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.

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

Class and culture in the age of Coronavirus

Published in Cultural Commentary

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

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

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

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

CVCornoavirus Hospitals and Nurses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Middle-Class Quarantine: Sheltered in Place and Working Online

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

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

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

Working-Class Quarantine: Working and At Risk 

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

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

CVLes Miserables

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

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

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

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

CVDelivery Drivers Under Fire in Ken Loachs Sorry We Missed You

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

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

CVGerman builders in Bulgaria in Western

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

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

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

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

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

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

CVLatvian emigre in Brussels in Oleg

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ozark, the disappearing middle class, Freud and Freudians

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

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

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

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

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

Ozark body photo American family shattered

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

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

The onslaught on the middle class by corporate capital

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

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

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

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

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

Sigmund Freud, superhero and obedient liberal

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

Vienna Blood Freud first body photo

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

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

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

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

Freud second body photo An obsessed Freud

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

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

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

How predatory profit-making warps TV series: Bro on the Global TV beat
Tuesday, 07 April 2020 09:45

How predatory profit-making warps TV series: Bro on the Global TV beat

Dennis Broe continues his series reviewing streamed TV series, and discusses some of the ways the capitalist system affects their availability and content

The Swedish series with the mysterious title Jordskott is an anomaly wrapped in an enigma. It’s really a deeply ecological series, posing as a horror/mystery thriller. The mystery thriller elements include abducted children and several murders perpetrated by a ruthless killer which occur around and in an ancient forest under siege. Eva Thornblad is a Swedish cop from the metropolis of Stockholm who returns to her town at the edge of one of the forests that cover over half of the country in search of her lost daughter who disappeared in the forest many years before, and who suddenly reappears.

The horror elements which emerge slowly and then become more prominent include possible non-human creatures with strange and savage powers, parasites that allow humans to become part of the forest, and a slithery creature who is being nourished by an old woman very in touch with nature, in her bathtub.

From the beginning, there is also the crafty and heartless business cabal that wants to cut down the forest, first by logging and then by dynamiting whole stretches of the green woodland. This is the most verdant series on television. Shots abound of brooks and streams running through lush overgrowth. Landscape is a staple of Nordic series (Twins for example) but here it is not just used for its stunning beauty but is thematically central to a series, about landscapes under pressure and about to be destroyed.

Jordskott and the devastation of the forest

This action takes place in season one, with season two returning Eva to the city, but with the forest now a part of her. Both seasons are available on Shudder, the horror streaming service, and on Amazon Prime. There is a backstory, slowly revealed, about how her father had disrupted the local ecology in the 1970s by spraying large parts of the forest and killing its strange woodland creatures. This reminds us of the more than1 million animals killed and 100 species endangered in the recent fires in Australia, as a result of climate change. Unlike her father, it is Eva who then is initiated into the secrets of the life-giving trees and, in order to save her life, becomes a living, breathing part of the forest herself.

A book of monsters which lurk in the forest further deepens the mythology, relating it to Scandinavian folklore, which itself comes from a time when the Swedes were more in touch with the life-giving capacity of their landscape. This mystical book recalls the American NBC network series Grimm, which each week explored a different beast from the Hans Christian Andersen menagerie.

Grimms Monsters of the Week

However, the grounding of this series in the eco-politics of the forest, and the determination to deepen the link between mythology or primitive thought and the life-giving forces that are being destroyed under a greedy and predatory capitalism, sets this show apart and makes its strange denizens more than merely monsters of the week.

It’s a show that could profitably be redone in many countries – and particularly Brazil, where the Amazon is under constant attack in Bolsonaro’s money-grubbing regime. Not to mention Pennsylvania’s destruction of its rivers and ecosystem by its exploitation of the Marcellus Shale works – its answer to the financial devastation of the 2008 mortgage crisis, spurred on by Trump’s boosting of the unprofitable waste of fracking.

The final image from the much stronger first season is of one of the forest creatures, still in human form, melting back into the grass and vegetation. It’s a powerful image reminding us of our primeval origins and the necessity to stay in touch with that more primitive, life-giving side of ourselves.

Netflix and Latino Culture

Critical darling, audience favourite and casualty of Netflix’ mysterious and sometimes ruthless ratings system, One Day at a Time, about a Hispanic single-mother family, has now found another life on the CBS cable station Pop TV.

One Day at a Time

The show is a revival of a Norman Lear series in the 1970s which focused on a white middle-class single-parent family. The transposition here is to make the family Cuban, consisting of the breadwinner and mother Lupe, her feminist lesbian daughter Elena, their trying- to-be-normal teenage son Alex, and Rita Moreno as the matriarch Lydia, whose fiery and sexually explicit diatribes recalls any of the characters from The Golden Girls, only with a Latin touch.

The series is unabashedly old-style, with a loud and extremely exuberant laugh track, jokes required on about every third line and a lesson learned each week that makes it a pre-Seinfeld sit-com. There is something oddly refreshing about the antiquated nature of the series. Rather than being hip and sophisticated, it’s emotional, touching and wears its heart on its sleeve.

Gentefied and hip Latinos

What really makes it work, far better in fact than stylized “sophisticated” comedies such as Netflix’s own Gentefied, is its topicality in terms of dealing with questions that are pressing for Latino and immigrant populations. This is borrowed from Norman Lear’s ’70s series. The new season begins with a cameo by Ray Romano, of Everybody Loves Raymond, as a census taker, and a debate within the family about whether Latinos, who are often undocumented, should respond and be counted.

In the opening the whole family airs this debate, which is currently relevant because of Trump’s illegal attempt to force respondents to identify whether or not they are citizens. The result of the debate is that they choose to be counted, since this is important for state and federal aid.

In the second episode of this fourth season, rather than a pithy “lesson,” Lupe learns that she need not cling to her miserly ways and that she can afford more comforts for her family. The “lessons” taught here are ones that affect the well-being of these working-class communities as a whole, not simply middle-class adaptive or coping strategies.

The series is lucky to be airing at all. Netflix cancelled it after three seasons claiming its Netflix ratings, which no one outside the company is privy to, were too low for a fourth season. As one of the show’s actors noted, Netflix sometimes saves series which the networks cast aside, but in this case cancelled the series. The Nielsen ratings, which are incomplete and only count Netflix subscribers hooked up to a television, nevertheless showed the ratings for the series increasing, more than doubling from season one to season three.

Latina Single Mother Family in One Day at a Time

With the major US networks, when a series was in trouble, letter-writing and now social media campaigns often caused the network to change their mind and retain a quirky but impactful show, as happened recently with NBC’s Community. Netflix on the other hand simply acted on cold hard facts, making it in this case more ruthless than the networks.

In addition, CBS All Access, the digital component of the CBS network, wanted to air the show, but couldn’t because a clause in the Netflix contract forbade the show from broadcast by any of its streaming competitors.

The show was finally revived by Pop TV, a CBS cable channel, best known for the Emmy-nominated Canadian series Schitt’s Creek. CBS, the outlet for the show’s first broadcast in the 1970s, agreed to also air the show on its network after its run on the cable station, granting the show’s producer Sony two licensing fees and thus making the show more profitable for Sony.

These are the fortunes of a series with a community point of view and a form that can reach that community – battered around and only by chance revived in a system that values profit above all else. One Day at a Time struck back at its former digital home when, in the first scene of season four, Alex complains that he is bored since “there is nothing good on Netflix anymore.”

Twisting the truth: Bro on the Global TV beat
Thursday, 02 April 2020 09:28

Twisting the truth: Bro on the Global TV beat

As more people have to stay home and watch TV, Dennis Broe reviews some current TV series from the U.S., Britain and Iceland, showing how they both expose and conceal real social and economic injustice

The best network series in what might be a season cut short by the coronavirus is ABC’s For Life, a combination prison/court room drama about an innocent African-American inmate sentenced to life imprisonment for being a drug kingpin. The series is based on the true story of Issac Wright Jr., a New Jersey inmate who used his time in prison to become a legal counsellor and claimed to have freed 20 unlawfully jailed prisoners.

DB4 Lawyer prisoner Aaron Wallace in For Life

Similarly, Aaron Wallace, a club owner – as Wright was a promoter who claimed he put together the Latina Girl Group The Cover Girls – is jailed by an ambitious and corrupt Illinois prosecutor, Glen Maskins, who is running for Chicago District Attorney. In order to free himself Wallace studies to become a lawyer, takes the bar, becomes the legal representative for the inmates and begins an aggressive campaign against the would-be DA, attempting to prove a pattern of faulty convictions.  

For Life is a brand new approach to the courtroom drama genre, by crossing it with the prison series and by emphasizing the unfairness of the legal system and the ways African-Americans, Hispanics, and poor whites are caught in the crosshairs of a system that presumes them guilty from the start. This is a system where tainted evidence and lack of investigation characterize the actions of both prejudiced police and politically ambitious prosecutors.

It is stirring to watch Aaron – who changes each week out of his orange prison jumpsuit into the tailored suit of a lawyer and then appears before a judge –masterfully arguing his cases. By being in prison and having access to the stories of inmates, and through his own interaction with the law, Aaron is able to take into court a point of view and perspective on the legal system the lawyers on the opposite side of the courtroom do not have.

He is also accused of cutting corners himself, in his defence of the inmates. On being confronted with this by a liberal female warden who is on his side he answers that with all the obstacles against him, it is up to him where to draw the line. The ultimate statement about his predicament occurs when he is reprimanded by a black cop who he asks to illegally obtain his police file, which he is barred from seeing. To Aaron’s declaration that the procedure is unfair, the cop replies “You should have thought of that before….” Aaron interrupts him with, “Before what, I decided to be black in America?” The cop folds under this logic and grants Aaron his request.

The show was produced by 50 Cent, Curtis James Jackson III, a victim and perpetrator of street violence who was arrested for dealing and was once shot nine times before establishing a highly successful career as a rapper. He wanted to tell Wright’s story and Wright himself is grateful he was able to address the wrong in his own situation. He hopes that the show will be “a beacon of hope and inspiration” for the “thousands of people” wrongly incarcerated that he left behind. .

DB3 Kelsey Grammers evil prosecutor in Proven Innocent

The series is tightly constructed and owes something not only, of course, in the prison context to the landmark HBO series Oz but also to a short-lived courtroom drama from last season called Proven Innocent, where the female Caucasian protagonist becomes a lawyer to escape her own wrongful conviction, and then after being freed becomes an advocate for the underprivileged. She is pursued by a bullying prosecutor (Frazier’s and Boss’s Kelsey Grammer), also running a political campaign, who put her in prison and wants to put her back behind bars. The character of the prosecutor especially owes much to this Fox series which that network quickly dropped. I wonder why?

For Life ups the ante by having its protagonist still in prison and battling to get out, and most crucially by adding the element of that most incarcerated class, black men. Their imprisonment is often not based on guilt or innocence but on a systemic need to discipline a recalcitrant and rebellious population, and to fill the jail cells of a multi-billion-dollar industry that has become a boondoggle for private enterprise. In the Bible, Aaron is the older brother of Moses, who leads the Israelites out of their bondage in Egypt and to freedom. Each week this Aaron attempts the same for an large ethnic group within the American working class, for no reason other than prejudice and profit.

Twisting the truth through twists in the plot 

Alfred Hitchcock talked about the differences between what he called coincidence and suspense. Coincidence was the result of a poorly constructed plot, involving a mystery that seems to simply assemble random events and betrays its own shoddy construction. Suspense, on the other hand, meant involving the audience in a series of events that gripped them and made them a part of the plot because they knew what the characters were going through.

In the era of peak and binge TV, a contemporary buzzword is “twisty.” The word has a positive connotation and indicates not just a surprise ending (as in such films as The Usual Suspects and The Sixth Sense) but rather a continual series of surprises constantly shocking the audience.

DB5 Patriarchal Lineage in The Stranger

Two contemporary Netflix shows, the British series The Stranger and the Icelandic series The Valhalla Murders, are both “twisty” but for radically different ends. The Stranger’s “twists”, akin to coincidence, are simply the sparkplugs of an addictive plot driving the story forward for no reason other than propulsion. The Valhalla Murders, on the other hand, is made up of a series of twists akin to suspense, with each taking the audience deeper into and ripping the curtain off the layers of corruption that infect Icelandic society.

The Stranger is based on a Harlan Coben novel, with Coben as executive producer. The catalyst for the story is the appearance at that most quintessential bourgeois parenting event the kid’s soccer game of a mysterious woman in a baseball cap who reveals to the father of one of the participating boys that his wife has faked a pregnancy and that his two sons may not actually be his. The show centres around lineage, with the father the wronged one in this danger to the succession of patriarchal power.

This mini-series is indeed “twisty” with a new reveal coming not just at the end but generally at about every quarter of each episode. Without revealing these plot turns it is important to note that at the end of a supposed questioning of middle-class bourgeois customs, that order is restored and the sanctity of the bourgeois suburban marriage is reaffirmed even though much of the show has at least summarily questioned it. So they are addictive twists, for the purpose of dragging viewers along with them for commercial reasons, but with almost no interest in questioning what lies behind a trail of deception and violence.

DB2 Corruption in Iceland in The Valhalla Murders

 The Valhalla Murders on the other hand is the complete opposite, though it begins in much the same clichéd way. That most reliable of staples, the serial killer, is the antagonist in this drama about two Icelandic police officers tracking a bloody trail that leads to a now boarded-up boarding school, as the former instructors in the school are being gutted and the police have no clue why. The series is based on the first serial killer case in Iceland, and the first half of the series treads familiar Silence of the Lambs ground.

However, the serial killer plot is surprisingly resolved at the midpoint in the series and at this point it becomes much more interesting as the two cops investigate other possible roots of the violence of the boarding school and as the trail climbs ever higher in the judicial and state hierarchy. ‘Valhalla’ in Nordic mythology is a warriors’ heaven ruled over by Odin, wise but also a vicious warlike figure associated with death. The boarding house is a Valhalla where its young warriors are initiated into an unfair battle that has ruined their lives and made living corpses of them, as they die prematurely or wander aimlessly in jobs that simply occupy their time. They are casualties of a brutal abuse of power.

The twists and turns in The Valhalla Murders deepen the critique of a society that is willing to look at its flaws. In contrast, the twists in The Stranger work to conceal the flaws of an oppressive and exploitative society – instead of exposing and examining them, they are presented as an ever-spinning addictive spiral that obstructs the viewer's critical reflection.

Wealth Porn, in Billions
Tuesday, 24 March 2020 11:06

Fend for Yourself and Get Greedy: 'Bad Banks' and Global Financial Misbehaviour

Dennis Broe on the Global Television Beat, Episode 4

Most presciently these days with the outbreak of the Coronavirus and the collapse of the financial markets, the German powerhouse series Bad Banks opened Season One with the story of a run on Germany’s third largest bank. Equally prescient was the opening of Season Three of the other powerhouse German series Babylon Berlin which begins with the 1929 stock market crash and has the lead detective stumbling down the stairs of a bank amid suicides and bills fluttering from the ceiling, before he opens the door and is trampled by those stampeding to get their money back.

Mad Speculation

Season One of Bad Banks depicted the mad speculation at Deutsche Invest prior to the 2008 subprime crisis as Jena Liekam, the young financial climber and her two colleagues managed to abscond with a couple of million dollars. They stowed this money in a Caribbean account while Jena’s boss Gabriele Fenger went to jail for insider trading.

Jena Leikams pact with the devil her boss in Bad Banks

In Season Two, now streaming on Hulu, Deutsche Invest, under scrutiny but expanding, has become Global Invest with the bank now interested in merging itself with the budding start-up culture and industry in what it calls “Fintech.” Jena is dispatched from the corporate headquarters of Frankfurt, the financial centre, to Berlin, the centre of the start-up and tech industry. She is the emissary as the bank wants to take over a start-up whose goal is to help investors participate in sustainable development, a sort of greenwashing app which nevertheless could do some good. The free flowing atmosphere of the start-up, more playroom and gym than business, is transformed by the bank into the more formal cubicles of what it calls ominously “The Incubator.”

Fenger, Jena’s ex-lover, returns from a short stay in prison and launches his own start-up. His is an app that simply expands investment at wherever is most profitable, jettisoning the sustainable development component. Deutsche Global sides with Fenger and orders Jena to disband the start-up with which she had been working. She complies sadly but efficiently, and returns time and again to the owner and financier of the former start-up looking for forgiveness and clemency which he will not grant her.

Indeed, this second season focuses more on the personal character of the three young bankers and the duplicity necessary for their survival in the world of high finance. Jena and her partner Adam, trying to cover their theft of funds in Season One, end up as accomplices to a murder in order to keep their secret from the prying eyes of Jena’s banker elder, Christelle Leblanc, who wants to use the information to control her. Adam meanwhile falls prey at home to the intensity and violence that works quite well in investment circles, as his wife cloisters herself and their children from his brutal temper. Thao Huong, one of the few non-Caucasians connected with the bank, betrays both of them and they equally violently dismiss her.

If the young bankers are loathsome but energetic, their elders are worse. Jena flaunts the power of youth, telling Christelle that she has 40 years left in the business while Christelle has “at most 10.” Christelle reacts with a series of underhand moves to again keep Jena under her thumb, including an alliance with Fenger which results in the jettisoning of the sustainable development app. At the same time, one of the heads of the bank covers up the murder of a sadistic older government regulator by the sex worker they had assigned to pacify him after the regulator had attacked her.

Wealth Porn in Billions

The dark and shadowy palette that engulfs this world even in daytime strengthens the ominous mood that surrounds these financial activities. Bad Banks is the antithesis of more superficial American series about wealth creation such as Billions and Succession which amount to nothing more than “wealth porn.” This series about the financial centre at the heart of the European Union details a professional and personal landscape bereft of morality which has turned that union into a moneygrubbing entity that puts the rich first. The series presents even its young protagonists as riddled with a kind of greed, ambition and drive for power at all costs that is responsible for destroying the possibility of a Europe united for a common good – one that could help to steer the world in a progressive direction.

Nancy Drooling          

There is a worrisome change going on in one of the better teen shows this season, Nancy Drew. The pilot presented a now young-adult Nancy, just graduated from high school, mourning the death of her mother by pancreatic cancer, suspicious of her lawyer father who was a high priced “cleaner” for the richest family in town, and sleeping with an African-American ex-con. This was truly a Nancy Drew toughened up for the neoliberal age, with her parents either victimized by chemical pollution or servants of the rich and with Nick her boyfriend proving to be much nicer than the wealthy scion of the richest family, Ryan Hudson. Hudson is revealed to be crudely exploitative when in a Twin Peaks moment, in the pilot finale, the adult Hudson is shown having an affair with Georgia or “George” Fan, Nancy’s teen rival in in high school and currently her boss.

Nancy Drew and the Drewettes

So far, so good, and the daunting 22-week schedule still revolves around the cold case murder of a high school girl though the whodunit seems to be shifting away from the power centres of the town, in contrast to Nancy’s progenitor Veronica Mars which accused those characters. Twenty-two episodes, the requirement for a network series, is harder now in the era of Serial TV when each show can no longer just be a witty way of repackaging the material but must relate to each other show and where relationships must be more fluid and changing.

That said though the changes in this show are disturbing. Nancy’s path is now being normalized, that is, her journey and aspects of the case itself are moving her from an outsider status into the centre of power of the town, while all the while denigrating those on the outside. She has slowly dropped her African-American boyfriend Nick to tentatively begin a relationship with the scion of the second wealthiest family in the town. Her father’s character has now switched over from deceitful shady lawyer to an innocent “caring Dad” waylaid by Nancy’s too eager pursuit of the killer of the dead girl. The actual killer in the first murder was revealed at the midpoint in the series to be a working-class character out for revenge on the wealthy. Also, on the relationship front, the Asian owner of the restaurant George is now aligned with the African-American Nick. Likes finally attract – or in the CW network’s gender and racial politics, dominants attract – and minorities are left to pair off with each other.

Nor is this the only show to follow this pattern. Stumptown, one of the better of this season’s series which often deals intelligently and caringly with female issues, has the alcoholic private detective and lead character Dex Parios at first dating and sleeping with an African-American cop, Miles Hoffman. She then shuts that relationship down, claiming it’s unprofessional, in what seems a flimsy excuse for jettisoning him. Miles then finds his way to the female Asian cop with whom he works. The same pattern was followed in the Canadian series of a few seasons ago Shoot the Messenger where the young red-headed female reporter is shown in the opening scene having sex with a black cop but then instead sleeps with the Caucasian older reporter assigned to assist her in her story. In that series though she finds her way back to her original love interest.

chinatown

We used to have the character change in lead characters being from that of a wily or somewhat ruthless character to that of a character who finds their moral path. Best example is the detective in Chinatown who once again tries to help someone in need, after ruthlessly preying upon his clients. In these series, the disturbing trend is a movement from a somewhat outsider status to one of stricter conformity. Redemption comes not from re-finding a moral code but from reestablishing more traditional power relations. Such is life in an era where each is left to fend for themselves and greed rules.  

'Hunters' TV series
Sunday, 15 March 2020 16:03

'Taken Down' and the underbelly of the Celtic Tiger: Bro on the Global TV beat

Dennis Broe presents Episode 3 of his series on TV series

First it was called the Celtic Tiger, and then the Celtic Phoenix. The rise of Ireland to a European economic powerhouse was fuelled initially by a housing boom, which then crashed in the wake of the bursting of the US housing bubble. The Phoenix then rose from the ashes, stimulated this time by Foreign Direct Investment as Ireland became a corporate and particularly a tech and Silicon Valley tax shelter.

This phenomenon even gave rise to what in tax swindling parlance is referred to as a “Double Irish with a Dutch sandwich,” a way of a company funneling both US and European profits through the low tax rates of Ireland and The Netherlands and then on into Caribbean countries with zero tax rates, so that if the accounting is done to perfection the original company pays no taxes at all.

This “Leprechaun Economics” profited a few while leaving the many behind, and led in the most recent election to the rejection of the two ruling business-friendly parties, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael. Instead, the population embraced Sinn Fein, which promised, like Bernie Sanders in the US and Jeremy Corbyn in the UK, to redress the blatant inequality that now defines the country, and to focus on healthcare, education and housing.

taken down

This is the background from which springs the Irish series Taken Down (available on Amazon), an often bitter grappling with the underside of the economic miracle as seen from the perspective of a family of Nigerian refugees. The series begins with an African mother, Abeni Bankole and her two kids, explaining that her husband has been killed, swept into the sea on the trip over, and that she is seeking a new life in Ireland.

We then flash forward four years later where the family of three is still trapped in a one-room flat that is part of a decaying high-rise on the edge of Dublin. This hovel is contrasted to frequent long shots of a modern downtown, with its gleaming freeways and polished corporate skyscrapers. The bright lights of the economic miracle stand in stark contrast to the drab nether regions of those on the outside of that miracle.

The mother is forced into clandestine cleaning work in a brothel, which it turns out preys upon the young refugee girls for its ill-gotten gains. Brian Gleeson is particularly effective and loathsome in the series as the supposedly caring government supervisor of the housing estate which he uses as a site from which to funnel underage girls to the brothel, while also exploiting them himself. The death of one of these girls brings in the Irish police, which includes a sympathetic female inspector and a casually racist hotshot young male detective.

Nigerian Mother Courage

The show is at its best in documenting the prejudice and air of superiority projected by the supervisor, the male cop and most blatantly and offhandedly by the gangster overlord of the brothel, who insouciantly manipulates the girls and the other Nigerians who work for him. The mother, who tries to protect both her sons and the girls in the brothel as much as she can while under the careful scrutiny of the gangster boss, is the emotional centre of the series. She has been compared to Brecht’s Mother Courage, a scavenger in the Thirty Years War. Abeni is actually more caring and less stoic, though like Brecht’s character she is also trapped in her own kind of war, this time a class war, and forced to accommodate herself to it.

The irony is the Irish have always been thought of as amongst the downtrodden of Europe, but in the wake of the wealth that is permeating the country, they are seen here as projecting their superiority on the most downtrodden. The tax-evading values of the corporate scam at the top of the Irish social pyramid seep down onto the street. Here we watch Irish people pursuing the same kind of greedy profit at all costs mentality, with more visible exploitative consequences that are experienced most of all by the young Nigerian women in the brothel.

Bob Hearts Abishola

The Nigerian mother’s plight is a far harsher but more realistic view of the problems of integration into the West than the proud Nigerian nurse who is the heroine of CBS and Chuck Lorre’s Bob Hearts Abishola. That series is a very touching romance but in comparison to Taken Down it presents a softened and sanitised view of the ruggedness and poverty of the African immigrant experience.

Hunters and The Commodification of Evil

There is nothing impoverished about the high production values of Amazon’s Hunters, a flashy BIFF-BAM-POW, highly-stylized, comic-book version of the Holocaust and its aftermath. It has drawn criticism because of its overinflated scenes from the camps, including one of a human chess board where the pieces taken off the table are then slaughtered. Hannah Arendt talked about the banality of evil in her coverage of the Nuremburg trials of the Nazis after the war. Here, what we have is the “commodification of evil.” Unlike say JoJo Rabbit which has something serious and heartfelt to say about the limiting stupidity of xenophobia and hate speech, this show is only about the hyperactive, overblown narratives now powering the race between Netflix, Amazon and the other streaming services for viewers.

Hunters

The series is open about its comic-book intentions. There is one point where the boy who is being brought into the gang of Nazi hunters, each with their own “powers,” asks the leader how he put the team together, referring to him as “Professor X.” This references a concentration camp plot at the origin of the X-Men and acknowledges the comic-book aspect of the series.

Hunters also deals with aspects of the post-Holocaust experience, including Operation Paperclip, where the US secretly brought Nazi scientists to work on its projects, most notably the space race and the hydrogen bomb. This is old material though, and has done much better, fo example in The X-Files. Here the intersection with reality only adds to the superhero and supervillain bluster to the point where the end of season one is the introduction of the ultimate Holocaust villain, here reduced to the status of a Magneto, the X-Men’s arch foe.

The show is set in 1977 and draws upon other comic-like pop illusions, including Blaxploitation costumes and imagery, and campy Batman graphics from that 1970s show, which work to dislocate the show from any factual historical grounding.

Batman

This is Al Pacino’s first series. He is at the centre of it as the leader of the band, and is perhaps the most troubling character in the series. He preaches a violent form of not justice but revenge, justified by the still active and lethal presence of the Nazis. There is a recognition that the violence he perpetuates is the result of what happened to him in the camps, but this realization is lost within the show’s overwhelming attitude – and the Pacino character’s persistent argument – that the only real imperative is a forward thrust toward more unquestioned violence.

Yes, there is a resurgence today of anti-Semitism, and the Nazi sentiments never die – witness the far right AFD in Germany. However, there are no global plots for a Nazi takeover, and thus the violence the show promotes may be necessary self-defence by Jews but it could also eerily rationalize other forms of violence prevalent today, including that of Israeli settlers and their protectors against the Palestinians.  

Why not steal from the poor and give to the rich? Bro on the Global TV beat
Wednesday, 19 February 2020 14:19

Why not steal from the poor and give to the rich? Bro on the Global TV beat

Dennis Broe reviews some more TV series and asks: why steal from the rich and give to the poor when you can steal from the poor and give to the rich?

The Robin Hood legend has certainly come under fire these days. The last studio big budget Robin with Russell Crowe had Robin himself as a Baron who saves England and guarantees it for the other barons. Indeed, as the Earth’s resources dwindle, we are watching the Robin Hood story in reverse. Lauded entrepreneurs and their merry band of tech stalwarts, bathed in green, hide their ever-increasing gains in tax shelters, which essentially rob the state and poor people who the taxes might help, and instead pay rich dividends to corporate board members.

Thieves of the Wood

The legend is retold and made more complex in a Flemish series on Netflix called Thieves of the Wood. The Flemish title translates as The Band of Jan de Lichte, and it reminds us that Robin Hood legends appear everywhere there is mass inequality – which is everywhere. They are as prominent in the bandit tales of Italy as in their more modern echoes in the exploits of the James Gang and Bonnie and Clyde.

This 18th century tale takes place in Northern Belgium, in a small town near the major commercial city of Ghent. Jan de Lichte is a nobleman conscripted into the Prussian army to fight in the remote regions of Silesia. He deserts and returns home to find the town’s mayor has an expert scheme to improve the economy of the mayor and a small band of nobles. The town head is periodically exiling those who cannot pay their bills or who have committed petty crimes, and sending them to nearby woods, also populated by the town’s gypsies. Both parties are now barely allowed in and through the town gates. Under cover of a hypocritical morality – which applies to the poor but not to the nobles who hunt young girls for their sexual pleasure – the mayor is actually constructing a workforce of exiles who in order to survive will build the road he needs from his town to Ghent. The projected road will greatly improve trade in the town, with the profits again accruing to the nobles.

Pursued by Hessian bounty hunters, Jan takes up with a group in the woods and robs a carriage bound for Ghent filled with gold – but with a modern twist, because the carriage is also filled with drugs, opium the nobles are transporting in league with local gangsters, who also traffic in women. There is a Maid Marian, a printer’s daughter who initially comes to live with Jan in the woods, but is then appalled at his part in the death of her brother, and returns to the city where she is chastised and beaten with glee by the local prelate. He is in league with the mayor and exuberantly reinforces the local power structure, as he sadistically tortures Jan’s lover for consorting with the Devil – that is, those opposed to the ruling elite.

The series features an incredible resurrection – and will need another one if it is to continue for a second season. The most complex character is the Sheriff of Nottingham-like bailiff. He at first finds the nobles’ conduct appalling, with their slave-trade enterprise and their false conviction and execution of a family blamed for the carriage theft. Finally, though, he succumbs to the generalized air of corruption that pervades the town, and becomes himself an enforcer of the hypocrisy he so clearly sees through.

American critics, some of whom now reduce the act of evaluation to “Stream It or Skip It,” generally found this series “too complicated” and not worth bothering with. But it’s the complication, the confluence of forces (government, merchants, church and gangsters) that together describe the pattern of power in the town and that gives this series its meaning.

There is a pitiful contrast between the small clique of nobles whose sign of power is their ugly and pretentious wigs, and the town’s poor, reduced to slave labour and a subsistence existence in the woods, clothed in tattered garments. One could think of cities like Los Angeles with its homeless tent cities under the bridges in smog-filled areas, and with more and more ordinary workers struggling to keep their apartments – that is, not to be consigned to the woods. Even outlying regions of housing such as trailer parks are now being bought up as a sound investment by distant and global hedge fund managers, who quickly jack up the rent. On the other side, the city’s elite wall themselves off in mansions and gated areas where the air is clear, and wear not wigs but the latest Armani suits and Dior dresses.

The series meanders a bit through several episodes before anything like a merry band appears and robs the rich, and it ends on a very down note, as many of the resisters in the woods are slaughtered. The complications though between this version of the Robin Hood myth and earlier more pristine versions represents the difficulties in the neoliberal era of a clear-cut path to opposing accumulated wealth and greed.

b

For example, look at Bernie Sanders’ problems on the campaign trail, as his candidacy attempts to appropriate even just a bit from the rich to spread the wealth throughout the country. Like Jan de Lichte he is opposed by a confluence of corporate, political party, government and media forces. The complications in the show are messy but overall they succeed in presenting a resounding, modern-day Robin Hood.

Crisis on Infinite Earths

The CW television network recently ran Crisis on Infinite Earths. It’s a five-part saga that ran across five different series over two months in what is called the Arrowverse. It springs from the original Greg Berlanti series Arrow and links all of the DC comic series Berlanti has had a hand in creating – Arrow, Supergirl, The Flash, Legends of Tomorrow and the most recent Batwoman. The CW itself is part of the corporate universe of CBS/Viacom and Time Warner/ATT&T.

Rather than ground their costumed heroes in a more socially embedded world, like their rival Marvel, DC instead multiplies and morphs the characters, with more extravagant costumes, different dimensions and alien worlds. Here there are 99 earths, all with their own version of the various superheroes – and all but one destroyed in the course of this epic.

The Avengers Infinity Stones

Just like Marvel though in its two-part concluding Avengers film, much time is taken up with the various villains and heroes collecting trophies as part of their task. In The Avengers: Infinity War the infinity stones are gathered first by the villain Thanos and then used for the ultimate prize, to destroy the world. In the second film, Avengers: Endgame they are recollected by the heroes in order to restore the world. In the DC version, a central aspect of the plot centers around the naming and assembling of the seven Paragons who collectively defeat the ultimate villain, the anti-Monitor. Having so much of the plot taken up with performing tasks to accumulate rewards which lead to some ultimate victory clarifies the way superhero narrative and gaming continue to be reciprocal and embedded in one another.

Just as Hollywood has always had an inverse relation with the porn industry, with each establishing the boundaries which allow the other to flourish, so blockbuster entertainment and gaming have grown up next to each other in a similar way, with mainstream film narrative supposedly adding an emotional level to a more complex narrative that gaming cannot duplicate.

On the gaming side, that premise is being challenged by ever more complicated plots and characters, e.g Castlevania, The Witcher, which also then become TV series. On the film and television narrative side, along with adapting popular games like Resident Evil and the Sonic the Hedgehog, stories are now being constructed along gaming lines, not so much about the who, what, when, where, and how as about the process of zapping enemies and accumulating prizes.

The adoption of more complex narratives and characters may be a boon for gaming, investing that industry with more intellectual credibility, but it diminishes the narrative quality of film and television, as plots become little more than flashy costumes with limited character attributes forever in quest of accumulating sparkly awards that lead to the demise of an opponent. We are watching the degradation of the emotional impact of a narrative even as we witness the deterioration of our societies, as more wealth and power accrues to the 1 percent and as real goods and services (education, health care, housing) are priced out of our range.

We are left with only the pursuit of meaningless shiny objects, the products of an ever-expanding leisure industry whose prized commodities cater to the wealthy, with the trinkets of the industry available as compensation to those who cannot afford the goods they need. Unlike the heroes in DC’s Arrowverse, the collection of these “rewards” does not save the universe – it further impoverishes it.

Exposing the Culture of Corporate Capitalism: Bro On The Global Television Beat
Tuesday, 04 February 2020 12:08

Exposing the Culture of Corporate Capitalism: Bro On The Global Television Beat

Dennis Broe introduces the first instalment of Bro on the Global Television Beat, a new series of TV criticism that covers the best in streaming and Serial TV programmes for British and U.S audiences

Episode 1: Steven Knight’s A Christmas Carol: Dickens in the Age of Neoliberalism

Steven Knight is one of the best writers in the Serial TV era. However, the creator of Peaky Blinders and the even-better Taboo had seemed to regress with See, his Apple TV+ series, a gimmicky post-apocalyptic highly masculinized show depicting a pre-feudal world where everyone is both blind and warlike.

Much more to the point and a return to the capitalist savagery of Taboo is his latest effort. It’s his version of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, a BBC production, available in the US on FX. The tale has been softened so much in recent retellings and in repeated holiday broadcasts of Capra’s watered down version It’s A Wonderful Life, with Jimmy Stewart’s confused and curmudgeonly Scrooge, that it had lost all pretenses to laying bare the old man’s greed, which has been replaced instead by a bumbling lack of conscience that if restored would make him whole.  

Scrooge the banker and asset stripper

That’s not this Scrooge, called Ebe, business shorthand for Ebenezer. He is not old but in his prime, and we understand through the course of the three episodes how this buyer and stripper of companies, much like today’s hedge fund managers and investment bankers, acquired his wealth by penny-pinching his employees, as he orders his accountant Cratchit to put in a full day on Christmas Eve, one of the few times Cratchit spends with his family.

Much worse in his climb to the top with his now deceased partner (the show begins with a young, impoverished boy urinating on the partner’s grave) is their cutting corners in their businesses, resulting in a mine disaster and a fire in one of their factories, each killing many of their workers. Scrooge and his partner’s only concern is how to avoid liability, that is, any chance of being sued.

Scrooge

This is on the social level. On the personal level, we learn “Ebe” has in his past humiliated and sexually abused Cratchit’s wife, played by an Afro-British actress, in a way that suggests the colonial abuse that was a feature of a British empire propelled by slavery –  still a covert feature of the empire in the 1840s, when the show takes place. We also learn that the personal source of this evil was Scrooge’s own sexual abuse as a kid, sold by his father to a boarding school headmaster in exchange for free tuition.

Everywhere on Serial TV these days there is this dark interpretation of the traditionally glowing stories dredged from the ‘50s or early ‘60s, eg in DC’s Titans where the teenage superheroes and their older teachers struggle with sadism, alcoholism, and a broken down family structure. The neoliberal age of precarity is a meaner age than the recently passed Fordist era of guaranteed incomes and pensions, and there is a resulting strain on all kinds of social relations picked up on contemporary TV. It’s impossible even to do a teen superhero show, in comics once the most innocuous of genres, that will attract an audience without taking up the pall that is cast over the lives of this current generation.

In A Christmas Carol Steven Knight, as he did in Taboo with the villainous British East India Company, takes us back to a more savage era of capitalism, that of the rise of the industrial economy fueled by men like “Ebe,” whose only morality is money. Today we have the same mentality but the greed has a smiling face.

If you think the Scrooge tale is outdated, consider Trump’s cutting food stamps in 2019 just prior to Christmas. Or, in France, Macron’s provoking of a strike by proposing to drastically cut the pension system which forced many workers to spend their Christmas holiday on the picket line instead of home with their families. His retort to this cruelty was to ask for a truce, at the exact moment when the strike, now a limited weapon at best, would have maximum impact, claiming that he, the impoverisher of working people’s families, was a family man himself and their friend. Trump and Macron are Scrooges in Armani suits, but no less cruel for their effect on their own working-class, immigré and now middle-class Bob Cratchits.

Revolutionary love

Dicken’s version was too sentimental at the end, and in Knight’s retelling Scrooge repents but is not forgiven by Cratchit’s wife. Not all ignominy is redeemable. Knight does point also to the liberal reformism that was also part of Dickens’ worldview. Scrooge is told that love is the answer, in this case meaning the way that those oppressed by the system endure, and as such is the antidote to revolution. A stronger way of saying this, and of breaking out of the left neoliberal bind where the solution is to put a plaster on the wound, is instead to maintain that changing or overturning a cruel system is to practice love.

For the most part though, Knight’s exquisite writing and Guy Pearce’s unrelentingly hardened Scrooge rewrites and updates Dickens, while reminding us that the wheels are turning backwards. In this more vicious era of capitalism, naked greed over ever decreasing resources returns us to an earlier no-holds barred era of corporate Scrooges – only now with the might and weight of government fully behind them.

Exposing the culture of corporate capitalism

Knight’s updating of Dickens to critique contemporary capitalism is reminiscent of part of Alfred Hitchcock’s corpus – the shows he supervised and directed in the 1950s anthology series Alfred Hitchcock Presents. The master would dryly introduce and conclude what he referred to as “our story tonight,” often insidious critiques from the inside of 50s America, all ending in a bitter twist and some calling attention to a society whose repressed contradictions could not but come to the surface. Three stirring examples of the latter, all of which Hitchcock directed, are Lamb to the Slaughter, Breakthrough, and Poison, all available on YouTube.

In the first, Barbara Bel Geddes, who also appears in Hitchcock's Vertigo, is a fastidious pregnant housewife who when she announces that her baby to be is a boy, is met by her cop husband’s demand for a divorce, and he literally turns his back on her, telling her he has met someone new. She slays him with a frozen leg of lamb and then in the most delicious way possible watches the police dispose of the evidence with a contented look on her face.

Breakdown has Orson Welles’ mainstay Joseph Cotton as a heartless businessman who complains when an accountant he has fired to cut costs has the audacity to be angry at him. The corporate manager terms this a breakdown. Driving home from his Miami vacation, on a backroads detour he becomes the victim of a prison crew accident, paralyzed and unable to speak but narrating to us his plight as he is assumed to be dead. His contemplating being buried alive causes his own breakdown in a way that allows him to feel what the accountant, suffering a similarly symbolic fate, was going through.

Finally, Poison set on a plantation in the Asian tropics, is a nasty half hour as the owner with a possible poisonous snake on his belly under the covers sweats in front of his co-owner. His partner, who wants both the business and the other man’s girlfriend to himself, tries to convince the beleaguered victim that he is delusional, that this is just the effect of delirium tremors from the alcohol the partner has been forcing on him as a way of getting control of the company.

Like the other episodes, this one exposes the ruthlessness of a society based on competition, control and confinement, with Hitch gleefully overseeing this critical mayhem and 1950s audiences tuning in rabidly each week to see the underbelly of the society exposed.

 

Red Vienna: the architecture of socialist hope
Wednesday, 08 January 2020 14:25

Red Vienna: the architecture of socialist hope

Published in Architecture

Dennis Broe tells the story of Red Vienna

Europe’s zero interest rate is being used to further hollow out its major cities. Those people owning capital in cities such as Munich, Berlin, Paris and Amsterdam are borrowing at no cost and buying up apartments that are then being used as tourist rentals, in partnership with Airbnb and other accommodation services.

Along with this trend goes steadily rising rents which mean that working and ordinary middle-class residents — nurses, teachers, social workers — can no longer afford to live in the cities and now must commute to work from far outside. This is also a global problem, with the rents in California now so high that residents are leaving not just the cities but the state, in order to find affordable housing.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Vienna is a city that is still livable, it has a tourist interior with increasingly higher rents but affordable housing just outside, and an extremely efficient system of public transportation which makes commuting easy. The design for this type of housing is to be found in the city’s history and particularly in the period 1919 to 1934, called Red Vienna, where first Socialists and then Social Democrats were in power. Their main project was the construction of not just public housing but also complexes such as Karl-Marx-Hof, still standing, that were cultural centres as well.

Karl Marx Hof

The 100-year anniversary of the movement is being celebrated in the city with two exhibitions at Karl-Marx-Hof and at the Wien Museum MUSA opposite the city hall, both of which call attention to this building feat. When the exhibition toured New York, it was met with overwhelming enthusiasm as architects and city planners flocked to see how Vienna in a previous period had made progress on a problem that is supposedly top of Mayor Bill De Blasio’s agenda. The social theorist Karl Polanyi described the period as one where “a highly developed industrial working class…achieved a level never reached before by the masses of people in any industrial society.”

In 1918 after the disappointment and destruction of World War I, as part of the fall of the Habsburg dynasty, Austrians won universal suffrage and women for the first time were allowed to vote. The government elected by this new constituency was a socialist government which made the eight-hour working day legally binding, introduced unemployment insurance, and began to address the city’s housing crisis, where the poor and many workers lived in unheated, tuberculosis-infected, overcrowded shacks.

Building began in earnest in 1925 and by 1933 64,000 apartments had been constructed in complexes that were not just apartments but spacious living facilities that also boasted gyms, swimming pools, kindergartens and green courtyards. By the end of the period one-tenth of all residents lived in low-rent facilities — costing in some cases only 4 percent of their income —that were dubbed palaces of the proletariat. The most magnificent of these was Karl-Marx-Hof, with its 1300 apartment complex, referred to as the Workers’ Versailles.

The public funds came from a combination of a housing tax, a luxury tax and federal funds. This degree of public housing also discouraged speculation. The infrastructure for this building, including a railway which could transport workers easily across the city, was laid in place under the administration of the infamous Karl Lueger, whose modernization also included a strong anti-Semitic component.

Otto Wagner Subway Station Construction

The most famous architect of the period of the construction of the ring surrounding the inner city was Otto Wagner, who after building many of the bourgeois homes turned his attention to subway construction and to a plan for green suburbs with workers’ homes surrounded by parks. Wagner’s work is currently on display at City of Architecture in Paris, which emphasizes his contribution to the greening of the city.

The Karl-Marx-Hof was designed by Karl Ehn, a student of Wagner’s who is said to have designed over 2700 different workers’ apartments. The structure stretches almost three-quarters of a mile and included gardens, a children’s school, large laundries and libraries. Also part of this building movement was a gigantic pool at Amalienbad, in a nearby district referred to as a temple of hygiene with its glass roof, Roman bath and showers with clean water – a first for workers.

Amalienbad Pool Vienna

The twin ideas of space and education guided kitchen construction so that a former tenement kitchen with a woman ironing on what was also the cutting board for cooking, all the while tending to five children at her feet, was replaced by a spacious kitchen with a large dining table that also functioned as a study table for the working-class mother, now receiving an education.

First the Socialists, then the Social Democrats lost power. What ensued were pitched battles in the street in what is referred to as the Austrian Civil War. The most famous of these was at the Karl-Marx-Hof as workers retreated into their housing complex as both the last bastion and the focal point of their achievement. They were shelled and bombarded by a combination of the Austrian army, police and fascist militias heralding the beginning of what was called Austrofascism, which ran parallel to Hitler’s movement in Germany. The date of the battle is commemorated by the naming of the plaza as 12 February square.

After the Nazi invasion in 1938, the name of the complex was changed, but in 1945 its original name was restored and the reverberations of the period have influenced subsequent building. An exhibit in the Vienna Architecture Museum on The Cold War and Architecture explains that there were four different views for reconstructing the city after the war, proposed by each of its conquerors. The Russian proposal centered around state buildings and power facilities, designed to stress their monumental character. The French, following Corbusier, proposed vertical modernist housing. The Americans wanted to build luxury hotels, with pre-fabricated housing for everyone else. But it was the British Labour Party model of a 'green garden' movement, stressing the need for workers to live away from the congestion and pollution of factories, that the Viennese favoured. The legacy of Red Vienna has bequeathed to the city a suburban workers’ space that is still both green and affordable and that hopefully will be able to withstand new onslaughts of speculation.

An Elephant Sitting Still
Monday, 23 December 2019 15:10

The Decade of Asian Cinema: Top Ten Films of 2019  

Published in Films

Dennis Broe reviews the best films of 2019

This is the end of the decade, and it is worth noting that the two most consistently outstanding directors of the last 10 years are both Asian. They are China’s Jia Zhangke and South Korea’s Bong Joon-ho, whose film Parasite is the movie that best describes class struggle in this year of global street challenges to the power of the rich.

Jia’s films A Touch of Sin, Mountains May Depart and Ash is Purest White recount the at times devastating effects of China’s economic Great Leap Forward on ordinary Chinese and Bong’s films Parasite, Snowpiercer and Okja deal with various aspects of the degradation of the natural and social world as a result of the profit motive. This have also been outstanding films from the Philippines, Taiwan and the emergence of Indonesian film. There is indeed an Asian pivot in Global Cinema, which accompanies the economic strength of the region.

A second major trend is the impact of the streaming services, as this Thanksgiving Netflix challenged the major studios with its own blockbuster release, Scorsese’s The Irishman, on the eve of the holiday, as well as now operating the Paris cinema in New York, a formerly venerable outlet for foreign and independent distributors, as a showcase for its films.

A.O. Scott in The New York Times debated himself and resolved that it is better to see movies in the cinemas, but continually rising prices and the fact that working people hardly have either the time or the money to indulge a movie habit means that the streaming services will advance. One absolutely negative effect is that, as we saw with Disney locking up the Fox Studio back catalogue so its films could not be shown, and with each of the streaming services now teaming with a former studio, repertory houses will suffer and a great deal of the history of the cinema will now become privatized, under lock and key, only viewable online and after paying the subscription price of the streaming service.

The third major trend is a continuing one, noted here each year, and that is the refusal of distributors to even pick up foreign films, so that the American market remains solidly Hollywood with some American independents and a trickle of foreign cinema. There are no plans to distribute almost half of my Top 15 films and thus in the Age of Trump American provincialism proceeds apace in a way that moviegoers are not even aware of.  So let this Top Ten also be a plea to let the films be seen.

Top Ten

Parasite

Parasite – Rest of the Top Ten is in no particular order but this is clearly the best film of the year. Bong Joon-ho’s three-part epic reverses Marx’s take on the class struggle, viewing the interactions of a down-and-out and a wealthy family in South Korea first as sit-com, then as farce, but ultimately as tragedy. Bong uses the devices of the popular cinema – this is part Home Alone, part slasher film – to drive home his point about how the ever growing wealth gap is destroying this society. Will Hollywood have the guts to give this overwhelming critic’s favorite the Academy Award? Or will they at the last moment instead pivot to the commercial as happened last year when Roma, another obvious choice, did not win Best Picture.

Meryl Steep in The Laundromat

The Laundromat – Steven Soderberg’s Brechtian take on the Panama Papers and the problem and grief caused across the world by tax shelters features a multi-dimensional Meryl Streep whose final role is as herself, as she steps out of the fiction to raise her hand and call for action against these schemes which impoverish governments and make the rich richer.

Nina Wu ­– Taiwanese film, to be released early next year, on a very MeToo topic, the torture and fracturing of the consciousness of an actress by both her male overseers and the industry as a whole in this Asian version of Mulholland Drive.

Gathered around Dr. Strangelove in Adults in the Room 

Adults in the Room ­– Currently no distributor for this Costa Gavras film that like The Laundromat uses a variety of devices to illustrate the way the European Union, and in particular a German financial representative as a contemporary Dr. Strangelove, strangled both Greece and the Syriza party as both attempted to carve an alternative path out of the austerity imposed on the country by the EU.

High Flying Bird

High Flying Bird – Netflix-sponsored sports film, again directed by Soderbergh, about the perennial topic of the exploitation of the black body in sports, in life and in the history of America. The auteur turn here though is not by the director but by the writer, Tarell Alvin McCraney, whose dialogue sizzles and bursts with the complexity of the ins and outs of contemporary basketball and the attempt by black agents and athletes to make the sport their own.

Capital in the Twenty-First Century – By far the best documentary of the year, this multilayered look at the history of the growth of the income gap and the persistent power throughout history of the 1 percent is based on Thomas Piketty’s book of the same name, with Piketty as co-screenwriter. But the film is more than simply a regurgitation of the book. In the way it interweaves doc footage, images, and the expertise of various non-orthodox economists it suggests the triumph of films like Inside Job. Only this film has been utterly ignored and without help will die an inglorious death.

Oleg – A touching look at the way Western Europe exploits its Eastern half in this story of a cook who quits his native Latvia for Belgium, where he is quickly and rudely dismissed from his job, then courted by a gangster whose lifestyle and values are emblematic of the neo-liberalizing, everyone out for themselves, West. A powerful ending has Oleg turning his back on this crass commercialism, while a female friend of his remains confined and victimized by it. No US distributor!

A Hidden Life – Terrence Malick’s quietest film yet, about a conscientious objector in the backwoods of Austria before and during World War II. It opens with the idyllic pastoral simplicity of Days of Heaven, then proceeds to the horrors of war of The Thin Red Line and The New World. It’s about keeping your moral compass in a world where all around you have lost their heads, in this case in the Nazi onslaught – and perhaps the way an American intellectual experiences life in the age of Trump.

Bacurau

Bacurau – A Brazilian film, released in the wake of Bolsonaro’s victory. It’s a sharp genre pic that utilizes sci-fi and the western to discuss the global inequalities between North and South, or the US and Brazil, as well as in that country between the Afro-Brazilian North and the Euro-financial South of San Paolo, as its hit squad preys on a small village until it rises up to thwart this conquest. Opens in the US in early January.

The Invisible Life of Euridice Gusmao – Another Brazilian film, and that country’s nominee for Best Foreign Film, which bills itself as a “tropical melo.” And indeed it is an old-fashioned melodrama set in the patriarchal Brazil of the 1950s, even as that phenomenon, in the form of Bolsonaro’s boisterous militarism, is currently reasserting itself. The film is literally about sisterhood, that is two sisters parted by a ruthless father, one of whom finds an independent path, meaning and forgiveness in the Afro-Brazilian life of the favela.

Honorable Mention

 Sorry We Missed You

Sorry We Missed You – This Ken Loach film is about a crucial topic – life for workers in the gig economy – will be distributed in March in the US. The film charts the slow auto-destruction of a family as a result of the precarious labor of the wife and the husband – he with an Amazon/Uber type delivery company, she working in social care – which goes under the name of entrepreneurship and “freedom”.

It Must Be Heaven – No distributor or US release date for Palestinian director Elia Suleiman’s wry reflection of life in his native Nazareth, and in Paris and New York. Suleiman’s droll observation, part Jacques Tati/part Buster Keaton, presents Paris as both open runway and site of the branding of luxury, and Paris and New York as armed camps in an increasingly militarized West, contrasting with the warmth and humanity of Nazareth.

Blow It To Bits Second best documentary of the year with as yet no US distributor, about the reaction of French workers to the closing of a tyre factory, after they had already taken pay cuts because the company had promised to keep it open. A film full of fear, resentment and finally anger at how the workers were used. Directed by Lech Kowalski whose most famous film, D.O.A., about the early days of Brit and American working-class punk, is a similar bitter rebuke to the powers that be.

an elephant sitting still still

An Elephant Sitting Still – Chinese look at the inner lives of outliers of an industrial town, each with their own kind of desperateness, by a very powerful director who then committed suicide but not before leaving a striking portrait of a society embracing the capitalist “everyone for themselves” ethos and going awry.

An Officer and A Spy – Polanski’s film has been blacklisted, and has found no distributor in the Anglo-capitalist world. The director’s past actions are beyond reprehensible, but the film is not simply about his persecution complex. Its detailing of the French military and legal cover-up of Dreyfus affair lays bare the secretive power structure of the elites that is still in place in today’s Macron government. A Dreyfus for our times and a film that deserves to be seen and argued about rather than simply repressed.

Two other films from past Top Tens were released this year and should be mentioned, Columbia’s Birds of Passage, which effectively uses the tropes of the gangster film to chart the coming of the profit motive to an indigenous community and The Nightingale, an Australian film that recounts British settler brutality in that country as it impacts both on its indigenous Aboriginal population and on Irish women forced to emigrate.

Five Worst Films

 It’s not that they’re so terrible. In truth, most of these films are just horribly over-rated.

Marriage Story – Noah Baumbach’s last film The Meyerowitz Stories with its infernal patriarch was insufferable. This one, about the breakup of a marriage is just about sufferable, but I still prefer the funny and satirical Noah Baumbach of The Squid and The Whale to the serious, “complex” Scenes from a Marriage Ingmar Bergman Baumbach. There is also a fundamental incongruity in the treatment of Adam Driver’s husband, who never admits his part in the destruction of the marriage, yet both husband and wife are treated as equally responsible.

Joker – It has no redeeming social value but what does distinguish this entry is that is an openly fascist film released by a major studio, Warner Bros. It’s a hack-Scorsese pastiche of Taxi Driver and King of Comedy that sees collective action as mob rule and suggests the need for a strongman, a Trump, A Bolsonaro, a Duterte, or a Batman, to tame the anarchic lead villain and clean up what it presents as the filth of the streets. 

Ad Astra – Promising first half as Brad Pitt’s astronaut goes up country in a militarized outer space of the near future. He’s seeking his Kurtz in a Heart of Darkness/Apocalypse Now narrative that unfortunately doesn’t pay off, as the Heart of Darkness turns out to be a bland void and the wonder of space becomes just another backdrop on which to project a highly simplified Oedipal struggle, not even as sophisticated or resonant as that of Star Wars.

Martin Eden – Jack London’s original novel didn’t work and neither does this too-faithful copy. It mixes the self-taught trajectory of a poor boy in Naples who becomes a writer with a critique of celebrity in a capitalist regime, as the successful writer then becomes an insufferable bore. The mixing of the two is simply confusing to audiences who are asked first to root for and then against the protagonist. Even worse is the mixing of several different time periods, which include turn of the century Italy, Italy in the 1930s, and the present, making for a sloppy and nebulous no-time in a device that reads simply as lazy set construction.   

The Lighthouse – Beautifully shot in vibrant black and white, with a screenplay that recalls Melville in its density by the promising director of The Witch. In the end though, this tale of a lighthouse keeper torturing and then being tortured by his protégé is just so much male craziness. Let’s call it Moby Shtick. No amount of wizardly effects or supposed critique can conceal the fact that this is just one more tired display of a fascination with an exhausted patriarchy, especially reprehensible in a year when that impulse is so directly being questioned.

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