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 Battle at Lake Changjin: China’s Onscreen Contesting of American Aggression
Tuesday, 26 July 2022 11:56

The Battle at Lake Changjin: China’s Onscreen Contesting of American Aggression

Published in Films

Dennis Broe reviews The Battle at Lake Changjin, the second highest grossing film of 2021. Image above: Jacky Wu as rough and ready commander of the Revolution’s 7th Company

As House Speaker Nancy Pelosi readies an announcement of a state visit to Taiwan that is most likely to stoke calls for Taiwanese independence, China continues to warn the U.S. about upping its level of aggression in a land that both the U.S. and China have affirmed for almost half a century is a part of China.

The U.S. media has been waging a non-stop ideological war against China, with the New York Times including an almost daily obligatory negative story on some aspect of Chinese policy. Likewise, The Financial Times, in a recent review of two books on Hong Kong with invective from both the books and the reviewer, described the Chinese leader Xi Jinping as “ruthless” and Chinese leaders in general as promoting “totalitarian vandalism,” as being living fossils of Leninism as well as “rich, mighty…cruel and corrupt.” The review ended with a final assessment of the leaders of the world’s second largest economy as “thugs.”

Meanwhile Margaret Thatcher, who almost singlehandedly defeated the British working class, is viewed as “refreshingly libertarian.”  The western capitalist corporate media cannot stop chiding China for its “draconian” Covid lockdown policy, which is partly a prod on the part of Western leaders to push China back to full production of the cheap goods needed in the West to assuage populations which, with both a recession and rising inflation, otherwise cannot afford them.

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The Loud American: Nancy Pelosi in Taiwan? 

The media are also keen to keep Western audiences from making a comparison between the “authoritarian” Chinese system and the “democratic” system in its handling of the pandemic. In June 2022, the U.S. attained the horrendous peak of over 1 million deaths, the most in the world, or 3,042 deaths per million, with its allies in Europe not doing much better at 2,434 deaths per million. China meanwhile for the same period registered 5,226 total deaths or 3.7 deaths per million, sharply contesting the old Orientalist adage that “people in those countries don’t value human lives.” Had the U.S. followed China’s “draconian” methods, it would have had 1,307 deaths instead of over 1 million. China’s policy was also better for business because in the Covid lockdown the Chinese economy continued to grow but at a slower rate, while the U.S. economy contracted.

The Chinese though are asserting and defending themselves. Nowhere more prominently perhaps than in the cinema where last year’s box office bonanza The Battle at Lake Changjin, available on Apple TV and soon on Netflix, about Chinese entry into the Korean War for the purpose, according to the film, of defending the successful revolution from American aggression. Lake Changjin was not only the highest grossing film in Chinese history, with a sequel already released this year, but also was last year’s second highest grossing film in the world at $913 million, and that included Hollywood releases.

Chinese audiences flocked to see the film, which is one of the most expensive ever made with a budget of over $200 million. It was commissioned by the Chinese Communist Party and released on National Day, which celebrates the birth of the People’s Republic in 1949. A triumvirate of Chinese auteurs, Chen Kaige, Dante Lam and Tsui Hark whose Taking of Tiger Mountain was a momentous World War II epic, directed the film, which stars Jacky Wu, the lead in two previous action blockbusters, 2015’s Wolf Warrior and 2017’s Wolf Warrior 2.

The differences in the villains in Lake Changjin and Wolf Warrior are instructive in understanding the difference China has travelled in its response to the concerted bellicose intentions of Joe Biden’s neo-con foreign service. The Wolf Warrior battles and bests a rogue ex-NAVY Seal in the former, while the might of the Chinese army faces and routs the superior technology of the U.S. forces in Korea in the latter.

Wu Qianli (Jacky Wu) returns in 1950 from the Chinese Civil War as an honoured commander of the People’s Liberation Army’s rough and rowdy 7th Company. He has been promised a piece of land which he intends to cultivate to take care of his parents. But he and the 7th Company are quickly called back into battle as the Americans are threatening to cross the Yalu River, the border between Korea and China and bring the war to China. The American commander Douglas MacArthur, one of the villains of the piece, is shown at his most aggressive and bellicose, wanting to invade China and crush the revolution.

Wu Qianli and his rebellious younger brother who joins the unit face multiple challenges in battling the superior American air and armoured tank force. From the air, the American bombers, gleeful about raining death and destruction, strike and decimate the train transporting the company and they then have to wade through the mountains in snow and ice to reach the battlefield.

Industrious versus industrial

The film demonstrates on the battlefield what Giovanni Arrighi in Adam Smith in Beijing describes as the “industrious” quality of the overwhelming might of the Chinese population versus the “industrial” might of Western technology. The men of the 7th Company play dead in order to avoid American strafing from the air. Later, in a battle against enemy tanks, one of the company stalwarts sacrifices himself to drive a jeep with a marker for the American bomber pilots behind an American retreating column so the pilots mistake the column for the enemy and bomb it.

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The 7th Company out in the cold

The relative poverty of the Chinese economy in 1950 is stressed as at Thanksgiving the Americans share turkey and stuffing while the Chinese in the mountains above them pass around potatoes, which they divide into quarters in order that they all may eat. Nevertheless, the film shows the Chinese victorious and features an extended scene with the American soldiers in retreat.

Lake Changjin, in its presentation of the colorful characters of the 7th, utilizes many of the tropes of the American World War II Platoon Film (Battleground, Bataan), including stressing the democratic nature of the people’s army. Unlike subsequent American films, where the enemy is often either faceless or vicious, the American soldiers in several scenes are humanized, shown equally as nervous as the Chinese about preparing for battle. It is their leaders, pushing them to fight in a far-off war, who are the problem in the film and not them.

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Battleground and the American World War II Platoon Film 

Nevertheless, the film does make several relevant points clear which ought to, but probably won’t, function as a caution to current U.S. policy makers.

Defending the revolution

The first is that the Chinese will fight to the last man and woman to defend their country and to defend the revolution. Wu Qianli and his cohorts' call to battle is that this is “The War to End Aggression and to Aid Korea.” The film sees the designs of the Americans in approaching the Yalu River as part of a plan to crush the Revolution and the men talk about fighting this war so that future generations won’t have to fight. Indeed, the Chinese intervention in Korea secured, at least for China, over 70 years of peace and the ability to develop its economy.

As such, the Korean intervention, as viewed by the film, may be seen as akin to the Civil War after the Russian Revolution where Lenin, his party and the Russian people had to battle the combined force of European and U.S. Western capitalist states, all bent on crushing their revolution – in Churchill’s famous phrase “strangling Bolshevism at its birth.”

The second point is that there is a new, renewed and more vigorous interest in China today in the origins of the People’s Republic. Mao, a creature of total disdain in the Western media, appears in the film as a reasonable figure who does not want to go to war after the years of the Civil War, but recognizes that it is necessary and allows his son to join the fighting. There is particularly a renewed interest by Chinese youth in Mao and Marxism that is similar to how for U.S. youth, who are watching their future and the future of the planet deteriorate under capitalist war and income disparity, the word “socialism” can now be spoken.

Meanwhile Anthony Blinken, Jake Sullivan, Victoria Nuland and the rest of Biden’s neo-cons promote aggressive rhetoric which would make the two Bush administrations blush. American “democracy” descends into the leader of one party flirting with announcing his candidacy for President to avoid being arrested, and the might of the other party using the legislative apparatus to label their rival candidate criminal because they have fulfilled none of their promises and thus cannot beat him any other way. It thus does not appear to the world that American “democracy” is a shining beacon against Chinese “authoritarianism.”

The lesson of Lake Changjin, which enjoyed such widespread support within China that the film set the world record for domestic box office, is that a fading empire had better think twice about continuing on its hell-bent path to a war that may only result in another American retreat.   

Mr. Caruso Goes To Town: Corporate Developer Remade as California Common Man
Saturday, 16 July 2022 09:34

Mr. Caruso Goes To Town: Corporate Developer Remade as California Common Man

Published in Cultural Commentary

This is Dennis Broe's third article in a series based on Frank Capra’s Depression-Era trilogy of films. Image above: Gary Cooper’s tortured builder of homes for the homeless in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town

In the first part of Frank Capra’s Depression-Era trilogy Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Longfellow Deeds takes his generous heart-of-America, small-town sensibility to the big city, where he becomes the victim of all kinds of cynical manipulation from the media, the law, and wealthy hangers-on. Deeds inherits $20 million and has to face a hearing where he can be declared insane for his scheme to donate all his money to buy farms for the homeless. He invites into his mansion people who who were forced to find food in breadlines, in what was still the height of the Depression in 1936.

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Rick Caruso strolling majestically through a Los Angeles he intends to "clean up"

In the current Los Angeles mayoral election, Rick Caruso, the wealthy developer of a number of Los Angeles projects that recall the innocence of small-town America, presents himself as a modern-day Deeds with all the homespun charm of Gary Cooper’s character in Capra’s film. In his campaign video, Caruso walks calmly in a mythical LA neighborhood with a long white picket fence behind him while he claims to be able to solve homelessness, curb crime, stop corruption at City Hall and “clean up” Los Angeles. His voiceover describes him as from a family of immigrants, “raised to put children and family first,” and “a lifelong builder and job creator,” who will “work for a dollar a year” and “won’t take a dime from special interests” because “my only special interest is Los Angeles.”

He positions himself as a sort of Donald Trump but tempered by the “warmth” and kind-heartedness” of a Mike Bloomberg, a kinder, gentler Trump fit for the Democrats (though before this race he was a lifelong Republican), with the Trump “can-do” quality intact but without the crudeness.

Unaffordable housing creating homelessness in LA

One of the major issues in this campaign is homelessness with the city full of makeshift homeless encampments not only under its bridges but now also on its sidewalks as tents are pitched on many city blocks. An article last summer in The Los Angeles Times, which described the circumstances that led three of those without shelter onto the streets, detailed how in each case it was largely the unaffordability of housing combined with lack of employment or retraining after losing a job, rather than deep psychological problems that created this situation. These victims, who may then suffer psychological disturbances, instead recall the homeless who storm Deeds’ mansion and ask not for a handout but for land and an opportunity so that they may feed and shelter themselves.  

Before the pandemic hit, causing more unemployment and now with rent moratoriums cancelled again increasing the problem, Los Angeles, according to the government agency Freddie Mac, was short of 400,000 homes. This figure counts not only the homeless (a low estimate of which is 29,000 but with 41,000 with inadequate housing) but also multiple families sharing single homes and those living in spaces like garages and attics.

Deeds is dubbed “The Cinderella Man” because he naively believes in people’s goodness and that he can change an extremely cynical system set up to protect the powerful and keep wealth in the same hands. Caruso, on the other hand, is no Cinderella Man. Far from naïve, he is a card-carrying member of the Los Angeles elite, a wealthy real estate developer, who according to his Democratic opponent Karen Bass outspent her by $40 million to $3 million, most of it his own money. He is on the board of trustees of the University of Southern California, that other major developer and land holder in the city.

He is president of the Los Angeles Police Commission, a so-called oversight agency which has long white-washed police conduct and maintained the Thin Blue Line. In the wake of the Black Lives Matter protest Caruso proposes increasing the police budget and hiring to the maximum allowed. He is also a member of the powerful Board of Water and Power, which in a city adjacent to a desert, with water becoming more than ever a scarce commodity, holds the city’s fate in its hands – as did the scheming and bloodthirsty Noah Cross in Chinatown whose reason for his crimes was to control “The Future.”

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Chinatown’s evil land baron Noah Cross and Caruso? 

Gary Cooper’s soft-spoken man with the common touch is described in his court hearing as “obsessed with an insane desire to become a public benefactor.” The cynics in New York see his embracing of small-town fellow feeling as “cornfed bohunk.”

In his building projects, Caruso has attempted to summon up his own kind of “cornfed bohunk” in creating isolated “villages” that have the feeling of the past, remembered in tranquillity, but which in effect are branded upscale shopping paradises which draw upper middle-class audiences and which generally reflect little of the diversity of the city.

Since Los Angeles culture is so dominated by the automobile, one of the main characteristics of these “utopian” spaces is their “walkability.” The developments are not open to traffic and promote the idea that you can exit your car and supposedly for a block or two be surrounded by others pacing though a Los Angeles that, at least since the postwar automobile frenzy, never was. Caruso’s gift to national architecture is to replace the more middle-class mall with the upper middle-class “nostalgic” branded “neighborhood.”

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The Grove, a fabricated fairy tale with more visitors than Disneyland

The Grove, adjacent to the Farmers' Market, is typical. The area was once a real farm, complete with apple orchard, but is now transformed into a maze of high-end shops, with the apple orchard replaced by The Apple Store and with various relics of a number of bygone eras. A trolleybus loops through the main artery, which contains, especially in the post-pandemic, two relics of American cultural gathering, a bookstore (Barnes and Noble, the largest remaining bookstore chain) and a cinema (AMC, the largest cinema chain).

This is Facebook’s Metaverse and Marvel’s Multiverse materialized as near virtual “nostalgic” space. The Grove, a kind of fairy tale, has more visitors than Disneyland and includes in the centre a conical monument with a nondescript sculpture of two angels at its top titled The Spirit of Los Angeles. This kind of sanitized version of the city couldn’t contrast more with projects such as Judy Baca’s mural history of a city in struggle in The Great Wall on the more contested space of the border of LA and the San Fernando Valley.

What The Grove cannot erase is the online attack on retail stores, as both FAO Schwartz and Abercrombie and Fitch have both closed since the opening of the development. The Grove was also attacked as site of privilege in the Black Lives Matter protests.

The Commons for the rich and powerful

Another Caruso development, Palisades Village in the Pacific Palisades, located adjacent to Malibu, and home to some of the wealthiest in the city, was described by a Caruso architect, noting that a number of public meetings were held before the space was built, as an attempt to “curate, not create, a community.” Residents were wary of the Caruso touch and did not want “a theme park,” though that is still the overall look of the place, with a small bookstore being replaced by an Amazon bookstore, with residents complaining that The Commons, a public space akin to a New England green, kept shrinking as the meetings progressed, and with a recent visit revealing the site as a staging ground for a campaign to remove a councilman who championed affordable housing. Another project, ironically called The Commons, with its 40 high-end retail tenants, is set in Calabasas, thirty minutes from LA amid one of the wealthiest communities in California.

Far from providing sources of income and housing for those most in need, as Longfellow Deeds is nearly labelled insane for doing, Caruso, who claims he can solve the crisis by quickly shuttling the homeless into makeshift shelters, was described by his Democratic opponent Karen Bass, who bested him in the primary and who he will face him in a runoff in November, as someone who “never built a single unit of affordable housing” and in that way helped create the housing crisis. It is a bit like Purdue Pharma, largely responsible for the opioid crisis, claiming that it would then swing over into making a pill that would eliminate the addiction.

More to the point, and closer to Longfellow Deeds, was progressive candidate Gina Viola’s call for steering money away from the police toward both social services and for the city to use to seize empty properties, some of them already occupied by squatters, and convert them into housing for the homeless.

Caruso’s small-town hoaxes for a privileged class while the rest of the city, just outside these tranquil villages, deteriorates marks him instead as part of the greedy power structure that attempted to use the law to prevent Deeds from actual construction for the public good. Caruso’s cynical campaign is the antithesis of Deeds’ populist cry of protest: “Why do people get so much pleasure out of hurting each other? Why don’t they try liking each other once in a while?”

This piece is the third article in a series based on Frank Capra’s Depression-Era trilogy. The first was Mr. Zelensky Goes to Washington, a parody of Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, about a media figure made into a folk hero, and the second was Meet Juan Guaidó, based on Meet John Doe, about a politician plucked from obscurity and arbitrarily made ruler of his country. All three are available at substack.com, see Cultural Politics For Those Who Care.

How to Organise a Union: 'The Porter' and Black Service Industry Militancy
Saturday, 02 July 2022 21:20

How to Organise a Union: 'The Porter' and Black Service Industry Militancy

There is a contemporary wave of union organising and militancy in the digital and service industries in reaction to crippling inflation. Price rises are double that of any rise in wages, there is a loss of participation in workplace decisions combined with increased algorithmic control where even bathroom breaks are monitored, and overscheduling and underpayment for increased workloads.

Union elections have been won at Amazon, where even a past defeat has been successfully challenged as the union Phoenix rises from the ashes, and also at Starbucks and now at Apple, as well as pushback from drivers at Uber and Lyft. In Britain, the railway workers’ strike, aided by its articulate and media savvy leader Mick Lynch, is supported by the majority of the population, despite the fact that the Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer—he’s royalty—warned Labour members of parliament to “stay away from the picket lines.”

To borrow from a Seth Meyers Late Night feature titled “The Kind of Story We Need Right Now,” The Porter, a joint production of the public Canadian Broadcasting Company and the Black Entertainment Network streaming service BET+, about the organisation of the first black union in North America, is “The Kind of Series We Need Right Now.”

Several factors contribute to making this the best series of the television season. There is the show’s nuanced presentation of both the class and race problems involved in organising the Pullman workers. There is its grasp of the several strands of history of the Jazz Age/Roaring Twenties, ranging from the 1919 Welsh race riots and the outbreak of the Spanish flu to the 1921 destruction of black commerce in Tulsa, all viewed from the perspective of a set-upon black population in Montreal. Finally, the show weaves together four elements of black advancement in both the male service economy of the Pullman porters who its lead character Zeke wants to organise, and the underground gangster economy who his friend Junior works to enter, as well as the female economies of entertainment and the medical and caring professions as Lucy Mae and Marlene, its two lead women, struggle to become singers and doctors.

The series, available in the UK on Sky Go, makes the bitter nostalgia of the BBC’s Sherwood seem tame and tepid in comparison, except for its exposing of Scotland Yard’s infiltration of the 1984 Miners’ Strike.

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Lucy Mae and Zeke in The Stardust Club 

All these struggles centre on wanting to “get out of the box” as Junior puts it, in which these North American and Afro-Caribbean peoples are trapped. The series is set on St. Antoine Street in Montreal (and filmed in Winnipeg) which is made up of the black male Pullman workers who work for double the hours and half the pay of mostly white factory workers, and the glamour of the Stardust Club with its female dancers who also compete with each other for a place on the dancing line. The series is also set in Al Capone’s Chicago, which is the end of the line for the porters.  

The show opens with the death of one of the porters because the train company is too cheap to hire enough labour to do the job safely. Not only does the company not pay for the funeral, forcing the victim’s widow to pilfer the money to bury him, but they also demand that the workers pay for the cost of his ruined uniform. Zeke, the most class conscious of the workers, attempts to negotiate with the company president over having more clean shirts for sweating porters, but instead the owner pleads poverty and “grants” the porters “a water pitcher.”

It is this negotiation, as well as a stirring session with the black organiser A. Philip Randolph, that convinces Zeke that the porters, who can never even work up to being conductors since this is a position reserved for white workers, must organize. The actual motto of the porters was “Fight or be slaves,” recognizing that North American wage slavery was not in the end so different from the actual slavery in the American South.

When the white train workers’ strike, Zeke supports them by revealing the company has secretly cached a trainload of strikebreakers, while a shot of the impoverished, mostly black faces of these even more oppressed workers is overlaid with Lucy Mae’s Gospel song “I’ve been redeemed” in a way that also highlights their underclass struggle.

Zeke is eventually undermined by the white workers, who sell out their black brothers for an extra “15 cents a month” and the ability to hold onto their more privileged positions as cooks and conductors. Zeke gives a stirring but unheeded speech about the debilitating quality of this racism for labour organizing. “I shouldn’t have been looking to my left and to my right for someone to blame, I should have been looking up” he argues, allowing that “We are at war, but the porters are not your enemy.” The speech goes unheeded and, at the end of season one, Zeke comes to the realization that the porters must organise their own union, the potential subject of season two, which has now been given the green light.

While Zeke seeks to organise, his companion from the war Junior seeks to break into the illegal economy, as we are reminded that the “Roaring Twenties” when the economy was booming was not a time of plenty for many black workers and their families. Junior’s struggle to move up in the Chicago gangster world, to turn the train into a rolling crap game and numbers racket and to best a white conductor who attempts to cheat him, are given equal time and weight with Zeke’s organising. The struggles of the two are often intercut, as in the end of the opening episode where Junior is beaten by other gangsters for trying to undersell illegal Prohibition whisky, while Zeke is rousted at a union meeting, with the police breaking up the gathering by yelling “Hands up, Bolsheviks.” The series refuses to condemn Junior’s path, seeing instead his and Zeke’s journeys not as opposed but as two legitimate paths to black prosperity.

Junior’s more violent path though is partially explained by his Peaky Blinders-type PTSD flashback to World War I and his rationale that he would be a different person, “if I didn’t spend all that time fighting the white man’s goddammed war.” He is also from the Caribbean with its longer history of black independence and, when he upbraids the conductor trying to muscle in on his action on the train who tells him his father was probably a slave who would have been whipped for “talking to his master that way,” Junior answers, “I’m Jamaican and no white man has ever conquered us.”

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Alfre Woodward as a tragic and ultimately good-hearted madam 

The series also concentrates on two female paths to success. Marlene, Junior’s wife, has to refute the dictates of Marcus Garvey who wants to send money raised in North America back to Africa whereas she wants to open a clinic in her neighborhood. She instead lodges her clinic in the basement of a house of prostitution, which features Alfre Woodard in a touching turn as the madam, while ultimately realising her best chance to help is by going to a black college and becoming a doctor, a kind of counter to her husband Junior in proposing the long game to his immediate hustle.

The singer Lucy Mae on the other hand has talent galore, as she choreographs and performs a Josephine Baker number shot in Ziegfeld Follies overhead style, but which the crowd dismisses as obscure “back to Africa stuff.” She then contemplates “passing” with makeup to look less African and in the end proves that she will do anything to get ahead. Her excuse for a betrayal is, “Someone’s always gonna profit off our backs, better me than him” which Zeke corrects as a kind of answer to both Junior and Lucy Mae: “In this community we look after each other.”

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Pullman Porters in the 1920s

Finally, the series has a historical sweep that is truly breathtaking. It is set in 1921 and manages either in the present or through flashbacks to integrate the dominant currents of the era all viewed through its black characters. There are cameos aplenty, with the Socialist black labour leader A. Philip Randolph, who Zeke admires, being accused in the wake of the Russian Revolution of being a traitor and a Bolshevik. There is a Tin Pan Alley musical number Lucy Mae watches in a private home in a performance by Irving Berlin and there is Marlene’s dealing with the chauvinism but also the black pride of Marcus Garvey.

A burly white worker glides by in the back of pickup truck with the sign “Stand by your Klan,” reminding us of the resurgence of the Klan in that moment, in the light of the widespread acceptance of D.W. Griffith’s celebration of the heroic valor of the Klan in the South in Birth of a Nation, a film that was hailed by President Wilson as “like writing history with lightning.”

There is a newspaper headline recounting the devastation of the “Black Wall Street” in Tulsa by white rioters, as well as Zeke and Junior enduring both the Spanish flu epidemic after their stint in the war and the race riots in Wales. Episode five opens with the Canadian prime minister vowing to uphold the values of “white dominance” which resulted in a 1923 act banning Chinese immigration to that country. Equally, Zeke observes a Chinese waitress serving white railroad workers and telling them, “You built the tracks the world runs on. It’s just a shame my people died clearing the way.”

The music also is a compendium of many of the styles circulating in the era: popular jazz in the Stardust club; a reggae soundtrack evoking the Caribbean influence on the block; and the insistent sounds of African drumming signalling a link to the past. Besides Lucy Mae’s Josephine Baker number, the Stardust club also features a rhapsodic blues ballad by blind Willie Johnson, a New Orleans musician known at the time as “The King of Crescent City.”

The Porter is a complex series that with its portrayal of organizing, of multiple black economies, and a dense overlaying of historical traces, points the way beyond the ever more limiting standard series with little or no sense of the actual issues confronting us in the present and with little regard for their origin in the past. The Porter’s workers’ struggle stands in sharp contrast to series like Apple TV+’s mega-honoured Severance which simply whitewashes that company’s exploiting of its workers by posing a false problem of a severing of a work and leisure personality while never raising the issue of how digital companies, like Apple, are erasing leisure in pursuit of perpetual work. A problem that can only be solved by its own workers taking a cue from The Porter’s recounting of past organising into unions.

Plains, Trains and Automobiles:  Snowpiercer’s People’s Transport vs. Lincoln Lawyer’s Luxuriating While the Planet Burns
Sunday, 26 June 2022 13:29

Plains, Trains and Automobiles: Snowpiercer’s People’s Transport vs. Lincoln Lawyer’s Luxuriating While the Planet Burns

Dennis Broe compares and contrasts Snowpiercer with The Lincoln Lawyer, from which the above example of product placement is taken

Planes, Trains and Automobiles was the title of John Hughes’ 1987 film where a mismatched duo, the sloppy salesman John Candy and the in-his-mind dapper executive Steve Martin travel across the country in a variety of modes of transportation, to reach Thanksgiving dinner in Chicago. Twenty-five years ago, the film had great fun as all three methods of transport failed in various ways but today, as people become more aware of imminent planetary destruction, Planes, Trains and Automobiles is a serious discussion on which mode emits less noxious gasses.

The correct answer by far is trains, which a 2020 European study reported emit 0.4 percent of all EU greenhouse gases, in a sector which accounts for 25 percent of all emissions (27 percent in the U.S.) Planes accounted for 14 percent and by far the worst answer is automobiles which accounted for fully 72 percent of noxious gasses which must be curtailed if the EU is to meet its goal of zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

 

The tailies battling for control of the train in Snowpiercer 

It is in the light of this crisis that the Netflix series The Lincoln Lawyer, whose lead defence attorney is whisked across Los Angeles in one of the great gas guzzlers of all time, a Lincoln Navigator, might be seen to contrast sharply with the TNT series Snowpiercer. Its motley crew of “tailies” are trapped with the middle and upper classes in a train that is the last hope for humanity on a planet frozen because nuclear weapons destroyed the earth’s atmosphere. There is a huge gap in the two series, both ultimately on Netflix, but one originating on the mixed working-class cable station TNT, that shows up in their either maintaining or working to overthrow their respective power structures.

The Netflix original series, produced by David E. Kelley, known for the twists and turns of his TV courtroom dramas (Ally McBeal, Goliath, The Undoing), was proceeded by the 2011 film introducing novelist Michael Connelly’s outrageous defense attorney Mickey Haller. Again, at that point, with the climate crisis just coming to widespread attention, the spectacle of a dynamite defence lawyer who thought best in a luxury sedan still seemed quaintly amusing.

The Lincoln Lawyer: Investigating case file S1E2 'The Magic Bullet' 

The lawyer and his black, female working-class chauffeur 

This 2022 iteration goes all out though, emphasizing the gas guzzling attorney being ferried about Los Angeles by a black female chauffeur in his Lincoln Navigator, one of three Lincolns he owns. The Navigator, an SUV with a price tag as high as $109,000, is close to the longest car built by Ford, involving the heaviest production, the greatest cargo space and seating for more than six. In the show it becomes a rolling, corporate law office, spewing pollution as part of the exhaust of Haller’s brilliant court mind. Not to mention the ultimate in product placement, with the product featured in the title of the series and utterly defining the lead character and the cost of running this mobile office with petrol in California, thanks to Joe Biden’s inflation, now costing almost $7 a gallon.

When he gets out of his SUV, if he is not in court, Haller favors steak houses. That is, his polluting and heavy carbon trace continues. Even Forbes is alarmed at this habit, acknowledging that the meat and dairy industries account for 14.5 percent of total human greenhouse gas emissions. Beef, in the form of Haller’s steak, is by far the biggest offender, generating nearly twice the emissions of the next largest animal offender (lamb), with the methane gas produced by cows 34 times more potent as a polluter than CO2.

What was “quirky” in 2011 in terms of Haller’s habits is deadly in 2022. The series in its second week on Netflix was the most viewed on the streaming service, accounting for 108 million hours of watching. Given that Hollywood has long been a promotional house for lifestyles and that Netflix circulates globally, The Lincoln Lawyer is a dangerous advertisement for vastly increasing global destructive consumption, including validating Amazon and the other increasing rainforest destruction to plant food for increased beef production. That process was  described by a Harvard nutritionist, who compared it’s polluting value to that of “coal-fuelled power plants,” as “the worst thing you could do.”

While those on board Snowpiecer, a class and racially diverse crew, struggle to overthrow the system of oppression which binds them and which has created the conditions which has confined them to the train, the Lincoln-based lawyer, who boasts about his prowess on his licence plates which read “NTGUILTY” and “DISMISSED,” in fact defends a tech gaming billionaire with the time-honored cliché that he doesn’t care if he is guilty or not.

In a half-hearted nod to diversity, the lawyer is played by a Mexican actor Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, but his Mexican-ness is only presented on the show as “flava.” His Spanish accent is discernible throughout but only acknowledged in a later episode, where he explains his mother took him to grow up in Mexico and we are to understand that is just a phase of his upbringing.

There is no feel for the struggle of Mexican-Americans in LA, for the lack of education and social services that keeps their wages low and furthers their status as second-class citizens. Garcia-Rulfo explained that he was able to bring his Mexican-ness to the show by in one scene ordering Tequila rather than Scotch and in another stopping by a Taco Truck. This is of course the definition of “flava,” a meaningless stylistic tic unconnected to neighborhood or community customs or struggle, but instead again employed in the service of consumption.

The differences between the two shows also can be attributed to their respective channels and networks. Netflix continues to court a global, depoliticized middle-class audience. Its recent series First Kill, like The Lincoln Lawyer, is solidly in that vein. First Kill is a teen vampire series being compared to Buffy the Vampire Slayer but without that series’ attack on the patriarchy, detailed in my Birth of the Binge. Instead, the concentration is simply on teen lesbian sex, which after Killing Eve is simply a cliched “lifestyle” choice.

In contrast Snowpiercer was developed by the most class-conscious director working in the cinema today, South Korea’s Bong Joon-ho. This film will soon be followed by a serialized version of Parasite, his other masterpiece of class antagonism. It was commissioned by HBO, perhaps as an antidote to that network’s doting on the foibles of the rich in Succession.

 

Charles Barkley, Kenny Smith, Ernie Johnson and Shaquille O’Neal in TNT’s “black space” Inside the NBA 

Snowpiercer is initially broadcast on the TNT cable network which has put together a remarkable, unique programming schedule meant to entice working-class audiences across racial lines. The network boasts the “black space” of National Basketball Association coverage in its perennial Emmy-winning Inside the NBA, where the outrageous and outspoken basketball intellectual Charles Barkley holds court with his companion Kenny Smith and their Anglo counterpart Ernie Johnson, who simply fits in as a member of the team.

Equally, the network now also broadcasts the National Hockey League, beloved of white working-class audiences, and the professional wrestling show AEW Dynamite. Besides Snowpiercer, its original series include the Anglo gangster series Animal Kingdom, adopted from an Australian show and its recently finished series Claws, about the black female owner of a hairdresser and nail boutique who battles white gangsters trying to encroach on her territory.

Thematically, The Lincoln Lawyer, rather than taking up Kelley’s more masterful Goliath about an alcoholic lawyer who contests corporate power, instead reverts to the staider The Undoing, with a rich client who we suspect all along may be guilty but cannot bring ourselves to distrust until the revelation that yes indeed someone that rich could be evil. Justice in The Lincoln Lawyer comes not through the efforts of the lead character but simply by chance.

Season three of Snowpiercer on the other hand ends with a startling and profound development. The revolution in season one by the tailies is beaten back in season two by the appearance of the Richard Branson/Elon Musk/Jeff Bezos capitalist in the fur coat – Mr. Wilford – who then institutes a reign of terror to maintain control of “his train.” Season three has the exiled revolutionary cadre return to retake control. The season flounders in the middle as various factions emerge to challenge this leadership, but the ending is truly remarkable.

A debate emerges between two factions on the train about what direction to pursue in order to best provide for the survival of all. Wilford seizes the opportunity of this squabbling to attempt to reinsert himself as the leader. Instead, the two sides come together and oust him from the train. With the capitalist gone, they are then able to hash out a compromise that has each doing what they think is best for the train and what is left of humanity as a whole.

The final lesson of this season’s Snowpiercer is that if the world is shorn of its capitalist billionaires, its various peoples will find compromises that can yet save humanity. The final lesson of The Lincoln Lawyer is that gas-guzzling and beef consumption trump any consideration of how a more decent, equitable and safe world may be achieved.

Meet Juan Guaidó: Capra’s Depression-Era Comedy Rerun as Imperial Farce
Sunday, 26 June 2022 10:14

Meet Juan Guaidó: Capra’s Depression-Era Comedy Rerun as Imperial Farce

Published in Films

In 1941, Frank Capra directed Meet John Doe, the last of his Depression-era populist trilogy, extolling the virtues of the common man and woman. In this film Gary Cooper, a down-on-his-luck hobo gets chosen by a newspaper magnate as the ultimate symbol of an America still ravaged by the economic failure of the stock market crash.

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The eponymous everyman John Doe, in reality a broken-down, bush-league pitcher named John Willoughby, is built up by the popular media of his day, big city newspapers and radio stations, to unite the country in a wave of fellow feeling that magically puts people back to work and cures social malaise.

However, behind Doe stands the nefarious forces of media magnates wanting to rule the country, along with bought-off politicians, and greedy financiers in a legion of black-suited men holding a Madison Square Garden rally with all the traces of Hitler’s famed Nuremberg lighting.

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That scenario was replayed a few years ago as the U.S. with its own brand of newspaper magnates, military personnel and slinky Trump-era “statesmen” like the C.I.A./State Department’s Mike Pompeo anointed from nowhere and utterly out of the blue their Latin American John Doe, Juan Guaidó. It was one of their many attempts to overthrow the elected head of the Venezuelan state Nicholas Maduro. Elected head of the rival National Assembly in January 2019, Guaidó, barely known in the country outside politico circles, then announced himself president and was quickly recognized by the U.S., Canada and the EU.

Just as in Capra’s fable, this John Doe was built up by the corporate media, and particularly by the financial press, which quickly made him into a hero of the people. In being named one of its “100 Most Interesting People of 2019,” Time Magazine extolled the virtues of a leader who was “"young, energetic, articulate, determined" and possessed with "the mother of all virtues: courage.” The Wall Street Journal quoted a Jesuit priest who claimed this hand-picked man of the people “looks like he belongs in the barrio.” While Bloomberg Financial News hailed him as someone who was engaged in “building unity.”

In Capra’s film, John Doe struggles mightily to live up to the image that is created for him by the media, eventually beginning to believe that he is the common man so fed up with his despondent situation that he will commit suicide on Christmas Eve, but who then believes in communitarian good will. Venezuela’s Juan Doe has also struggled to maintain the image the U.S. press has created for him.

Four short months after he declared himself president, Guaidó called for an insurrection against Maduro which was unsuccessful as the military and those in the barrios have repeatedly backed Maduro, contrary to the testimony of WSJ’s Jesuit. Two months later Guaidó’s representatives in then right-wing Colombia were accused of embezzling up to $60,000, supposedly to pay for soldiers defecting from Venezuela but, so the accusations say, instead spent on “parties and nightclubs.”

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Worse was to come. That September there was a coup attempt led by two American special forces agents, who wanted in return for a successful takeover “$213 million from Venezuela’s future oil revenues” and which envisioned Maduro carted off to a U.S. jail where he would face a Noriega-style trial. It ended with the coup squashed and the two Americans in jail.

The plotters called it “Operation Freedom” but the press quickly dubbed the coup, which was planned by a former Trump security guard, “The Bay of Piglets,” referring to the failed CIA invasion of Cuba. As to Guaidó’s vaunted “courage,” after his failed call for an uprising, the Venezuelan Foreign Minister accused him of hiding out in the French Embassy.

In the film, Barbara Stanwyck’s journalist, who helps create the John Doe myth, succumbs at one point to the rewards offered to a press mercenary by the paper’s owner, played by Depression-era capitalist supreme Edward Arnold, rotund and quaking with a seething lust for power. Stanwyck’s newspaperwoman parades around in her new fur coat, is dazzled by a jewelled necklace and looks to be in line to marry the publisher’s nephew, thus sealing the deal.

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Venezuela’s Juan Guaidó has also attempted to cash in on his new-found fame. The U.S. has handed control of Venezuela’s bank accounts in the U.S. to Guaidó, claiming that this theft of the money from Venezuela’s oil revenues which the country is in desperate need of, would “benefit the Venezuelan people.” In the U.K., Guaidó is now closing in on being the recipient of the country’s $1.68 billion gold reserve though at this moment he is now not only not the president but in a power contest to even be head of the assembly. Last year, the European Union voted to no longer recognize him as the president of Venezuela and his support in the country now stands at a dismal 16 percent.

In Capra’s fable, the Stanwyck and Cooper characters come together, aided by various John Doe’s across the country to avert what is presented in visual terms as a fascist takeover by the power-hungry publisher and people begin to believe in John Doe though they now know his story.

The Latin American John Doe has a different ending. The U.S. and U.K. continue to cling to the now globally discredited myth of the “freedom fighter” his country at first never knew and now regards as corrupt. At the recent Summit of the Americas the Juan Guaidó myth was still being affirmed by Joe Biden and his Secretary of State Anthony Blinken. The summit was boycotted by Mexico, Bolivia, Honduras and Guatemala largely because Biden refused to invite Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela, countries he claims are not democratic, but who instead have had the audacity to elect leaders the U.S. dislikes.

Instead, we were treated to the spectacle of a U.S. backed puppet, a self-proclaimed president with almost no popular support, a John Doe who unlike Capra’s crusader who ultimately sees the light, simply hides behind what for Capra were the forces of an ever-growing threat of corporate fascism.

This is the second in Dennis Broe’s trilogy in honor of Capra’s films. The first was Mr. Zelensky Goes to Washington, about a phony populist. The third is the upcoming Mr. Caruso Goes to Town, about a Republican developer turned California Man of the People.

Despair and the Fading Middle Class in American TV series
Tuesday, 07 June 2022 08:52

Despair and the Fading Middle Class in American TV series

Dennis Broe looks at how Better Call Saul expresses the waning power of the American empire. Image above: Better Call Saul’s narcissistic but clever lawyer 

Better Call Saul is part of the Breaking Bad “universe,” as a prequel to that series. As such it also links to successors to that series, most prominently Ozark, another series admired by mainstream critics. As precursor to Breaking Bad, the series also follows a downward trajectory where a once up-and-coming lawyer ends up working for a drug cartel. Saul is a brilliant but flawed lawyer who cannot escape the whirlpool that seems to engulf the characters of all three series. The crucial questions about these series are: where does this vague whirlpool come from and how does the series regard this destructive descent?

It’s fairly clear that the descent itself parallels the loss of power being experienced by the American empire and the subsequent effect on the American populace by the gradual ending of that empire. This is often talked about as “the end of the American dream,” and what in its earlier iteration, in regard to the British empire, Paul Gilroy refers to as “colonial malaise.” The loss of living standards is real and has resulted in a great deal of pain for the average American, though none for their leaders.

The attitude about this diminishing of a social and economic horizon in series like these amounts to a kind of threefold coping mechanism. There’s a shrug as the situation worsens; a validating of “creativity” in the face of this onslaught as more and more energy is now needed to maintain one’s place in the professional middle-class landscape (and as we watch Saul caught in this miasma); and a wallowing in the mud and embrace of the hopelessness of this position. What is lacking in the Breaking Bad universe, however, is any kind of real critique, any real suggestion of what produces this situation and especially any concrete way of fighting for disappearing economic and social rights.

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Breaking Bad, originator of its own “universe” 

In addition, all three displace the anxiety of a fading imperial power onto the Mexican drug cartels. Instead of embracing the rest of the world and accepting that a diminishing American middle-class position might have positive effects – most notably for that class’s energy consumption which is destroying the planet – these series suggest that although the American middle class is under pressure and must make morally questionable decisions to stay afloat, this is always balanced by the fact that the other, the Mexican cartels, the only inscription of anything outside the American purview, is worse. Thus “America” though now openly becoming a land of cons and cheaters –having elected one as president – is still not as bad as the barbaric hordes outside, who really have no morals at all.

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Looking askance at crooked cops in We Own This City 

It is possible to contrast the glorifying of this downward trend with series that show the corruption in all its forms, but with the underlying Enlightenment-inspired faith in the idea that critique may be able to effect some change. There is a difference between the Better Call Saul universe, adored by U.S. critics, and the extension of The Wire universe in We Own This City about the corruption of Baltimore cops, and mostly ignored by critics or characterized as falling short of The Wire.

Here, the thrust is not to validate and admire the “ingenuousness” of the cops in robbing and looting poor neighborhoods, but rather behind the series is a sensibility that is outraged at their actions and especially in the sixth and final episode, written by Wire creator David Simon, making us aware of the larger implications of the “War on Drugs” as “war” on America’s poor, black communities. This is far different from Better Call Saul’s fomenting of racial tensions in the heavily Mexican American southwest by characterizing Mexicans only as drug runners.

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Ozark’s middle class menaced by those South of the Border 

All three series, and especially Ozark in its earlier seasons, present the American professional class of lawyers, accountants and disgruntled teachers as under increasing pressure to stay afloat and all three lionize those efforts. Ozark at least though, until the final season, looks askance at the damage that class does to its human and physical environment in clinging to its dominant position. But even it in the final season succumbs to the Breaking Bad mould and in the end simply wallows in the destruction, attempting to foist wallowing off as critique. The Breaking Bad universe has established a template for languishing, but never challenging, diminishing expectations as the American “universe” itself shrinks globally.

We Own This City is available on Sky from 7 June; all the other series are on Netflix.

The Thick Blue Line: Killer Cops in Baltimore and Paris
Monday, 23 May 2022 08:56

The Thick Blue Line: Killer Cops in Baltimore and Paris

Dennis Broe reviews some new police procedurals. Photo above: Jenkins and his Task Force going about their dirty business in We Own This City

Post-9/11, with the popularity of C.S.I., as George W. Bush’s “War on Terror” overlapped with George Bush’s “War on Drugs,” the airwaves were filled with every conceivable kind of law enforcement team, unproblematic and uncorrupted, battling all kinds of crime. These squads ranged from the Law and Order franchise which began over 20 years ago and has still not yet run its course, to the Navy (N.C.I.S.), to F.B.I. profilers who anticipate future crimes (Criminal Minds) and cops who sort through the past to locate lawbreakers (Cold Case).

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Fighting future crime in another post-9/11 “squad” in Criminal Minds

These series continue to be popular and to be the dominate image of the police in popular media. However, in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests, which though they took place in 2020 are just now starting to register on serial television, two shows have now appeared which offer a startlingly different view of the police and policing. From Disney+ there is Oussekine, about the death of a young Algerian student in 1986 at the hands of the French police and from HBO comes We Own This City, by the creators of The Wire about a division of the Baltimore police described as “1930s gangsters” who terrorized the Black inhabitants of the city over the last decade. Both are limited series of 4 and 6 episodes respectively and both are fictionalized representations of actual events.

Beaten to death by police

Oussekine follows the Algerian family of that name as they attempt to find justice for their youngest son Malik, beaten to death by three cops in the midst of a student protest in the Latin Quarter that he was not part of. The police deny any involvement in the killing with the French Minister of the Interior (Olivier Gourmet), staunchly moral in his quest for a cover-up, searching not for what happened to this budding student whose life is brutally snatched from him, but rather looking instead for a way to shift guilt, and finally alighting on the boy’s fragile condition as the excuse.

We watch the flowering of Malik’s sister Sarah (Mouna Soualem) as she indicts the police at the trial of two of the cops and we are treated to the spectacle of the French socialist (?) President Mitterrand arriving at the family’s house for a photo opportunity, arranged by posting him next to the window with the best light while the family becomes props in the background. Finally, we watch French justice, in one of the first ever cases with cops being held responsible for police violence, as the jury first convicts and then exonerates and whitewashes the guilty defendants.

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The Oussekine family mourning the death by police hands of the youngest son Malik

This is a strong series throughout, registering a racist history of prejudice against Algerians that the family witnesses upon their arrival in the country. In 1961 there was a mass killing led by the police of perhaps 300 Algerians, whose bodies were then tossed off the Pont Neuf bridge in the centre of Paris. The series unfortunately ends not with an outrageous bang at the verdict but with a timid whimper as we are shown the actual family today. It might better have countered the verdict with another spirited denouncement from Malik’s sister Sarah.

Theft, killing, extortion, fraud and drug dealing by police

More brutal because more systematic is David Simon and George Pelecanos’ We Own This City, based on the book by Baltimore Sun reporter Justin Fenton, part of a Pulitzer Prize winning team. The series is solidly focused on the leader of Baltimore’s Gun Trace Task Force, Wayne Jenkins, charged not with confiscating individual guns but with finding the source of the weapons. Instead, Jenkins is shown using his squad to track down dealers in order to steal their money and confiscate their product. He then sells to his own fence, who skims 15 percent off the top and then resells the drugs back on the street.

Jenkins and his men break and enter cars and houses and then request search warrants. In one sequence they steal half of the $200,000 they find in a dealer’s safe and then, for the body cameras they are required to wear, they stage a phony reopening of the safe now shorn of half its contents with Jenkins directing “the film” before they shoot.

A frantic chase by Jenkins, with little or no evidence of drugs or guns, results in the death of an old man. Jenkins steals from a dwarfish sex worker, boasting that he stole twice what she asked for, and then eludes a 20-day suspension because of his activity in leading a confrontation with protestors over the death in custody of a young, well-liked Baltimorean Freddie Gray.

On top of that, Jenkins is shown “halting” the looting of a Rite-Aid in the subsequent rebellion, but then confiscating the drugs himself and taking them to his fence, who recognizes they are “mostly Oxy” and who will then redistribute them to needy addicts. If the now disbanded Gun Trace Task Force was actually doing its duty in tracking arms to their source it might have arrested the 16,693 arms makers in the U.S. who, a recent Department of Justice report acknowledged, manufactured 71 million firearms in 2020.

Officers like Jenkins, promoted to sergeant and later given the police Medal of Honour, remain on the force because of the “professional” code, introduced by the LAPD’s Chief Parker, claiming that police as professionals with their own standard of conduct can best discipline themselves. Instead, we watch the Police Commissioner throwing up his hands and claiming the streets are too unruly to take officers like Jenkins out of action.

Jenkins and his colleagues also cheated the city out of a large amount of money by exaggerating overtime. In the opening of the series, Jenkins, in a training session with other police, claims that if cops don’t play rough, “We lose the streets.” The answer to this false claim is in the later scene where Jenkins is “instructing” his squad on how to falsely fill out overtime sheets and ends by asserting, “We own this city.” Jenkins’ resolute lawbreakers are a resounding answer and alternative depiction of the previously mentioned fun-loving cameraderie of the post-9/11 TV “squads.” 

The state-sanctioned war against poor Blacks by police

The series does not extrapolate larger points beyond the police, but as it unfolds there are larger points to be made. The first is along the lines of Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine which finds a link between U.S. domestic violence and U.S. weapons manufacturing and foreign policy. Before entering the Baltimore police, Jenkins was a Marine who, as Fenton relates in his book, was described by his sergeant as exhibiting “the utmost flawless character that I’ve ever ran into over my twenty years of serving this great country.”

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Michael Moore with young gun enthusiasts in Bowling for Columbine

This “great country” boasts a military budget greater than the next nine countries in the world, while claiming it is constantly being threatened, and which, over the protests of European and developing world leaders such as Italy’s Mario Monti and Indonesia’s “Jocko” Jokowi continues to preach endless war in Ukraine. It is not a mistake that this country produces characters like Jenkins for its “war at home.”

That war, on the streets of the U.S., is waged mainly against its Black and minority citizens. Critics pointed out initially that the police in We Own This City are colourblind, with many of the subordinates on Jenkin’s squad being Black officers. However, it is still Jenkins, the white Marine, in charge. The larger point though is that the squad’s devastating attacks are shown as entirely against the Black population of Baltimore, viewed by Jenkins and his cohorts as not victims of impoverished neighborhoods infected with guns and weapons, but always, already as criminals.

Jenkins’ attitude is the unquestioned adoption of what in the 1930s and 1940s is now seen as a kind of eugenics where minority neighborhoods are viewed as genetically criminally inclined not because they are lawbreakers but because they are poor and stand outside the middle-class propriety of a Jenkins who lived in a comfortable Baltimore suburb.

There may be Black and White behind the Blue Line but that line is used to regulate and destroy all attempts at community, as the series illustrates in almost every scene. This community in its collectivity is perceived as threatening those who seem to look askance but ultimately look away, both in the U.S. and in the world, from the state-sanctioned violence needed to maintain their status.  

Mr. Zelensky Goes To Washington
Monday, 18 April 2022 08:02

Mr. Zelensky Goes To Washington

Mr. Zelensky Goes To Washington

Vladimir Zelensky has been called many things, depending on which side of the now firmer divide, with the U.S. attempting to recreate the old Iron Curtain, an observer falls. To some he is a hero, valiant defender of a small nation against a mighty one, David to Putin’s Goliath, or a saviour, turning back an invasion by sheer willpower. To others he is a stooge, playing at diplomacy while not actually knowing what he is doing or, worse yet, a puppet, with the U.S., NATO and Ukrainian oligarchs pulling his strings. But, perhaps the more accurate characterization of Zelensky is to take seriously what he is in actuality, an actor, one who has been called upon to play at least four roles.

Servant of the People

Zelensky’s series, Servant of the People, now a global sensation running on Netflix and Arte in France, ran for three seasons, 51 episodes. It catapulted an Alberto Sordi-type everyman into the Ukrainian presidency, based on a diatribe against corruption that one of the students in his high-school history class recorded and posted and then went viral.

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The show, which premiered in 2015, is a populist fable about how Vasily Petrovich Holoborodko, in his 30s, divorced and living with his parents, boasts that the country would change if he could just rule it for one week and then gets his wish. The villains on the show are Kiev oligarchs, shown in the opening from the back or in close-up with just their deceiving lips moving as high above the city they boast about the mockery of elections where each controls a different candidate supposedly opposing each other.

Holoborodko unifies the country, claiming that a small portion in the extreme East “The Separatists” and the West “The Nationalists,” both supported by the oligarchs, divide the nation by “country, language and birth.” Instead, Holoborodko preaches unity since “we are all human beings,” illustrated in the last episode by Ukrainian Russians from the “Far East” with their technical expertise assisting in saving miners trapped in the “Far West”. This recalls Georg Pabst’s Weimer film Kameradshaft (Comradeship) with its German and French working class coming together to heal the wounds of the trenches where they were exiled by their oligarchs. The show is a sort of Welcome Back Kotter meets House of Cards where the innocence of the high school teacher in the first rubs up against the cynical power structure of the second.    

One of the show’s funnier sequences has two parliamentarians having sex in an antechamber in one scene and in the next violently opposing each other on the legislative floor. The fake antipathy recalls the Clinton era marriage of Democratic consultant James Carville and Republican and George Bush consultant and Clinton opponent Mary Matlin whose tryst, instead of suggesting complicity by the nation’s rulers in a faux two-party system, as People suggests, instead was marvelled at by the media as a model of “civility.”

Another sequence has a temporary female president supposedly worried about the country but with her anxiety then revealed to be instead about the outfit she is wearing, a page torn from the narcissistic would-be president in Veep. There is a kind of zaniness to this political satire, most evident in the unrelenting music, mocking the always-on-the-go advisors putting a president through his vacuous paces. The show’s dourness contains more than a dollop of Russian fatalist humor and the series was very popular in Russia.  

Servant of the People – The Reality Series

Scarcely had the show finished its run in 2019, when Holoborodko/Zelensky was himself elected president, running on a platform copied right from his character on the show, promising peace, prosperity, and unity while portraying himself as a kind of homespun man of the people, ala Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, who would wage war against political corruption. He would also be a healer, a Jewish Russian speaker from the East who promised to “reboot” failed peace talks with the breakaway provinces of Luhansk and Donetsk and negotiate a “ceasefire” to end a war that had been destroying the country since 2014. Ukrainians, whose level of distrust of their government had reached a world low of 9 percent by the time of that election, ushered Zelensky/Holoborodko into office in a second-round landslide where he beat the standing president Petro Poroshenko, regarded by electors as a part of the oligarchy, by 73 to 24 percent.

Servant of the Oligarchs

Unfortunately, once in office, he himself behaved more like Kevin Spacey’s Machiavellian manipulator in House of Cards then Gabe Kaplan’s affable instructor in Welcome Back Kotter. His clean-up of corruption turned out to be primarily to make Ukraine safe for foreign capital, and so he set about attempting to please Western financial institutions above all else. His neoliberal reforms were in fact even too fast for, as he put it, “The Europeans, the IMF, the EBRD (European Bank for Reconstruction and Development) and The World Bank, which were “very happy,” but, he reported, urged him to “slow down a little.”

A key demand of these institutions was “land reforms,” that is a privatizing and monopolizing of lands long held in common since the Soviet period, and the subject of Ukrainian filmmaker Alexander Dovzhenko’s 1930 film Earth, as well as deregulation of the banking system. The land reform measure was widely opposed with 72 percent against this attempt to accustom the country to, in Zelensky’s words, “the normality of capitalism.” These neoliberal reforms, which Zelensky happily championed, led to industrial decline, salaries in arrears, rising unemployment and—and this is before the war with Russia—massive labor migration and depopulation, with experts predicting the country would lose one-fifth of its population by 2050, to the point where, by the time of the Russian invasion, Ukraine was the second poorest country in Europe, behind only its neighbour Moldavia.    

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On top of this, there was a paucity of cases instituted to further Zelensky’s nominal mandate, to clean up corruption. A promised corruption task force, the Bureau for Economic Security, still not fully operational almost 3 years after the election. Finally, tensions in Ukraine did not decline but increased as the war in the Donbass dragged on with 14,000 citizens of the two now-breakaway republics killed before the Russian invasion as “unity” broke down with Zelensky, the great unifier, refusing to contest a law that mandated Ukrainian state workers only to speak Ukrainian, though 40 percent of the country speaks Russian. A few months after entering office he had an approval rating of 57%, but by August 2021, that number had dropped to 29, with 69 percent believing the county was going in the wrong direction. Perhaps Zelensky as this point was simply channeling the Peter Sellers character in Being There, Chance the gardener who as unassuming advisor to the White House is inflated to become Chauncey Gardiner.

A more sinister interpretation though accompanied this drop in popularity, as it was revealed that the owner of 1+1 Media the popular television channel that aired Servant, Igor Kolomoyskyi, lent his personal lawyer to Zelensky to be campaign advisor and contributed to and promoted his candidacy on 1+1 and various other media outlets he owned. Once in office, Zelensky removed the oligarch’s opponents, the Prosecutor General, the Governor of the National Bank of Ukraine and his own prime minister who tried to regulate the media oligarch’s control of a state-owned electricity company. At that point Zelensky appeared more like the oligarchs in the opening scene of Servant than the crusading teacher who had only the people’s interests in mind. All this suggests that the serendipity of Servant may instead have been a carefully calculated campaign hatched not in 2019 at the time of the election but in 2015, as the show debuted to widely popular audiences.  

Servant of the Empire

Zelensky’s world popularity, after reaching its absolute nadir in his own country, echoes that of George W. Bush in his before and after 9/11 transformation from academic ne’er do well to wartime leader. Perhaps the last role though is more ominous. With his popularity declining, Zelensky moved to institute more strict controls on freedom in the country. He has sanctioned political rivals and silenced television channels controlled by them, going so far in 2021 as to suggest that those in the Donbass sympathetic to Russia “immigrate there.” His party has also moved to pass a regressive labour law, curtailing rights on working hours and working conditions, as well as making it easier to dismiss workers without compensation, while even going so far as to cancel the rights of women to not be compelled to do strenuous labor. A previous iteration of the bill by the way was supported by the British Foreign Office, no stranger to neoliberal “reforms.”  It should be noted that almost the first act of the Nazi regime in Germany was to outlaw labour unions, and this bill is certainly trending in that direction.  

In addition, just before the war, France and Germany attempted to revive the Minsk accords, which would have allowed a ceasefire, and Zelensky refused to agree to restart the talks.

Zelensky then embarked on his world tour, this time as a kind of Zelig, Woody Allen’s chameleon who simply assumes the personality of whatever foreign leader he is near. Zelensky has become all things to all people, but especially serving those in the West who want to keep the war going in perpetuity, seeing a chance to achieve a 20-year U.S. goal of effecting regime change in Russia, no matter the cost.

Thus, in the UK his “We will fight on the shores” echoed Churchill’s World War II challenge to the nation in his “We shall fight on the beaches” speech. In Germany, he raised the spectre of the Cold War division of the country, urging the chancellor to tear down the new wall being constructed in Europe by the Russians between “freedom and bondage.”

In the U.S. he urged congress to “Remember Pearl Harbour when your skies were black with people attacking you,” and then called for a no-fly zone which would almost certainly expand the war and potentially lead to nuclear destruction which would “blacken the skies” in the most dangerous way. Those who think the war was engineered by the U.S. as a trap for Russia might also recall John Toland’s Infamy where he attempts to prove that Pearl Harbour was deliberately manufactured by U.S. policymakers as a way to move the U.S. population to accepting entry into the global conflagration of World War II.

Finally, in Israel, he invoked the Holocaust claiming, “Ukraine made the choice to save Jews 80 years ago,” but there he was quickly rebuked with a charge that parts of the Ukraine had participated in the mass extermination of Jews.

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Which brings us to Zelensky’s last role, one where he moves from man of the people to perhaps now serving not only the U.S. empire but also, as aider and abettor of the Nazi Azov Brigade as it prepares for a last defence of Mariupol and of “Nationalist” parties such as The Right Sector, with that nomenclature often being a rebranding for a neo-Nazi formation aligned with the military. This new role is more akin to that of the actor in the 1980s film set in Nazi Germany who serves as a front for the government until he loses his effectiveness and is cast aside. Holoborodko, the Servant of the People, may be completing a long, arduous transformation into Mephisto.

Lost People, Spaces and Places: The 2022 Crime Novel
Friday, 08 April 2022 12:54

Lost People, Spaces and Places: The 2022 Crime Novel

Published in Fiction

Dennis Broe reports back from the recent Quais du Polar crime writing festival 

One of the largest International Crime Writing Festivals in the world, the Quais du Polar, just closed in Lyon, France. The subject on many writers’ minds was, surprisingly, not the Ukraine, though the war was ever present, but the erasure of economies, landscapes and memories in the transformations wrought in the last 40 years by the greedier, more all-encompassing form of capitalism which goes by the name of neoliberalism.

The only topic Polish crime novelist Zygmut Miloszweski wanted to discuss was the threat of a Russian attack. Miloszweski was asked about the state of Polish health facilities, after Swedish author Camilla Grebe (After She’s Gone) had talked about the Swedish hospital system being devastated after the 2008 financial crisis caused by U.S. capital housing speculation.

Miloszweski went so far as to claim that the main problem with the Polish health care system was the threat of hospitals being destroyed by Russian bombs. The Portuguese author of Château des cartes (House of Cards), Miguel Szymanski, took a far more reasoned approach, cautioning against disrespecting Russia and its nuclear arsenal in a move that could provoke World War III and that was anathema to any legitimate quest for European peace and security.  

Instead, Szymanski’s novel, the first of a series, focuses on economic corruption at the highest levels in Portuguese society, also in the wake of a financial crisis. His protagonist Marcelo Silva is a former journalist now working in the financial office of the Lisbon police, who, Silva says “attacks the little guys, but I attack the big guys.”

Financiers or gangsters?

Szymanski was himself a journalist who exposed two of the country’s wealthiest financiers, one of whom he portrayed as a gangster. As a result of the expose, he lost his job and was forced to move to Frankfurt and work as a taxi driver until he joined a magazine there.  He has now returned to Portugal to tell a similar story in the form of a crime novel.

Szymanski describes a country led into a trap by the easy money loaned by German financiers, with the streets replete with “German cars and everybody rushed to buy one,” but which then  submitted to a massive privatization by these same banks to pay off the debt, which included losing the country’s main energy company to a Chinese buyer.

In a telling description, a Portuguese banker who is about to be submerged in the collapse sees himself trading in “euros, dollars, yuans, yens, or francs” while his wife creates her cultural currency by trafficking in “Hermès, Gucci, Prada, Chanel, Langerfeld or Armani.”

A panel on the recurrent and contemporary rise of fascism, the brun peste or brown plague, featured Dominique Manotti, whose latest work Marseille unearths a 1973 plot by racist elements in that city (including the police department) to drive Algerians out of France at the end of the Algerian war – an actual event about which she said that the press had for the most part remained silent.

Pre-fascist France

Manotti described as deeply troubling the fact that 30 percent of the French now vote far-right, a result she said of the brun peste never being stamped out. So periodically, in desperate economic times like the present with inflation following hard upon the COVID lockdown, able to return. She characterized the present time in France as “pre-fascist,” with the caveat that whether that tendency gathers steam depends on what actions people take to combat it.

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Manotti cited Philip Kerr’s Metropolis, his last novel before he died, in which Kerr winds the clock back on his Berlin detective Bernie Gunther to the Weimar period, as an accurate description of “pre-fascism.” Kerr describes the city as a “Babylon…full of the maimed and the lame from the war,” with street scenes akin to “a painting by Peter Brueghel.” Gunther’s Nazi landlady bemoans the passing of “what was a respectable city before the war, after the start of which, “human life stopped having much value” and where, due to the war and then inflation, in the working-class quarters “people live like animals.”

She blames this disintegration on “Poles, Jews and Russians” as a poster anticipates the coming of Adolf Hitler who “promises to tell the truth and clean up the city.” Meanwhile, the not-yet-hardened cop Gunther understands that a series of murders of women is likely the result of “men who came back from the trenches with a real taste for killing.”

Manotti detailed her own journey in the 60s and 70s, when she worked full time to promote social change and then in the 80s realized that change was not going to happen and instead began scholarly and novelistic work – besides being an accomplished noir author she also teaches 19th century economics. She wanted to give people an overview of ways the system operates, eg by using gangsters and organized crime to enforce state power. Her call to investigate and learn about the mechanisms of power was greeted by spontaneous applause from the audience.

Capital's destruction of habitats

A panel titled “Lands in Damnation: Memories of Places” contemplated the sense of loss and what Icelandic author Arnaldur Indriðason called “melancholy,” at the way capital had destroyed both natural and urban habitats.

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Indriðason described Iceland before World War II as a land of small farmers. His policeman detective Erlandur in Arctic Chill and Strange Shores, returns to the wildest part of the country, the Eastern fiords, in search of the truth about the death of his long-lost brother in a snowstorm and finds farmers dying from hunger and displaced by “enormous dams.” In the capital Reykjavik, his now retired cop turned private eye, Konrad, in The Darkness Knows, also searches in the past for the truth about his murdered father while being horrified by the transformation of Reykjavik into a shining global city where small businesses are wiped out neighborhood by neighborhood by “20-story high-rise blocks” that are “a blot on the landscape.”

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The Scottish novelist Val McDermid (How The Dead Speak) described a similar process that had taken place beginning in the 18th century in Scotland where the small farms, the crofts, were destroyed as landlords enclosed the land and the inhabitants were forced to migrate to the cities, where they served industrial capital as a ready, cheap and expendable source of labor. McDermid talked about walking in the Highlands and coming across scattered traces of the crofts covered by moss – but still a visible memory of the past.  

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A different kind of laying waste was described by Nigerian female author Chika Unigwe whose novel On Black Sisters Street questions the placing of Nigerian women as sex workers in the windows of Antwerp’s Red Light District, one of which was also a prominent character in the series on the same subject Red Light.

David Joy’s crime novel When These Mountains Burn recounts the devastating impact of opioids on Appalachia as seen by a father who watches his son destroy himself, an addict, and an undercover cop. He decried the ways drugs were “deliberately and systematically” dumped on the region by Perdue Pharma, contributing to 100,000 deaths by overdose in the U.S. in 2020.

The English novelist David Peace, in a panel on “Noir and the Metropolis” which also echoed the theme of demolition, recounted a change in post-war Japan that took place in 1949 and is the subject of Tokyo Redux, the third part of a trilogy on that city.

At that time, the American occupation authorities, many of them Roosevelt New-Dealers who wanted to push social reforms and a more open society, realized the openness had gone too far and Japanese workers, often led by the Communist Party, were making substantial demands for power sharing in the society and now needed to be curtailed.

Peace’s detective Harry Sweeney, who had previously worked on breaking up gang activity and was called “the Eliot Ness of Japan,” is assigned the case of the momentous and actual death of Sadanori Shimoyama, the president of the Japanese National Railroad. Harry is urged by his superiors to be out and about “cracking union skulls, [and] breaking red bones.” Peace described that year as a moment in the transformation of Tokyo into the capitalist hypermodel of a city, a description that was echoed on the panel by Scottish-Indian author Abir Mukherjee (The Shadows of Men) as being initiated in the Calcutta of the 1920s and by the novelist, actor and director Boris Quercia (Many Dogs) in Santiago, Chile where “liberalism destroyed the historic center” of the city.

Harlan Coben and John Grisham were COVID casualties, unable to make the conference. Also missing in action was Giancarlo De Cataldo, the Italian chronicler of the history of the mafia in Rome in such novels as Suburra, which became the basis for a popular television series. Just in paperback though is Agent of Chaos where De Cataldo, an Italian magistrate, in a kind of Mark Twain folk tale with a factual basis. In it he describes Jay Dark, a petty thief who becomes a CIA asset in the 1960s and distributes LSD and heroin to the radical movements of that period. Dark’s handler is a German psychiatrist who believes in “the sacred values of order, the family, and patriotism” and who performs psychotropic experiments on mental patients in Bellevue Hospital, where he meets and transforms the street level criminal into a cultivated “agent of chaos.”           

De Cataldo’s work in charting the destruction of aspirations for a better world was in keeping with the theme of the conference – the devastation of human and natural habitats by neoliberal capitalism, which echoed through many panels, authors, cities and countries.

Another European Invasion: Corporate Streamers and Spring Television Preview
Sunday, 03 April 2022 10:17

Another European Invasion: Corporate Streamers and Spring Television Preview

The largest television festival in the world, Series Mania at Lille in Northern France, where 40 percent of all French television series are shot, just ended. Although everyone paid homage to the invasion in Ukraine, what was also often unstated was how to deal with another invasion, that of the U.S. streamer conglomerates. Money is now pouring into Europe, where production values are cheaper and where local production is being driven by the global and Western success of the Korean series Squid Game, proving that audiences around the world are no longer adverse to watching native language series with subtitles.

Public television is everywhere threatened by these private monopolies. Typical is the case of Sally Riley, who heads the drama desk of ABC television in Australia where she is also in charge of an Indigenous branch of the network. ABC has commissioned the aborigine series Mystery Road and Troppo, the latter set in the alligator wilds of Queensland, as well as the detective series Jack Irish, all of which are critical of the power structure of Australian society. Riley complains that with the global streamers now invading the market, it is much harder to secure “projects, talents and crew” and generally harder for public television to compete.

Nicole Chamoun as AMANDA

Nicole Chamoun in Troppo

Whereas previous festivals, even last summer’s, sounded a warning against European state production being overwhelmed, the panels at this year’s Series Mania Forum tended to compliment the way the streamers have invested in production, with the difference between cooperation and cooptation perhaps being thin. Bruno Patino, the president of Arte, a German-French station that is the crown jewel of European public television, lauded the Arte co-production with Netflix The World of Tomorrow, a supposed “origin story” of how hip-hop culture came to France.

The series won the grand prize of the festival but paled behind the vastly superior Disney + series Ossekine, about the police killing of an Algerian student. The lone voice of dissent on Patino’s panel “Collaborating Across Borders” was the Italian Gina Nieri, whose company has ambitions of being “the Netflix of Southern Europe” and who still viewed the American streamers as a threat to European cultural sovereignty.

In order to provide an infrastructure for this increased production, the streamers know they must cultivate talent while also tailoring European training to the needs of a more industrialized system, as the sheer volume of series ramps up. Thus, at the festival, Warner Media (HBO Now) revealed it was investing $1 million in the Series Mania Institute to train scriptwriters, directors, producers and broadcasters. This comes on the heel of Amazon’s announcement of a £10 million investment in UK film and television training.

Likewise, another panel featured Frank Spotnitz (X-Files, The Man in the High Castle) pleading and sometimes hectoring the audience of producers and media biz staffers to accept the American concept of the showrunner not because it gave more freedom to the writer, since showrunners are writers, but because it was a more efficient way of rolling series off the industrial ramp and better suited to the influx of cash that was now arriving in Europe. In my book Birth of the Binge, I praised the ascension of the showrunner as giving new power to writers with scripted series taking precedence over a god-awful era of unscripted “Reality TV,” but in this latest iteration the showrunner is simply a more efficient cog in the machine.

This invasion has also prompted increasing monopolization and mergers of local TV stations in order to compete. Foremost among them is the proposed merger of France’s top two private and linear broadcast stations TF1 and M6. The fear is that Vincent Bollore’s M6 will swallow TF1, which does commission its own French series in contrast to M6 known for its cheaply-made reality series.

Media magnate Bollore has positioned himself as the Rupert Murdoch of French media with his CNEWS cable channel, which spawned far-right presidential candidate Éric Zemmour, being the French equivalent of Fox News. One member of the audience described the merger as being akin to “The Hitler-Stalin Pact.” The mergers, as in the U.S. and as mergers everywhere, are resulting in media workers losing their jobs, to the point where Variety cheerily described a “rosy media employment picture” in the U.S. in the wake of a host of mergers, where in the first two months of 2022 there were only 200 job cuts.

In terms of production overdrive, the leader in this field is Korea’s Studio Dragon whose CEO Young-kyu Kim revealed, to open mouths and gasps from the audience, that his studio – which produced two series highly rated on Netflix, Kingdom and Crash Landing on You – was churning out a full series every two weeks. Kim also brought along a reel illustrating how Korea had ingeniously surmounted the country’s COVID travel restrictions in a series about Korean and Italian mafias called Vincenzo, supposedly partially shot in Italy but in fact using a green screen background for actors and then filling in the Italian scenes with lifelike digital recreations.  

The Play’s the Thing

As for the series themselves, the festival functions as a kind of global spring series preview with a host of socially-minded series on the agenda. Clearly the best series at the festival, though the jury didn’t think so, was the MGM/Epix streamer Billy The Kid, premiering on April 25. The series starts out as the most cliché-ridden of all Westerns with Billy, spurs a-jangling and pistols at the ready, walking into an almost pitch-black saloon and facing down a bounty hunter who is after him.

BD3 Billy the kid

The opening though is simply a diversion as the series then cuts to the tenements of New York City as the now pre-adolescent Billy and his Irish family decide to go west because the conditions of immigrant life in New York are so awful. The show then becomes a kind of Heaven’s Gate, an underrated Michael Cimino film about the prejudice against East European immigrants in Wyoming.

The tension in this first season centers around a Nativist hatred for all those not American, featuring killing and lynching of Mexicans, as well as a cabal of those in power who simply want to exploit immigrant labor. Billy’s stepfather is, when Billy’s mother encounters him, a racist debtor trading on his white privilege who must leave Santa Fe for the wilds of Silver City in order to flee his creditors, just as another famous white bigot who then became president had to flee his debtors in Atlantic City for the wilds of Vegas and network TV. In the guise of a Western Billy the Kid is a sharply critical examination of the American character.

From Colombia comes Turbia, a dystopic anthology series, set in Cali, the site of much current labor organizing and dissent, about a drought in the not too-distant future that accentuates the already massive gap between rich and poor, with the police-barricaded rich now having abundant water while for the poor water is rationed or sold on an underground market. The series joins those other harbingers of impending doom (as Joe Biden threatens the world with nuclear annihilation in calling for regime change in Russia) Snowpiercer and The Walking Dead, the latter currently enjoying its finest season as the survivors battle a neoliberal U.S.-style government called “The Commonwealth.”

The ingenious arc of Turbia has each director constructing their own episode within the drought situation with the first three episodes concerning respectively star-crossed lovers on either side of the divide, an old man attempting to hold onto his shack being annihilated as part of a city demolition and children threatened by a fascist army officer. The different age groups recalls Vittorio De Sica’s neorealist trilogy with young (Shoeshine), middle aged (Bicycle Thieves) and old (Umberto D) subjected to the ravages of post-war Italy.

The team from The Wire, David Simon and George Pelecanos, are back with a limited HBO series, again dealing with Baltimore, this time with police corruption in We Own This City, premiering April 25. The series takes pains to show how police brutality is institutionalized, opening with the main corrupt cop, Wayne Jenkins, in an actual case from 2017, explaining to a group of his fellow cops that when you hit the streets you forget everything you’re taught in the academy because “this is Baltimore,” and if officers don’t play rough “we lose the streets.” We then flash back to 2003 where Jenkins is told this by the officer training him and then forward two years where he imparts the same “knowledge” to his trainee. The plot of cops stealing from those they see as merely “the criminal element” also figures prominently, and perhaps more ingeniously in season two of the Nordic noir from Sweden Before We Die.

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Two dark French policiers took quite different paths. Syndrome E moves at a frantic pace and encompasses a global medical conspiracy that also plays out in Morocco and Canada while Hors Saison or Off Season, is a French-Swiss series that breaks the traditional French cop series mode, an antiquated cross between Agatha Christie plots and Colombo-like eccentric main characters, in an appalling way. The female cop covers up a death, potentially a murder, caused by her son of an Eastern European immigrant woman and asks us to sympathize with the agonized mother in a way that simply romanticizes the police violence and coverups. These are otherwise contested in contemporary series, as the Black Lives Matter protests begins to (slightly) affect police procedurals.

A hard-hitting Disney series?!

The World of Tomorrow operates on the flimsy conceit that rap and hip-hop culture arrived in France thanks to a blond French DJ who went to a rap party in San Francisco and then transported the music. The series seems to have no feel for how rap challenged the very structure of a racist society, instead substituting the almost straw man figurehead of Jean-Marie Le Pen as an easy target. Much better was Ossekine, Disney Plus’ first French series which revolves around the 1986 police cover-up of the death of an Algerian student.

The series features a scene of police interrogation of the brother of the student, not to shed light on the victim, but to figure out how to portray the death as either warranted or an accident. A flashback also recalls the 1961 murder of up to perhaps 300 Algerians in Paris being thrown off the Pont Neuf, a bridge in the center of Paris, witnessed by the Ossekine family upon their arrival in France. Who would have thought the Disney series would be hard-hitting while the French series was pure fluff?

Elsewhere, Gold Panning, the first Chinese series in the festival, set in the mid-80s in a Wild-West San Francisco-type Gold Rush in a remote corner of the country where foremen cheat downtrodden workers doing the panning and everyone is out for themselves, trying to siphon off what gold they can. The series, with its contesting of the ’80s “Greed Is Good” ethos can be read as a corrective to the Deng Xiaoping era of introducing capitalism to Chinese society, as we witness Xi Jinping’s move to the left, attempting to curb corruption and discipline the too-big-too-fail Chinese tech enterprises.

The Dark Heart, now available on Roku, and a prizewinner at the festival that deserved its accolade, is a Swedish series about a controlling father who ravages the land and exerts his iron will over the town, where he is the leading landowner, his daughter, forbidding her romance with a worker’s son whose father describes the family as serfs to this capitalist lord, and the environment as he refuses to update his logging techniques to the more sustainable solutions his daughter proposes.

Finally, a series which suggests a social significance while actually staying purely in the realm of grimy science fiction is the Showtime remake of the David Bowie vehicle The Man Who Fell to Earth. Outside of the heroine’s explaining that the reason she is coming along for the ride to aid an alien is to gain money to help her father who has lost his insurance and is dying because of this loss, there is almost no social context. The series attempts to be a cross between Nicholas Rowe’s The Man Who Fell to Earth and John Sayles’ Brother From Another Planet, but all that is retained from the Sayles film – the better of the two – is the grimness. We don’t know much about the world the alien comes from except that on this planet there is no sense of humor. His has to be the least funny planet in the universe.

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