restore some of the art the French looted from West Africa over the years which resides in prominent museums like the Louvre. The French policy in Africa though includes the carrot and the stick because the French army is still in Mali, Mauretania, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad.

This tearful history was also recounted in Statues Also Die, Alain Resnais and Chris Marker's 1950s film about the theft of this art and its repositioning as colonial booty in French museums. In the film the statues, wrenched out of their cultural context, appear to tear up, wither and die in the asphyxiation of colonialism.

The colonial tradition endures, however. Laurent Joffrin, the editor of the supposedly left French paper Liberation, which published Sartre’s salvos against French terrorism in Algeria, turned his back on that legacy in decrying the tearing down of colonial statues as partaking in the dangerous work of erasing history. Joffrin wished instead that the statues remain as markers of the colonial legacy. But most are not mere markers – they are celebrations.

Joffrin needn’t worry. France’s colonial history is very deeply rooted and will unfortunately endure beyond the statues. But this week a first salvo was fired across the bow against that legacy, both in France, in other cities in Europe, and across the globe.

Rebels in Snowpiercer
Monday, 01 June 2020 07:13

Serial TV and the indignities of class: Snowpiercer, Normal People and Little Fires Everywhere

Dennis Broe looks at how our class-divided society is represented in three current series being streamed on TV

One of the effects of the coronavirus crisis is the accentuation of already exacerbated class differences. Yes, middle-class digital workers cheered largely working-class first responders from their windows, but that did not result in increased pay for these workers, performing the most dangerous tasks involving medical treatment and food supplies. Jeering from the sidelines, and the beneficiaries of the majority of government largesse, are the very wealthy who had often fled to their country mansions or summer homes and brought the disease with them.

Serial or streaming TV has highlighted these discrepancies in three current series. The most startling and most pronounced class gap is that which propels Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer, a series based on his 2015 film which is showing each week on in the US on TNT and globally on Netflix.

Class warfare in snowpiercer

The series is about a train which perpetually “orbits” the earth of the very near future, with all life outside the train frozen after a Trumpian attempt to “fix” global warming by firing nuclear rockets at the stratosphere backfired and froze the planet. The show first introduces us to the “tailies,” the ragtag rebels in the back cars of the train who rushed the train in order to make a place for themselves. They are called “unticketed passengers,” stressing their illegitimacy on a train that is run under the strict rules of capitalist class separation.

The tailies are bunched in groups and thrown scraps to eat, as opposed to the ultra-rich near the front of the train, who enjoy the finest dining from supply cars devoted to feeding them and catering to their every whim. The conception and organization of the train is supposedly the brainchild of “Mr. Wilford,” a shadowy Jeff Bezos/Elon Musk type character, a kind of Wizard of Oz with the strings not yet visible.

In the series the train is referred to as “a fortress to class” and the tailies recognize that conditions will only change “after The Revolution.” Plucked from the masses at the back of the train to investigate a murder in the front is a former police detective in dreads, Andre Layton (David Diggs from the Broadway show Hamilton). At first it seems the murder investigation will be a way of short-circuiting the class element and subsuming it under a more typical police procedural. But that does not happen. Andre discovers that the murder in the midst of the supposed “civilized” cars of the train involves cannibalism, a murder where body parts are sold for profit.

His “detecting” also has the dual role of investigating the running of the train and may eventually lead to a revolt. He watches the leaders of a tailie rebellion be frozen and bids them adieu with the phrase “God have mercy on your spark,” hoping eventually to reverse the cryogenic process and revive them to help him lead the rebellion. 

This direct portrayal of class antagonism is nothing new for Bong Joon-ho, now justly celebrated for his Oscar-winning laying bare of the sharp disparities in South Korean society in Parasite. Also along for the executive producer ride is Park Chan-wook, well known for the violent excesses of Old Boy and Lady Vengeance. He adds an element of sadism to the story, eg in treatment of the tailies who must pay for any rebellion by having their limbs exposed to the frozen air outside the train. Under Bong’s guidance however, this too plays as part of class violence and does not simply stand as gratuitous bloodletting.

While these sharp class contrasts are not unusual for South Korean cinema they are highly unusual for American television, even in the realm of science fiction, which being set in the future allows for a speculative element. Even the fantasy element though in Snowpiercer is mitigated by the fact that “the future” in this tale is 2021, stressing the imminent danger we are all in as the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, based on nuclear and climate change threats, now sets the Doomsday Clock at 100 seconds to midnight. It’s Bong’s stewardship which guides this train and keeps it on course rather than as on much American TV swerving off-course or derailing or getting sidetracked by the adrenaline rush of purely addictive effects. Predictably, many American critics dismissed the series as inconsequential.

The metaphor of the train circling the globe with sharp class partitions may seem like an aberration. But it is clearly being played out and accentuated during the coronavirus crisis in places like the Bronx, where in one twin-tower complex 100 renters at least have contracted the disease and where residents wait up to an hour to squeeze into poorly ventilated cars that frequently break down. This is the very image of the tailies. The Bronx – the city’s poorest borough – has the highest rate of infection, hospitalizations and death while Manhattan, the richest, has the lowest rates. How far are we from the head and tail of Snowpiercer?

Overcoming the Tragedy of Class: Normal People

The BBC and Hulu’s co-production of Normal People is based on Sally Rooney's eponymous novel, and is also co-written and executive produced by Rooney. The 12-episode series follows the initial formation of an Irish couple, Marianne Sheridan who lives in a country mansion, and Connell Waldron, who lives in rented social housing. The couple meet when Connell picks up his mother who cleans the Sheridan’s house, though their class difference is not directly acknowledged until several years (and episodes) later.

Rooney has a highly complex view of class. For her, the way that stark but unspoken class differences divide people is inhuman, and cause misery in society generally and between the couple. In their small town in Galway, the Gaelic football champion Connell is much admired, has a loving and wise working-class mother, and is seen as the ultimate bloke by his male peers. Marianne, on the other hand, is a loner who lets her contempt for her fellow students be known, and who sees herself as just passing through her hick high school until she can be with students from her own class at Trinity, the elite university she is destined for.

However, Connell is not the jock he is assumed to be. He is shy and sensitive, and he and Marianne bond and share a private sexual relationship that establishes their mutual need and respect for each other. Their loneliness is partly caused by their inability to relate to their own class. Marianne is emotionally abandoned by her careerist mother and abused by her useless but privileged brother, and Connell never fits with his blonde cheerleader-type girlfriend. This social awkwardness brings them together in a way that initially transcends their class differences, but then over the years, as we follow them both to Trinity, often causes their relationship to flounder because of these differences.

Connell and sMariannne in NP

The title of Normal People is in one sense ironic because both are not “normal” but are beset with anxieties related to their class position in their world. It also indicates that the tragic element of their relationship is “normal” in the sense of common or universal, because of the prevalence of class divisions in society. Marianne, devalued by her family, pursues relationships that exhibit her as worthless and which grow ever more violent and abusive in a way that critiques the bourgeois petty voyeurism of trash like Fifty Shades of Grey. Meanwhile, Connell deals with the anxiety of the working-class intellectual, honoured but also always on the outside of the elite institution and its attendees in which he nervously circulates.

American accounts of the series focused mainly on sex, partially as a way of ignoring the class elements. There is indeed an abundance of sex as Connell and Marianne fall in and out of bed while continuing to maintain their friendship – but the sex is never gratuitous, it's always revealing of the state of their emotional intimacy. This begins with the tender and affectionate presentation of their initial lovemaking, a refuge from class tensions, continues with their more mature sexual experimentation and concludes with an unsuccessful physical tryst which nevertheless results in Marianne realizing that her form of experimentation has become destructive and is linked to the violence in her middle-class family.

This is an intensely revealing and penetrating series on both personal and social issues, reminding us of what it was like to be young and when love cannot be separated from bodies intertwined. The series never loses its focus on the way actual human warmth and understanding is thwarted by class differences, though the mystique of Connell as working-class writer does often supplant considerations of Marianne’s own intellectual achievements. Normal People is also exactly the kind of series that can win a Golden Globe, BAFTA and/or an Emmy and will be a feature of an award season likely to be utterly dominated by streaming and serial TV.

Class as Race: Little Fires Everywhere

Cornell West’s dictum that “race is the way class is spoken in America” is the key to understanding Amazon Prime’s Little Fires Everywhere, about the relationship between a black, itinerant artist Mia (Kerry Washington) and her well-off white counterpart Elena (Reese Witherspoon). The series draws a sharp distinction between Shaker Heights, one of the richest districts in Ohio and in the country and nearby Cleveland, seen by the local high school principal as a poorly funded educational wasteland.

Little Fires is set in the 1990s, the Clinton years, when race was supposedly becoming invisible. It is at its best when it focuses on the ways that white privilege pervades and indeed defines a community that considers itself “progressive.” Thus, Elena’s daughter Lexie steals the story of Mia’s daughter Pearl’s being refused admittance to an upper level maths class partly because she is black. Lexie pilfers Mia’s experience in order to “round out” her application to Yale. Lexie, the spitting image of her mother, later appropriates Pearl’s identity to hide a far more embarrassing actual hardship she endures.

Mia Elena and White Privilege in Little Fires

The eight-part mini-series tells many subtle truths but flounders a bit in the backstory that crucially defines its two female antagonists. Elena’s choice to turn her back on her dream of becoming a journalist and instead find herself trapped as a mother of four is seen as tragic yet there is also a huge element of complicity in her embracing what she calls “the plan” of marriage and a family which also promises a well-off lifestyle. Mia’s backstory, as a talented but thwarted artist also defeated by a bizarre pregnancy, is simply too singular and odd and detracts from her own critique of the white privilege she finds herself constantly forced to confront.         

The series, in its “fair-minded” willingness to see all sides of class, race and gender conflicts is highly complex, but also itself falls victim to the Clinton-era regressive views of race and class differences as being transcended. In the series, the plurality and “fairness” of the telling thwart class critique. These perpetually unresolved race and class issues perpetually return, if not in the gilded bastion of Shaker Heights then in nearby Minnesota. Here, the Elena’s or Amy Klobachar’s of the world sanction white police violence, as Klobachar did as an attorney, by hiding behind a thin veil of reasonableness and a media characterization of themselves as “moderate.”

Canadian TV series, Quibi, surveillance capitalism and mental junk food
Monday, 18 May 2020 11:15

Canadian TV series, Quibi, surveillance capitalism and mental junk food

Dennis Broe continues his series, looking at how Cardinal inverts the usual cliched story of individual serial killers to suggest the shared gult of capitalists; how Tribal suggests bias against First Nations people in the justice system in Canada; and points to the links between the new Quibi Turnstyle format and surveillance capitalism. Image above from Tribal

In the spotlight this week is Canadian television, as two series with exceptionally interesting seasons have just concluded. Cardinal, on the private network CTV follows an Anglo male and a French/Quebecois/female detective team investigating serial killings in the frozen mythical hamlet of Algonquin Bay, in northern Ontario. The show has just wrapped after its fourth season, by far its most interesting, especially the stunning twist on the trite cliché of the individual serial killer.

The second series is Tribal, a pairing of a female Native Canadian chief, also a detective, with a seasoned and at first cynical and racist male colleague, who slowly reacts against the predominant mood on the local Alberta police force and respect his partner’s culture. Tribal, which boasts actors known to U.S. and global TV audiences – Jessica Matten from the CBC and U.S. CW series Burden of Truth and Brian Markenson a veteran of Mad Men and many Canadian series including the too-quickly cancelled The Romeo Section – is the second major series from APTN, the Aboriginal People’s TV Network. APTN programing consists of North American indigenous news and series, spotlighting Northern Canadian regions, while also linking to other indigenous peoples around the world, particularly in Australia and New Zealand.

Cardinal

The detective pairing in Cardinal, the lead detective John Cardinal played by Billy Campbell from The Killing and his partner Lise Delorme (Karine Vanasse from the ABC series Revenge), is a cagey way of producing a show that plays to both Anglo Canada on CTV and French Canada on the channel Super Ecran, both owned by the same company. Lise’s Frenchness is not much remarked upon on the series and the final season, which concentrated on her reactions to the case, is the exception as her tenaciousness and compassion is usually outshined by Cardinal’s obsession, just as French Quebec is subordinated to the Anglo majority in Canada.

The series, available on BBC4 and Hulu, is based on the award-winning novels of Giles Blunt, with each season featuring a serial killer who Cardinal is obsessed with tracking. The small town of Algonquin Bay has more murders per capita than possibly any town in the world, except those in Iceland where its mystery writers have collectively killed off a high percentage of the population in a country where in reality there are hardly any murders.

The first three seasons are mainly interesting for the relations between the two leads, with Cardinal moving in the course of the show from darkly obsessed to willing to acknowledge in the fourth season, at the urging of his daughter, that he has feelings for his intrepid partner Lise. The murder element in the first three seasons is a sort of highly sadistic torturing of both the Algonquin Bay residents and the audience, as the detectives pursue ever more perverse, and ever less socially connected and defined, killers.       

DB C

But something different happens in season four and, as in the Icelandic series The Valhalla Murders, the narrow serial killer motif begins to widen. The inciting incident in the killer’s revenge trajectory involves the greed of the supposedly morally upright victims, who participate in a scheme to rid the forests of its birds and make it available for logging. The killer’s calling card is a feather, to remind his victims of their part in this tragedy. So the guilt in this last season rests not with a socially isolated loner but with the greed that is constantly engulfing Canada’s frozen north, where the rush to strip the land of its minerals and its forests gained such momentum under the reign of the conservative Stephen Harper. The background of the serial killer is linked to the larger issues of environmental exploitation for profit, and the perpetrators are not only the isolated individual but a group of capitalists and their henchmen. It’s a vast improvement on the possibilities of a tired narrative tradition in the crime field.

Tribal, available on Blu-ray and DVD from Netflix and Amazon, tracks the efforts of the local Calgary police to integrate the tribal police force into their ranks. The experiment is merely a public relations gambit to make it seem that the era of colonization is over but it gathers steam as the local chief, Samantha Woodburn, slowly convinces her ageing, world weary and broken partner, “Buke” Bukosky, that her First Nation’s ways have meaning and value.

DB C1

Near the end of the first season’s eight episodes, the series hits its stride. Buke rises to the defence of his colleague as the Calgary police commissioner wants to cancel the project. In the highlight of season one, a now-corrupt Native former lead officer delivers a monologue about the unequal and unfair nature of justice as it is meted out to First Nations people by the state through the local police force. Samantha attempts to prove him innocent of a police frame-up, and the guilty finger slowly starts to point toward the racist Anglo police force itself.

This is the second series by showrunner Ron E. Scott, who also created Blackstone about reservation lives and struggles and which ran for five seasons on APTN. Tribal is a flagship show designed, with its crossover pairing of an Anglo and Native cop, to promote the network, partially funded by the Canadian government, and allow it to expand its work of countering the neglect and devaluing of the Northern indigenous peoples as an excuse and rationale to pilfer their resources.

Quibbling With Quibi (Part II)

This week we will look at Quibi form and content. The service is exclusively available and designed for mobile phones. It uses what it calls Turnstyle video technology, allowing the shows to be viewed in either horizontal (landscape) form which makes it more like a traditional though tiny screen, or vertical form where presumably one could also run other applications underneath while watching the series. The service attempts to turn the limitations of mobile phone viewing into gimmicky bonuses so that, for example, the upcoming Steven Spielberg Horror series After Dark can only be viewed at night. Of course this also makes apparent the way that viewers are being monitored since their phones can only activate the show in the evening.

Martin Scorsese’s comments on the era of the superhero film in the age of streaming apply here. He called these films, produced by Katzenberg’s former studio Disney, “theme parks” rather than “the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional psychological experience.” Quibi “series” on the other hand are just single rides, reduced, in their 7 to max 10-minute form, to the ride alone. No buying tickets, no getting in line, no anticipation, just the ride, with almost nothing to show for it when the ride is over.

The other “innovation” in the short form consists in possibly undercutting industry labour contracts which have not caught up with this new technology, and paying reduced rates for workers employed on Quibi’s “entertainment bites” as opposed to longer-form series. There is a possibility that this loophole is what allowed the service to launch and produce so many series so rapidly. As Shoshana Zuboff says, these new forms of surveillance capitalism partly rely on outwitting regulation by moving so rapidly they cannot be evaluated and countered. She adds that…“In the absence of a clear-minded appreciation of this new logic of accumulation, every attempt at understanding, predicting, regulating, or prohibiting the activities of surveillance capitalists will fall short.”

quibi losses

As for the series themselves it is important to emphasize that the high-end flagship dramatic series constitute very little of the total Quibi content which is primarily what it calls “news” and features as well as short form documentaries. One of Quibi’s “innovations” is raising the status of social media “influencers” so that their shows appear alongside recognized industry names. Prominent among these is The Rachel Hollis Show where the host dispenses pithy advice to young mothers in the nature of “it’s not the quantity of the time you spend with your kids, it’s the quality.” Says Hollis, “As an influencer, what everyone dreams about, literally, is being an early adopter…the first person to step into the space.”

Hollis is the perfect Quibi representative, someone who values getting there first over making any positive social contribution and whose dream life, her interior psyche, is given over to nothing but visions of her own empty success. She is to the post-natal field what Trump is to politics.

As for the dramatic series, there is a possibility that the form could be valuable. The 20-minute podcast from which the Amazon series Homecoming was adapted made for very tightly constructed half-hour episodes of that series, enhancing its critique of the corporate over human values of the pharmaceutical industry. For the most part that does not happen with the purely “entertainment” preoccupation of founder Jeffrey Katzenberg’s Disney-Dreamworks imprint on Quibi.

So, in the remake of The Most Dangerous Game with The Hunger Game’s Liam Hemsworth, a Detroit down-and-out denizen of a decaying city willing to sell his soul to get the money for his wife’s cancer treatment to corporate exec Christopher Waltz (Inglourious Basterds), who is sheltered in a gleaming tower, has some resonance with the contemporary situation. However, a more daring casting with an African-American actor in the lead might have resounded at the moment, because of the Georgia hunting and killing by an ex-investigator of the black jogger Aumaud Arbery. It might have highlighted the way this kind of hunting of African-American men not only persists in the U.S. but is rationalized by the system, as the murderers in Georgia were only arrested two months after in the wake of a national public outcry. But this kind of radical envisioning of deep-seated racism, which is the subject of the film Get Out, might have upset the mindless entertainment formula that in the end may doom Quibi to irrelevance.

Flipped, where two disgruntled workers decide to create their own Home Fixer Upper show is simply Quibi nodding in its fictional series to the mindless decider and influencer mentality that it is also promoting in its non-fiction entries.

Sam Raimi’s 50 States of Fright in some ways shows the real limitations of the form. The first series of horror episodes, which will highlight all 50 U.S. states, takes place in Michigan and incorporates elements of Raimi’s own A Simple Plan, in this case centering around greed for gold with the more traditionally spooky elements of his Evil Dead. The problem is that once you figure out what the horror payoff is for each episode, even an eight-minute episode begins to feel about two-and-a-half minutes too long. Quibi may become the victim of its own abbreviated form – since there really is little development, the audience may wander. Meanwhile Quibi will have done its job of further destroying our capacity for empathy, reflection and commitment.

The best of the opening round of Quibi series is the teen murder mystery When the Streetlights Go On, which, given the dark nature of its subject matter which concerns teen murders, really would have been much better titled When the Streetlights Go Off, and which features but does not star Queen Latifah. The mystery is compelling and the total length of the ten episodes clocks it at about the length of a film. Here the problem is the lack of depth in each episode, which must climax and then restart. This retards any actual character development because of the addictive imperative of forcing the viewer to the next episode.

Lockdown is being relaxed and workers are starting to come out of their homes. For many, this will involve leaving their homes to face unsafe working conditions and governments which do too little in the way of testing and screening. Is Quibi to be their only solace on the trip to and from their first, second, even third jobs? The lasting contribution of this service may be to convince more and more workers that they want more from the limited leisure time that is offered them than “quick bites” which are really just mental junk food.

Home Before Dark and Quibi
Wednesday, 13 May 2020 08:11

Home Before Dark and Quibi

Dennis Broe continues his series with a look at Home Before Dark and Quibi

It's the first masterful series from Apple TV+, after a horrible slip out of the gate with the clumsy, awkward The Morning Show. Home Before Dark details the efforts of a nine-year-old reporter to get to the bottom of a disappearance and supposed murder that has wracked a small town in the state of Washington. While The Morning Show glamorizes mainstream media, by supposedly reveling in its foibles, Home Before Dark is an actual critical series that exposes, though its youthful truth seeker, the inner workings of a small town ruled by aging male public officials who conceal and bury the truth.

The key to the series, which has several well-defined and extremely differentiated characters, is the intrepid reporter Hilde Lisko, based on an actual pre-teen journalist. The real-life journalist, also named Hilde, covers the crime beat, but the series improves on reality by altering this trajectory so that what the fictional Hilde focuses on is broader than crime reporting. Her interest is investigative journalism, and her heroes come from All The President's Men.

Her single-minded pursuit of the truth gets her to the bottom of a long buried crime which had resulted in the ostracizing of a Native American (Yakama) brother and sister. The brother, she discovers, had been falsely convicted of the disappearance of a young boy. The sheriff, the mayor and the sheriff's son all have secrets around the disappearance which they guard jealously.

DB2

Hilde and her allies

Hilde also assembles a team to help in her investigation. There are her two classmates, an Asian girl and an African-American boy, Spoon and Donny. Donny is particularly well fleshed-out as a worldwise nine-year-old investigative entrepreneur. Her other allies include the independent African-American female deputy, Trip, the lone truth seeker in the sheriff's office, as well as Hilde's lawyer mother, who comes to the aid of the jailed Native American Sam. The villains are equally well drawn: The smug sheriff who constantly covers up his initial rush to judgment, the alcoholic mayor who may have beat his son, the missing boy Richie, and the sheriff's son, Frank, caught up in the lies of his father which have imprisoned him as well.

What the series does is assemble a group of outsiders who challenge the (white, male) power structure in the town and succeed. It's a Me-Too fairy tale where diversity triumphs. The enterprise is led by the stunning performance of Brooklynn Prince, its stalwart heroine.

DB3

Teen romance in 'Blue Velvet'

The show tells some truths as well about what this new generation is facing. It has the structure of the John Hughes teen films of the 1980s, with its assembling of a Scooby-Doo gang, its focus on the romance of the adolescent older sister Izzy, and its food fight at school in the midst of which Hilde's group is assembled. However, this is a darker time than the '80s, so the 'teens' here are nine-year-olds, that is, exposed to murder, corruption and cover-ups much earlier than in the '80s, when neoliberalism was just starting to take hold. In these more perilous times, the confluence of greed and corruption is an essential part of what kids must confront in growing up. The darker mood is echoed and announced in the soundtrack, with refrains from Blue Velvet, itself partially a young adult and teen film which describes a far more guilty world than the films of the early '80s.

Home Before Dark also features generational differences in technology with its focus on the social media expertise of its pre-teen characters so that, for example, Hilde's paper is online while her father's was printed. The young entrepreneur Donny notes about their foes, 'My intel tells me they are smart and savvy,' and Hilde must explain to her grade-school colleagues what in the world microfiche is. Here, though, unlike Netflix's Stranger Things, the technology gap is seen as something to be overcome in their exposure of the truth, not as mere nostalgia.

The only false note in the series is the character of Hilde's father. Her sister Izzy, in a stunning moment, accuses Hilde of 'sucking the wind out of' everyone around her, as the sister, another well-draw character, feels stifled in a family with a star reporter. In the same way, Jim Sturgess's constant mumblecore Marlon Brando as Matt Lisko, a relocated Brooklyn slacker, is a solitary piece of ham acting that attempts to suck the wind out of what is an otherwise stunning ensemble cast. His digressions and constant illogical reversals often bring the show to a halt. Perhaps this is the problem of a group of actors, relatively less known, and a single actor, with more of a reputation (Cloud Atlas, Across the Universe), who attempts to monopolize the show and as such puts his own patriarchal imprint on it.

But this drawback does not succeed in sinking or even deterring the forward motion of the show. Hilde and her expert crew of diverse truth seekers expose and triumph over the decaying debris of a white male power structure which attempts to hang on at all costs and stands in the way of progressive change.

Quibbling Over Quibi (Part 1)

Quibi, which stands for Quick Bites – bursts of entertainment of less than 10 minutes, designed for mobile phone use on the go – launched in the US in early April in the midst of the lockdown.

DB4 quick bites

Quick Bites

This is no fly-by-the-seat-of-its-pants startup enterprise. The service collected $1.75 billion in funding from not only all the major Hollywood studios (Disney, NBC Universal, Sony, Warner, Liberty, CBS Viacom) but also the tech industry (Google and Alibaba), chemical industry (Proctor and Gamble) and major retail (Walmart).   

The head of this new streaming service, which like the others takes on the appearance of a major studio, is Jeffrey Katzenberg, former chair of Disney and then co-founder and CEO of DreamWorks. Katzenberg’s stamp is that of ‘pure’ entertainment. At Disney his reign produced The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, The Lion King and at DreamWorks, a Spielberg-Disney conglomerate, he oversaw Shrek, Kung Fu Panda and Monsters vs. Aliens. These were noxious and sometimes obnoxious (Shrek) overly media-savvy and saturated American fairy tales with little real progressive or social content, or diluted or muted to a general weak liberal line.

DB5

Quibi’s stars 

The programming on Quibi follows the Katzenberg line, highly star oriented – with Jennifer Lopez, Queen Latifah, LeBron James, Steph Curry, Guillermo del Toro, Sam Raimi, Will Arnett – flashy, instantly grabbing but with little value other than diversion. Tales told, not by idiots but by highly skilled entertainers yet still ‘signifying nothing’ except to grab and hold the audience for the required 7 to 10 minutes. The high end is scripted series, but the majority of content is the much-cheaper-to produce second and third tier documentaries and ‘news’ features, headlined in some cases by social media ‘influencers,’ that is online product pluggers who have fashioned themselves into savvy consumer promoters, just when consumption under lockdown is taking a dive as people instead struggle with how to pay the rent and feed their families.

Quibi though is not just a studio, reviving the worst aspects of cable (a flagship dramatic series with the rest of the programming reruns) and “reality TV,” it is also a digital conglomerate and as such is a participant in all aspects of the surveillance economy. Its most startling innovation is that it is only available on mobile phones and designed to fill in the short gaps in workers’ lives as they scurry to their suddenly more dangerous jobs. At the moment, because of the amount of work being done at home, this “innovation” may have lost some of its potential to attract, though the app was downloaded 1.7 million times in the first week after its launch.

Katzenberg says Quibi is ‘the best of Hollywood and the best of Silicon Valley’ but it’s also the worst of each. The company earns revenue through ads and offers a cheaper monthly subscription rate for no ads and at its launch it had already secured a year’s worth of advertising time. Quibi will also harness viewer information both for its own programming purposes like Netflix – it asks your age when you subscribe – and in addition it may also sell the data to advertisers. Indeed, it has already been accused of ‘leaking’ email addresses to Google, Facebook and Twitter, companies adept at harnessing participant data for commercial surveillance. The Quibi come-on was a message saying ‘A whole world of quick bite entertainment awaits you. Please take a moment to confirm your email to better secure your account.’ It’s through gimmicks like this, as one media analyst put it, that companies are able to create such an all-encompassing profile.’

DB6

Digital Conniving in Chris Hegedus’ and D.A. Pennebaker’s Start Up 

Quibi is also designed to take advantage of the coming 5G faster download speeds for mobile phones and as such may also raise rates for mobile subscribers as well as pushing the extensive development of the network of 5G towers, which may have an environmental safety factor involved. In addition, harking back to the 2001 film Start Up about a tech company whose idea is stolen before it goes to market by a rival who visits the company and views their interface, Quibi was accused of stealing video technology demo-ed for Katzenberg and other Quibi employees.

This is the underside of the smarmy ‘pure’ entertainment ethos of the Disney/DreamWorks American dream. The intense competition that pits all against all and leads to an endgame of big fish eating little fish, with the blood from the kill polluting the media waters.

Stream it, skip it or revolutionise it? Series TV post-Covid
Tuesday, 05 May 2020 09:26

Stream it, skip it or revolutionise it? Series TV post-Covid

Dennis Broe considers post-Covid-19 possibilities for a more progressive, artist-led approach to film and television series. Image from Superstore

Before quarantine when a phrase like “shelter in place” seemed like something out of the apocalyptic future forecast in The Walking Dead, the main issue in film and television was how the industry would manage the transition from an actual to a virtual world.

The studio system and the major television networks were being challenged by the gauntlet of streaming services and by a wave of consolidation that merged studios (Disney-Fox), paired communication distributors with product (AT&T-Time Warner) and cable networks with satellite production companies and networks (Comcast-Sky-NBC Universal).

Consolidation by corporations

The result of this consolidation and increasing monopolization is a group of behemoth streaming services—Netflix, Amazon, Disney+, Peacock (Comcast NBC), Apple+, and HBO Max (AT&T-Time Warner), that were set to challenge first US domestic and then global production, including national film and television support and channels.

This has all of course been hastened by the global Coronavirus sequestration as sheltering in place produces captive audiences and global activity moves online. Thus Jeff Bezos the richest man in the world increased his wealth by $25 billion in March , with Amazon’s online delivery spelling the end of many department stores and with the company cracking down on and firing dissenters. It’s online streaming service Amazon Prime is now in about half the households in America. Netflix added 2.3 million subscribers in the US and Canada for a global total of over 182 million and Disney+ in 5 months accumulated 50 million subscribers in what was predicted would take 2 years to accomplish.

So, one possibility of what can happen when the pandemic is over or contained is that this monopolization will continue unabated and induce a homogenization where six services produce the majority of the world’s television and increasingly film as well—with many films going immediately online in light of the closing of cinemas. Local production then will be merely collaborative with each country adding its own flavour to streaming service co-productions.

Another possibility is independently owned and produced subscription platforms, such as Means TV which bills itself as “the first post-capitalist cooperatively run streaming service.” Means produces an array of programs on such topics as Art House Politics, with artists using various video forms to comment on the contemporary social situation and exposés such as The Screenwriter with No Hands, about the mysterious death of a Hollywood scripter who investigated the industry’s relationship with the Pentagon and weapons manufacturers. This is essentially a kind of Steven Soderbergh iPhone school of do-it-yourself video with fairly professional aesthetic and production values.

Transformation by artists

There is a third possibility. That is divorcing already established and considerably accomplished film and television serial aesthetic and narration from the profit motive. Film and television artists from around the world struggle constantly with trying to accommodate their work to commercial imperatives, always fudging and softening what they might want to say if they had more freedom. In that sense, the vaunted freedom of Netflix, which writers and directors are trotted out to champion, has these artists still highly bound to the market, and also has them in most cases not able to profit from their work because they are paid a fee upfront and no residuals.

For this alternative to work, there would need to be a combination of the existing government funding—which admittedly in the short term will diminish due to the economic depression wrought by the combination of capitalism and coronavirus—public support and funding and a change in the attitude of artists who are willing to trade huge profits for a living wage, in order to truly create work they can be proud of, instead of work they must in part disavow and that only contributes to global addictive viewing.

What is needed is to wed the second and third possibilities, the aesthetic of contemporary film and particularly serial TV, the dominant narrative form of this era which can be adept at critical analysis of society, with the can-do spirit and vision of independent media. Series like the Icelandic The Valhalla Murders, deeply critical of the personal corruption of judicial power, the American Homecoming, darkly accusatory of the murderous profiteering of the drug companies and France’s Game of Influence, a penetrating look at the corrupt and deadly power of global polluters like Monsanto, all point the way to a more critical future. Not to mention marginalized sit-coms such as One Day At A Time and Superstore which focus on the challenges of minority single-parent families and the problems faced by a contemporary largely female, diverse labor force. The problem is these series are exceptions and only occur sporadically because of the need to fill the airwaves with innocuous blather, targeted to specific audiences to gain subscribers.

Two contradictions in the largest of the corporate services could be exploited to produce this change. The first is the desire of artists to utilize the narrative armature they have devised for a more socially directed purpose. This is what lies behind their, at the moment obligatory, paeans to the freedom of Netflix. The second is these artists' own desire to get paid, to have a living wage. Netflix, backed by the power of finance capital, pays them upfront and then profits in perpetuity from their work. Independent media would offer continual if lesser income. Many artists would be willing to make this tradeoff and it is also important that they, like any worker, be paid for their work, instead of being asked to work for free.

The Chinese word for crisis wei-ji contains the double meanings of danger and opportunity. The Coronacrisis in film and television could result in the danger of ever increasing corporate monopolization and homogenization or it could yield the opportunity of artists transforming an already powerful medium into a truly socially relevant one.

'Babylon Berlin' and German fascism; 'Superstore' and the age of Amazon
Tuesday, 28 April 2020 11:01

'Babylon Berlin' and German fascism; 'Superstore' and the age of Amazon

Dennis Broe reviews more series TV, from Germany and from the U.S. Image above: military fascists in Weimar Berlin 

Season three of the German megaseries Babylon Berlin continues the exploration of the tensions in the Weimar Republic, as it moves inexorably toward its demise and its replacement by fascism. The series centres around Inspector Gereon Rath, a sometimes staunch defender of the democracy and Charlotte Ritter – a vivacious character created for the series and not in the Volker Kutscher novels – who is a dirt-poor but brilliant club-girl or flapper, who wants to become an inspector herself.              

In the Weimar mix are Communists, Republicans, brown-shirted fascists and financiers, this last group promoting chaos and themselves supporting and intrigued with the fascist ideals. A very strong aspect of the series is that it does not reduce German fascism to Hitler, but instead depicts the much broader currents of the society that supported it, including the aforesaid banks and investors and those in the army and the police who were appalled by the spectacle of democracy.

Seasons one and two revealed the fascist support at the heart of the Berlin police force, while season three in its multiple strands includes a Nazi conspiracy, fuelled and organized by an ex-army officer and now one of the police commissars, to blame the Communists for a bombing that killed one of the Republic’s defenders.

Another of the multiple strands involves the 1929 stock market crash – the series begins with the collapse of the market and then flashes back – that has the fascist-favouring scion of a wealthy company preaching the good that come from total financial chaos. He then shorts the market and benefits from the global economic destruction wrought by the collapse of the American market.

The other main focus of this season concerns a series of murders in what amounts to a German super-production, an expressionist film musical that will introduce German audiences to sound and that recalls the American first sound film and musical, The Jazz Singer. The high quality production values make the film a comment on what Babylon Berlin is accomplishing in the present. In other words here is a German series, co-funded by German national television, filmed itself at the main German studio Babelsberg, the centre of the renowned era of Weimar production, and co-produced by a German auteur with a global reputation, Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run, Cloud Atlas).  

DB2

A Communist Rally in Weimar Germany

In its lavish recreation of the period, complete with long shots of densely populated Berlin streets, notable platz or squares and Caligari-like production numbers, the series is designed to rival megaseries such as HBO’s Game of Thrones and Westworld. Just as the musical is attempting to reposition German film to take on the Hollywood behemoth that had throttled European film production devastated by World War I, so too Babylon Berlin is a successful attempt to put German serial television on the global map, and challenge Hollywood. (Though the series is now distributed worldwide on Netflix.)  

This series also has far more to say about the nature of German fascism and its origin – this is more Berlin Alexanderplatz with its complex analysis of the class tensions that were preyed upon to bring Hitler to power – than more simplistic but bombastic fairy tales like Inglorious Bastards or more exploitative German national epics such as Downfall, about the last days of Hitler. Strong fascist undercurrents percolate around the show, but it isn’t until season three that Gereon becomes acquainted with a strange book titled Mein Kampf. In that way the show implicitly questions more simplistic retellings of the era, which supposedly began and ended with Hitler.  

There are some drawbacks to this third season. The solution to the movie murder plot is not very credible, though it does call attention to a type of fascist personality. Its resolution also fails to take advantage of the mysterious costuming of the villain that has been set up throughout the season. These though are offset by quirky remembrances of cinematic times past (the iris out that starts each episode), by dramatic uses of older film plot devices (the thrilling last-minute attempt by Charlotte to save her friend from the hangman’s axe that recalls The Mother and The Law segment from Intolerance) and by the series’ resolute conviction that multiple layers of the German financial, military and police were implicated in and in favour of fascism.  

'Superstore': the working class versus corporate management

The Coronavirus lockdown occurred in Hollywood just as the final episodes of many series were being shot and so for a multitude of viewers there will be no concluding episode this season. One of the casualties is the last episode of the lead actress of a little-touted but resonant working-class comedy called Superstore. America Ferrera is leaving the show, and that exit will now be carried over into next season.

SUPERSTORE --

America Ferrera anchors Superstore 

Ferrera is a second generation Honduran actress who has now successfully anchored two sit-coms, this one and also a Hispanic take on the wonder and horror of the fashion industry called Ugly Betty. Her warm presence has been at the heart of two shows over nine seasons, a remarkable feat for a Latina, or for any actress, and which has mostly gone unnoticed.

The action in Superstore takes place in a Walmart type all-purpose venue set in a shopping mall in St. Louis. Perhaps the reason the show has flown under the radar, gaining little critical attention, is that it is heavily concerned with the problems of survival of a diverse workforce constantly challenged by, as the show puts it, “Corporate.” It’s not a sexy show which deals with middle-class anxiety over wealth but a working-class show which spotlights the everyday problems encountered by that workforce. The show is available to stream on iTunes.

The employees are often pitted against a corporate management which is constantly threatening to fire them if they organize, putting a positive spin on the store’s devastation in a tornado, and planning to replace them with robots.

 SUPERSTORE --

Superstore’s diverse, working-class workforce 

A crucial episode in the show’s maturation was 'Labour' the final episode of season one. Corporate refuses Cheyenne, a pregnant Asian teen, paid sick leave to have her baby. Jonah, the college-educated new hire proposes the workers organize and start a union. Amy (Ferrera), a manager and also Jonah’s romantic interest, opposes this move, claiming that it will only bring Corporate down on their heads. Glenn, the Christian supervisor, finally gets so frustrated with Corporate’s indifference that he orders Cheyenne home for six weeks and then adds, “with pay.” Corporate’s answer is to fire Glenn and this is too much for Amy, the least rebellious of the workers, as she leads the entire crew in a walkout. The season ends with the workers outside in the parking lot, challenging management.

Season four deals with the cruelty of US immigration policy, as ICE commandos invade the store and eventually corral Mateo, a gay Filipino and Cheyenne’s best friend. The season ends with Mateo led off to custody, and echoes the ending of Ken Loach’s Bread and Roses where a key character is likewise led into exile by a heartless border patrol.

Season five begins to come to grips with the question of automation and corporate’s attempts to replace workers with a store robot, which the workers react to by attacking. There is a confrontation scene as the company president, digitally addressing workers in this global chain which is called Cloud 9, stresses – with his eyes raised toward the heavens – his resoluteness about the company facing the future. He is confronted by a former corporate manager who explains that the future he is actually contemplating instead involves increasing automation and large-scale firings.

Superstore accepts the need for these global corporate chains but in its own resolute focus on the workforce implies they would be better run and function more humanely if owned and operated by the workers themselves, instead of by corporate capitalism. There are, of course, other ways of resisting, as detailed in Stacey Mitchell’s Big Box Swindle where whole towns have zoned these Walmart-type entities from settling in their region.

With the new focus on work conditions at Amazon as a result of the Coronavirus – the company has been shut down in France for unsafe work practices and forbidden to profit off the virus by selling non-necessary items – there are plenty of issues to fuel season six of this overlooked and undervalued series. In just the same sort of way essential workers are overlooked and undervalued in America, Britain, and indeed in the world as a whole.

Class and culture in the age of Coronavirus
Monday, 20 April 2020 14:50

Class and culture in the age of Coronavirus

Published in Cultural Commentary

Dennis Broe traces the links between class and the coronavirus, and parallels in cultural works. Plus ca change........

In many ways the rearrangement of life in the wake of the global impact of the Cornoavirus has created a brave new world. And in other ways, the arrangement has reinforced the cowardly old one.

Class differences during widespread global lockdowns and quarantines have in some ways hardened. There is a small minority of a rich class which passes this temporary isolation in comfort, having quickly evacuated the contagion of the city centres for sometimes palatial estates in the countryside. There is a sheltered middle class, many of whom are able to continue to work and earn online, though often at a diminished capacity. And finally there is an unsheltered working class, who must risk their lives in order to earn their daily bread.  

Here in Europe and particularly in France these distinctions are as profound as elsewhere, with perhaps a million people fleeing the high-contagion centre of Paris for their country homes, with new middle-class family subscribers flocking to the just opened Disney+ streaming service while cheering on medical workers each night at 8pm from their balconies.

CVCornoavirus Hospitals and Nurses

Finally, there are not only working-class nurses but also cashiers, that most unsung group of workers, 90 percent of whom are women and many of whom are from minority ethnic groups. They go to work each day and come home to crowded apartments in the Parisian suburbs, where the police are using the excuse of not having proper quarantine papers to assault these women’s children.

Europe, with its well-developed welfare state, might seem to be better equipped to combat the virus than the U.S., with its hollowed-out state folowing the Reagan-Bush-Clinton neoliberal attack. However, Europe also has experienced wave after wave of shocks and attacks on its social compact. For example, a French cashier noted that while doctors and nurses are being cheered today by both the people and the state, “Only a few months ago,” in the wake of a protest against the cutting of hospital budgets by the Macron government, “They were teargassed for daring to rally in the streets”.

CV DD

The impact of the virus echoes Daniel Defoe’s historical novel Journal of the Plague Year, written after the deadly assault of an earlier virus on 17th century London, where nearly 15 percent of the city perished. In observing the parallels, one wonders if these are because of the similar nature of each disease or because this new era of greed-take-all capitalism has hurtled us back to the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, where protections for workers were almost nonexistent.

Upper-Class Quarantine: Flight to the Country and Wide Open Spaces

In Defoe’s account when the plague first appeared, “nothing was to be seen but wagons and carts, with goods, women, servants, children…; coaches filled with people of the better sort, and horsemen attending them, and all hurrying away.” His comment on this exodus of the rich from the city to escape the disease is that “they spread it in the country” and had they not fled, the plague would not have “been carried into so many country towns and houses as it was, to the great damage, and indeed to the ruin, of [an] abundance of people.”

Likewise, in France, where there are three million second homes, just before the Macron lockdown, Paris trains and highways were jammed with those exiting the city. After the lockdown the health minister had to beg Parisians to stay at home, rather than fleeing to the rural areas and especially to Normandy which was relatively untouched by the virus. One Brittany resident then saw these urban visitors on the beaches “in cool outfits as if they were on holiday,” adding “Quarantine is always for other people”.

Meanwhile Monaco, surrounded by the European virus epicentre countries of France, Italy and Spain, had (as of recently) only 60 cases total and 4 deaths. This country is the wealthiest in the world, with 30 percent of the population made up of millionaires and with a state that could afford to close the casinos, turn away cruise ships, and furlough for 90 days all its employees.

CV para

Elsewhere the French online “faschosphere” was instead quick to blame immigrants for the virus. While others across the world noticed the similarities of the situation with this year’s Academy Award-winner Parasite, with its lower-class family living in a flooded basement, “stealing” internet reception and its upper class, corporate family living in a spacious mansion surrounded by acres of green lawns.

Middle-Class Quarantine: Sheltered in Place and Working Online

The disappearing middle class is sheltered at home, many able to at least pursue some semblance of their business through Zoom, the online meeting app. The company has thrived, going from 10 million to 200 million users as have many online businesses and this has no doubt improved the connectivity of the world. However, as Shoshana Zuboff claims in her monumental work The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, the secret of the internet is that its “evil design aims to exploit human weakness” by creating interfaces that “‘make users emotionally involved in doing something that benefits the designer more than them.’”

Zoom has already been accused of selling data to Facebook and recently hired a Facebook executive as an outsider advisor. The mass use of Zoom is the Holy Grail of selling user data to advertisers. For a long time, there has not been enough data on user’s emotions to match with their words to create more detailed profiles. The Zoom meetings supply that data in abundance, and will increase the quality of data sold or rented that can be used to supply more detailed consumer profiles. As Zuboff says, we grow ever closer to a B.F. Skinner-type “technology of behavior” that would “enable the application of …[surveillance] methods across entire populations.”

It doesn’t have to be this way. Chinese monetization of internet traffic, for example, doesn’t just package data to advertisers. The online service Lizhi creates its revenue stream by offering users the option of buying virtual gifts in which to shower their podcast favorites, as was the case with the Japanese girl group AKB48. Ironically it is China, which does not try to match the US in the efficiency of its consumer surveillance, which is constantly accused of being a thought-control, totalitarian society.

Working-Class Quarantine: Working and At Risk 

While wealthy Parisians were fleeing the city, in poor banlieus across the Peripherique such as Saint Denis, where the cashiers, sanitation workers, and health care workers live, there is “an exceptional excess” of deaths from the virus.This is similar to the disproportionate deaths in heavily African-American populated places in the U.S., such as areas of The Bronx and in the immigrant communities of Queens.

Defoe described a similar situation where servants who “were obliged to send up and down the streets for necessaries” contracted the disease. Similarly, restaurant workers along with the delivery service carriers put their lives in danger each day to bring food to those economically above them. Just as in the present pandemic, where in the French supermarkets new recruits from the suburbs abound, so too Defoe detailed a situation where “though the plague was chiefly among the poor, yet were the poor the most venturous and fearless of it, and went about their employment with a sort of brutal courage; ran into any business which they could get employment in, though it was the most hazardous.”

CVLes Miserables

Meanwhile, the police, whose often casual brutality is detailed in this year’s Caesar winner for best French film Les Miserables, have been cited by Human Rights Watch for “unacceptable and illegal” behavior for several beatings of young men from this polyglot area. These victims were accosted because they did or did not have their “attestation,” the legal paper required for leaving the home. The middle class face a fine of 138 euros for not having their papers – the working class face state violence.

In Marseilles, McDonald’s workers, led by the local union, the Force Ouvriere, decided to distribute the company’s food to the poorest districts of that city and to use the closed-down restaurant as a central site for collecting and preparing food. McDonald’s issued a statement opposing the measure.

Similarly, at a Crenshaw McDonald’s in South Central Los Angeles – one of the poorest districts in the US – when the workers staged a spontaneous action demanding they be sent home for a two-week quarantine, the protest was broken up by the police.

Amazon, one of the companies most extravagantly profiting from the quarantine, was temporarily forced to halt its operations in France when a court ruled the company had failed to adequately protect workers. The case was heard because several employees walked off the job, citing a law that allows workers to leave an unsafe workplace and receive full pay. In response, the company criticized the union that brought the case.

CVDelivery Drivers Under Fire in Ken Loachs Sorry We Missed You

What could be more prescient in the light of these protests by a most exploited workforce than Ken Loach’s latest film Sorry We Missed You, about how a delivery driver for an Amazon-type firm is being driven to despair because of the inhuman pressure put on him and his family to produce.

The quarantine also called attention to the importance of seasonal workers in Europe in terms of harvesting crops. In France, with an embargo against non-Europeans coming into the country, 200,000 workers are needed to replace this seasonal workforce to harvest fruit and vegetables in places like the Loire and Alsace to feed the urban population. These workers come from central and eastern Europe as well as from Tunisia and Morocco and most labor under impoverished conditions and leave after the harvest. Jean Renoir’s 1935 film Toni which recounts the tragic life and fate of one of these workers coming across the Pyrenees from Spain is unfortunately still relevant today.

CVGerman builders in Bulgaria in Western

Germany uses 300,000 day-labourers a year to harvest its crops, mostly from Romania, Poland, Ukraine, Bulgaria and Hungary. One of the films that most accurately tracks this discrepancy in income and the disdain of more affluent Germans for these easterners is Western which recounts the prejudice of a group of German workers building a power plant in Bulgaria.

To combat this problem, Portugal granted temporary citizenship status to immigrants while in the US, where the federal government is floating a measure to detain undocumented immigrants indefinitely during “emergencies,” Americans bought almost 2 million guns in March, their own Wild West solution to what they view as the immigrant problem and the anarchy they are afraid will come. The Trump administration seconded this solution, declaring weapons stores to be an essential business that should stay open during the quarantine.

Arundhati Roy’s eloquent description of workers on the roads in India where “our towns and megacities began to extrude their working-class citizens – their migrant workers — like so much unwanted accrual,” and where workers with no other resources had to begin a long walk home to their villages.  As they walked, she noted, “some were beaten brutally and humiliated by the police, who were charged with strictly enforcing the curfew” .

Readers might eerily have confused Roy’s description for Defoe’s, since they were so similar. Defoe says:

The constables everywhere were upon their guard not so much, it seems, to stop people passing by as to stop them from taking up their abode in their towns…[because of the “improbable” possibility] that the poor people in London, being distressed and starved for want of work, and want for bread, were up in arms and had raised a tumult, and that they would come out to all the towns round to plunder for bread.

Recurring class tensions have also broken out between states. Before it finally passed a European relief bill, the hardest-hit countries – Spain and Italy – were proposing that the EU issue joint bonds, called Eurobonds or Coronabonds, which would spread the cost of the economic damage caused by the virus among at least the 19 countries of the common currency. The wealthier northern countries, led by Austria, Germany and The Netherlands, refused. It was similar to these countries’ refusal to cancel the debt and instead impose austerity budgets on the countries of the south, after the 2008 crisis.

CVLatvian emigre in Brussels in Oleg

This disparity on a personal level is well documented in Oleg, one of last year’s best films. The film recounts the story of a butcher from Latvia who emigrates to Brussels, the EU capital and centre of its wealth and affluence, quickly loses his job, and is bullied to join the criminal underground in order to survive. Oleg’s individual path is similar to the national path of countries such as Greece.

Finally, to return to Defoe’s description of the plague, the virulence of that disease hastened the appearances of all kinds of charlatans coming out of the woodwork. Because of fear, working people ran to “fortune tellers, cunning-men and astrologers” and London swarmed with “a wicked generation of pretenders to magic, to the black art… and “to a thousand worse dealings with the devil.”

The difference in this stage of neoliberalism, where the state exists to serve the interests of financial capital – the banks, the real estate and insurance industries who the US government bailed out – is that the con-men are running the show.

Thus Trump,  snake-oil salesman and charlatan-in-chief, suggested that people take hydroxychloroquine, an untested drug that could produce fatal heart arrhythmia and that one report claimed Trump had invested in. Trump called the drug a “game changer,” and told his viewers to “Take it. What do you have to lose?”

In Defoe’s time, the King’s court fled the city and allowed lower civil servants to bear the brunt of dealing with the plague. Unfortunately, in our time, the court remains in the White House, and continues the dangerous and deadly process of urging the country to quickly re-open so that the state does not have to subsidize the people, and can continue to ignore worker unemployment and misery. 

Ozark, the disappearing middle class, Freud and Freudians
Wednesday, 15 April 2020 10:02

Ozark, the disappearing middle class, Freud and Freudians

Dennis Broe on the Global Television Beat discusses some TV series dealing with middle-class life under pressure in Ozark, and depictions of Freud and Freudians in Vienna Blood and Freud

The third season of the Netflix popular and critical hit Ozark has the show going ever darker. It’s beginning to make Breaking Bad seem like a sitcom.

In the first season, there seemed to be a way out for the accountant Marty Byrde, participating in money-laundering for a Mexican drug cartel and having to make up for funds the partner in his firm embezzled from the cartel. The Byrde family is forced to flee their comfortable Chicago home to the Ozarks with their two teenage kids.

Here, Laura Linney, Marty’s wife Wendy who had worked in politics, displays an unerring sense of comedy in scenes in which she and Jason Bateman’s Marty proclaim their upstanding wish to better the Missouri community they are holed-up in, while all the time simply setting up bogus businesses to “clean” drug money. Bateman’s stoic, nonplussed deadpan acting is a marvel in itself. He’s a Bob Newhart for the neoliberal age, keeping his cool in a world that grows ever more insane around him.

The cut-throat world  that Marty and Wendy inhabit was exhibited off-screen as well when the show’s production company, Media Rights Capital, was accused of forcing a publication which it owns, The Hollywood Reporter, to report favourably on the company, with the editor resigning possibly due to this pressure.

Ozark body photo American family shattered

Season Two had Wendy forsaking the comedy and moving deeper into the business, opposing an equally unethical FBI agent and in the end participating in a murder. Season Three, just released on Netflix, has the two in the middle of a cartel war and warring themselves. Marty still believes that their troubles are situational and momentary, and if he launders the right amount of money they will get out from under the cartel’s thumb. Wendy, though, strikes out on her own, using her political muscle, and becomes more ruthless in her quest to make herself essential to the cartel chief, who she courts over the phone. This season ends in the couple’s – and particularly Wendy’s – participation in the murder of an intimate. Marty in the end concedes Wendy is right, that the only way out is to become further entangled.

Is this just a crafty “twisty” tale of chicanery? If so, why is the show so wildly popular with both critics, nominated for several Emmys, and audiences, quickly renewed each season by the streaming service based on its (carefully guarded) ratings?

The onslaught on the middle class by corporate capital

The explanation may lie in invoking Raymond Williams’ notion of a “structure of feeling.” By this term Williams meant sometimes barely expressed or even subconscious feelings in art and cultural practices that registered a deep insight into the emotions that lie just under the surface of life. Ozark expresses the emotional tension of the American, and indeed the global, middle class, under increasing pressure to maintain its position in the face of an onslaught by corporate capital which is affecting them as well as the working class below.

There is a racist projection of the ruthless Mexican drug overlord as controlling their lives. However, if we substitute a corporate overlord for the drug kingpin the show is a description of a middle class – a class that in order to hold onto their lifestyle must be constantly at the beck and call of a domineering boss or corporate culture, that demands ever more time away from the family and demands the family become ever more corporate-friendly itself.

Wendy and Marty must be constantly on their toes – the corporate phrase is “adaptive” – to manoeuvre around each new demand of their boss, as more and more middle-class jobs  are being eliminated by automation, and as that class must learn more and work harder to maintain its position. Otherwise, they will be killed – or in more middle-class terms will fall into the working-class poverty of those who surround them in the Ozarks, which is a kind of death for this class.  

Even their kids are affected. The pressure to launder money to keep up their middle-class lifestyle robs their teenage daughter Charlotte of the last years of her adolescence. Meanwhile, the just-becoming-a teen Jonah is introduced to the violence that surrounds the family, and learns Bitcoin investing to stockpile reserves of money to save the family. He also pilots a drone which he uses for spying, participating in the surveillance economy which he will need to be a part of if he is to maintain his position.

Marty and Wendy must make smarter, and more ruthless, decisions each season to survive and in Season Three these pressures force them to compete against each other. There is no port in a storm for an American middle class that is starting to feel the relentless stress of its constant battle to hold its ground and its somewhat extravagant lifestyle. Of course it’s the same stress the global working class is under each day simply in order to survive – Ozark tells us that the two positions are starting to converge into one giant disenfranchised class.

Sigmund Freud, superhero and obedient liberal

Two recent series, both publicly supported, have as their subject the birth of psychoanalysis within the conservative confines of the Hapsburg dynasty in turn-of-the-century Vienna. The BBC’s Vienna Blood (available to stream on PBS, the US public television website), based on the detective novels of Frank Tallis, shows an acolyte of Freud, Dr. Max Liebermann, joining forces with a bulldog working-class police inspector. Together this unlikely pair delve into the unconscious, and the prejudices of an anti-Semitic empire somewhat being attacked from within by Freud’s discoveries of the sexual and violent side of both human nature and the empire itself.

Vienna Blood Freud first body photo

Vienna Blood does settle comfortably though into the rational detective mode with clear-cut villains and evildoers while striking a blow against the militarism of a society structured around rigid social distinctions.

More troubling by far is a programme from Austrian National TV (ORF) called Freud, now streaming on Netflix, with Netflix also a partner in the production. This series is set in the 1880s,  and is on the surface a kind of mixture of Young Sherlock Holmes, that is a coming-of-age Freud obsessed with hypnosis, and The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, a coke-sniffing Freud who is manic and driven and on the verge of discovering the unconscious. The series is also a kind of origin story, a how Freud became Freud, and in that sense it does not escape the superhero template in revealing how our hero developed and first used his powers.

However, much about this series does not fall into this comfortable framework. Volkslieder, or people’s song moments abound – Brechtian ditties in a tavern that comment on the action while being outside it. The series also delights in an outpouring of all kinds of human waste, as a hysteric spews spittle and blood overflows in a series of brutal murders, in what Freud would later call abnegation, a spewing out or rejection in this case of bodily fluids.

This emphasis on bodily excretions also suggests the Austrian Actionist movement of the 1960s, that was about exhibiting the excesses of the human body as a way of disrupting social order. Hypnosis is here made strange, and practiced by Freud as a conjuring art. It is used not to illuminate but to manipulate the unconscious. 

Freud second body photo An obsessed Freud

Freud battles the brutality of a medical establishment that does not link mind and body, and the series shows him eventually surpassing the cruelty of his mentors. In a parallel plot, the police inspector Alfred Kiss, his sometimes unwitting ally, also contests the savagery of the Austrian military in its murderous rampage against its foes and its cover-up of all wrongdoing.

The series has its problems though. The Hungarians, the subjugated villains, are treated as an unearthly ‘Other,’ savage anarchists out only for revenge. This Freud, for all his disputing of the might of the empire in his own field, like all good liberals comes to the rescue of the Emperor when the chips are down, and helps re-establish Imperial order.

Both series skirt the potentially most shocking and damning aspect of the young Freud’s discoveries – the dreadful patriarchal oppression of incest and abuse that he unearthed from his female patients, lurking at the heart of the Viennese upper middle-class bourgeois order. But Freud himself also suppressed this discovery, choosing instead to explore it as fantasy. So the practice continues to be hidden – not only in TV series depictions of Freud, but in reality as well.

Page 3 of 7