Dennis Broe

Dennis Broe

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

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

The Thick Blue Line: Killer Cops in Baltimore and Paris

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

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

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

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

Beaten to death by police

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The state-sanctioned war against poor Blacks by police

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

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Michael Moore with young gun enthusiasts in Bowling for Columbine

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

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

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

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

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

Mr. Zelensky Goes To Washington

Mr. Zelensky Goes To Washington

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

Servant of the People

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

DB Zel

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

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

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

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

Servant of the People – The Reality Series

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

Servant of the Oligarchs

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

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

sellers copy medium

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

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

Servant of the Empire

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

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

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

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

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

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

meph

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

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

Lost People, Spaces and Places: The 2022 Crime Novel

Published in Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

Financiers or gangsters?

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

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

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

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

Pre-fascist France

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

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

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

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

Capital's destruction of habitats

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another European Invasion: Corporate Streamers and Spring Television Preview

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

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

Nicole Chamoun as AMANDA

Nicole Chamoun in Troppo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Play’s the Thing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A hard-hitting Disney series?!

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

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

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

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

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

Stories of the Lust for Profit in 2021: the Year in Global Streaming
Monday, 20 December 2021 18:35

Stories of the Lust for Profit in 2021: the Year in Global Streaming

This year’s Top 40 Serial TV Series unfolds against a background of continually rising inequality. Thomas Piketty (Capital in the 21st Century) and company released their figures charting global disparities exacerbated by Covid, this was front page news in Le Monde and ignored in the U.S.

Billionaires have captured much more of the global wealth since the onset of Covid and part of the increase in profits is from that enormous moneymaker, the streaming services, expected to generate $70 billion in revenue in 2021 with almost half of all of the global profits going to U.S. streamers.

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Meanwhile, the wealthiest 10 percent own 76 percent of the riches of the world while the bottom 50 percent own only 2 percent. It is the wealthy group that also leads in the destruction of the world through the carbon emissions that sustain its extravagant lifestyle. The most unequal level of emissions being in North America where the same 10 percent are responsible for approximately 75 percent of the pollution that is killing the Earth, while the bottom 50 percent are responsible for only about 10 percent of emissions.

The need to produce constant weekly product to match streaming competitors reached a level of frenzy this year to the point where the pressure put on industry workers resulted in even a traditionally sweetheart union like the IATSE sanctioning a strike. In addition, movie producer and star Alec Baldwin shot a camerawoman who was a IATSE activist, possibly because of the hiring of props and arms personnel with little or no experience in order to hasten production.

Stories of the lust for profit

Three parables illustrate the nature of this profit lust, heightened by the persistent presence of the virus, which has once again accentuated the drive to streaming.

The first story involves what used to be what Theodor Adorno termed “a mark of suffering,” now reduced to simple branding as the level of daily commodification also reaches new heights. Netflix’s reality series Coming Out Colton pretends to be the painful story of Colton Underwood, the NFL linebacker turned star of ABC’s The Bachelor – a heterosexual Cinderella fantasy which two seasons ago starred Colton as the prince.

Colton acknowledged, after the fact, that he is gay, and thus that the whole season, and perhaps the whole idea of the show, was a farce. In the Netflix series, Colton “comes out” to his parents but does it on-camera in a way that is, rather than an authentic moment, just a step in his further enlistment under the rubric of the star-making machine.

The most cynical aspect of the show though involves the use of the series by Netflix to take a swipe at one of the biggest moneymakers of its streaming rival Disney, which owns ABC where The Bachelor has been one of its major hits. The pain of the homosexual experience and the joy of its normalization thus both take a back seat to personal aggrandizement and industry competition. Netflix is using the documentary to attempt to show up the populist simplicity of the network while calling attention to its own supposed sophistication, while actually simply showing the cutthroat nature of the business.

The second revelation also involves Disney, which recently hired Geoff Morrell as the new guardian of its image and public relations. The Disney family brand has been built on ferociously concealing any of the contradictions that arise in the entertainment industry, with the former guardian Zenia Mucha nicknamed “mother crocodile” and “director of revenge.”

Morrell, her replacement, is currently working with British Petroleum, trying to burnish its image after the Deepwater Horizon spill which devastated the Louisiana Gulf Coast environment and economy. His previous position was as Pentagon Press Secretary in charge of promoting and putting a smiling face on the illegal, unlawful and murderous U.S. invasion of Iraq.

This hiring thus casts in concrete the military-industrial-entertainment complex, with Morrell now keeping the Disney skeletons in the closet just as he has done for the polluter BP and the Pentagon war criminals. With an ex-Pentagon employee now fronting for Disney, it’s difficult not to compare the way the U.S. dominates the streaming industry with the way it dominates the weapons – or rather war – industry with the U.S. defense budget greater than that of the next 11 countries combined. And the problem is China?!

The third item shows up the lie, perpetuated by both the Obama and Trump presidencies, that the industrial economy is returning to the West. Since the announcement of the Disney Plus streaming service, that is the move of entertainment to a symbolic, virtual or digital economy, the company has generated more worth on the stock market than Ford or General Motors, the former engines of the U.S. growth.

Is there hope within this bleak news? Yes, indubitably, there were a number of series this year which rose above their labels and companies and either struck blows aimed at illuminating social problems – my Top 20 – or with supreme competence told compelling stories in serial form – my 10 honorable mentions.

I also mention those who rose – or rather sunk – to the level of 5 worst with a bonus wurst. All of the series mentioned are culled from the 135 series I watched this year, from 13 countries, spanning the globe to find those gems which contradict the general trend towards ever more meaningless and more frenzied frivolity and fiddling, while the planet burns or is consumed in a either a nuclear holocaust or a viral apocalypse.

Top 20

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Dopesick/The Crime of the CenturyDopesick, the fictional series, documents the spread of Oxycontin in the Appalachian population, a group of workers that will become redundant as coal disappears and are now consigned to death by overdose. Michael Keaton is particularly effective as a country doctor who could have become a Disney-type “wise old salt” but who instead undergoes a painful metamorphosis. Meanwhile, two dogged state prosecutors attempt to sound the alarm while the Sackler scion first pushes the drug and in a final cowardly act attempts to remove the family wealth from any financial liability.

Alex Gibney’s two-part doc, on the creation in pharmaceutical labs of Oxycontin and its even more deadly cousin Fentanyl, follows with almost fictional intensity the two creators as they market their deadly product, concerned only with their own profit margins.

Goliath Season 4 – The last season for this series, about an alcoholic but crusading lawyer played impeccably by Billy Bob Thornton. It’s short on the personal peccadillos of the character, which became a drag in seasons 2 and 3, and long on his struggle to bring a drug company again in the Sackler/Purdue Pharma vein to task. David E. Kelly’s trademark courtroom reversals and heroics here are in the service of proving that the drug company was not in the business of easing pain but rather, as Thornton’s lawyer claims, in the much more profitable business of “promoting addiction.”  

The White Lotus – The pilot of this series about privileged tourists lavishing and lording it over still-colonized Hawaiian natives was the best hour of television this season. It featured a pregnant worker in the hotel forced to give birth in a back office because she was afraid to leave her job for fear of being fired, while a honeymoon couple complain about not getting the best suite. There was never anything as powerful as the first hour, but Mike White’s HBO series still unerringly kept the focus on race and class disparities in a way that may force other series to foreground these tensions and that showed up series (eg Nine Perfect Strangers) that didn’t.

 Thin ice Yellow Bird Entertainment AB 1

Thin Ice, battle for the Arctic 

Thin Ice – This Swedish series, available on Amazon Prime, set at a climate conference in Greenland, was the best political thriller of the year. It centers on the exploitation of the Arctic as a way of profiting from global warming. The series cannily encompasses the indigenous question in Greenland, Danish profiting from its control over the land mass, and Russian, U.S. and Nordic jockeying for position to mine the area and control its seaways. The series initially focuses on Russia as the threat to Arctic harmony, but by the end works its way around to the greater threat as we recall Donald Trump’s offer to “just buy Greenland.”

Tandav – This Indian series from Amazon, unlike fluff like Mira Nair’s Netflix outing A Suitable Boy, begins with a farmers’ strike in Delhi at the moment when farmers were actually in the street protesting the Indian premier Modi’s attempt to make their life more onerous, so they would collapse and be absorbed by Indian agribusiness. The police – two roly-poly seemingly comic figures – then massacre the demonstrators while in the upper echelons of Indian society a palace coup brings a conniving son to power. It’s a critique of Modi-style neoliberalism that was rivalled in the film department by Netflix’s equally vicious The White Tiger.  

Pros and Cons – This Danish series, available on Amazon Prime, follows the exploits of two scam artists, Eric and Nina, who give up the game and instead go straight, only to find that their jobs either pay little or involve necessary sexual liaisons to get ahead. Overwhelmed with the daily pressure of making ends meet, they decide to return to scamming as the only way to partake of any of the wealth that they see all around them. It’s as good a representation of the desperation of the Western capitalist working class as television allows, and a nicely done series of reversals as they strike pharmaceutical and cosmetics companies who are in the business themselves of scamming their customers.

Wanted/The Unusual Suspects – Two female revenge series from Australia, the first available on Netflix, the second on Hulu. Wanted is a more advanced Thelma and Louise which emphasizes the class differences between two women on the run and the patriarchal web they are snared in as they are pursued by drug kingpins and corrupt cops. The second focuses on the high-end relationships between gated community privileged wives and their maids, as the two discover they have more in common then they think – both are left high and dry by men who cheat them. The Unusual Suspects is also revealing about how much of the contemporary landscape is simply an advanced Ponzi scheme, not just fraying at the edges but collapsing at the centre.  

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Germinal in the time of Striketober 

Germinal – In this year of Striketober and of Starbucks and Amazon unionizing, this French series, available on Amazon Prime, masterfully refashions Zola’s quintessential tale of a mining strike in a way that casts a long shadow over today’s corporate landscape. The grey palette and earthily complex depiction of the strike, largely from the workers’ perspective, returns this series to what the French do best, a recounting of their own history in the line of the greatest of French series Un Village Française, and in direct contradiction to the airy transparency of their celebrated series Call My Agent (Ten Percent) and Spiral (Engrenage).

For Life – Season 2 of this ABC series began with a bang as Aaron Wallace won his release from prison where he, like many Black men, was incarcerated for a crime he did not commit. The show then falters as it focuses on the personal relationship between Wallace and his wife but picks up momentum and becomes a series for the ages as it incorporates two events. The first is the concealing of Covid deaths in prisons which turn, because of the inattention and rapid spread of the virus, from detention cells to slaughterhouses. The second has prosecutor Wallace pursuing and placing on trial a cop in a Black Lives Matter plot that illustrates that Serial TV can tackle current issues with urgency. This belies the usual use of the form to surround viewers with ever more hyper-mediatic and slick modes of endless referentiality. The reward for this trailblazing? The series was cancelled.

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Kate Winslet's character Mare, confronting capitalist devastation of a community

Mare of Easttown – Kate Winslet was astonishingly authentic in this HBO series about Winslet’s detective, tracking a murderer and also confronted with the decaying situation of an American rust-belt working class-community, left for dead in a Pennsylvania ex-mining and manufacturing town. The thickness of the web of relationships, both familial and communal, that Winslet’s character encounters suggests that those relationships have not been entirely torn asunder by the economic devastation wrecked on them by American capital’s flight to where it can extract lower wages. Jean Smart’s cynical but ultimately caring and supportive mother was another revelation of this series.   

The Labyrinth of Peace – This series is the proud product of German, Swiss and French public TV, now on Netflix. It charts the aftermath of World War II in Switzerland as a group of young Jewish refugees arrive in the country, welcomed in not for any authentic humanitarian purpose but because they will help ease the “public relations” problem of the country’s close connection through its “neutral” banking system with the Nazi hierarchy. Astounding contradictions abound in this stunning publicly financed answer to much private streaming mediocrity.

The Wonder Years – This ABC series, masterfully written by Saladin K. Patterson, while posing as a simple remake of the ’80s show effect expands the range of content the sitcom is capable of handling. Set in 1968, the show, about a Black middle-class family, is alive with all of the tensions of that era. The lead teenage boy’s father is a Black Nationalist, his brother is a soldier in the Vietnam War and his sister, is part debutante but also part budding Black Panther supporter who trades her SAT study manual for Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul On Ice. The pilot, skillfully directed by the ’80s series lead actor Fred Savage, has a black-white baseball feud interrupted by the murder of Martin Luther King in a crossing of the typical teen coming of age story with a tale about the dawning of political consciousness.

Clean Break –This Irish series, streaming on Acorn, methodically traces the increasing desperation and inability to alter his situation except through crime of a bankrupt car dealership owner whose upright, moralistic banker keeps tightening the screws on him and enjoying his misery. The small businessman’s bad decisions and the corruption of all those around him describe a world where class contradictions are so acute as to make life impossible for all but those few who control the purse strings.

Reservation Dogs – New Zealand Maori Taika Waititi’s fractured sense of humor and pathos, so evident in the wonderful exposure of the ignorance of xenophobia in Jojo Rabbit, guides this tale of four Native American teens on a res they are desperate to leave but that keeps calling them to stay through its own little miracles. A Sioux warrior who helped vanquish Custer keeps appearing to one of them, a local cop calls the soda machine dispensing sugar to sedate them “white man’s bullets,” and, in a stunning fantasy, the boy Bear’s mother imagines the local Anglo doctor as the master of an Indian plantation with her as one of the slaves. Small moments accumulate in this touching, tender and witty description of the pain and triumph of reservation life today.

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Snowpiercer rails against Elon Musks 

Snowpiercer Season 2 – Sophomore outing of this Bong Joon-ho (Parasite) series, about a train with the last survivors on earth after a climate catastrophe, which picks up after a revolution led by Daveed Diggs’ Detroit detective has overthrown the rigid class structure of the vehicle. Arriving to re-introduce capitalist discipline is Sean Bean’s Mr. Wilford, a neoliberal Richard Branson/Elon Musk type whose contempt for equality drips from every corner of his mouth onto his fur coat. The season shows the savagery that underlies the cult of the contemporary CEO and couldn’t be more relevant with Musk himself, who boasted about the coup in Bolivia to secure lithium for his company and was named Time magazine’s Man of the Year.

Bob Hearts Abishola Season 2/The Kominsky Method Season 3 – CBS mainstay Chuck Lorre’s best work in years is on these two series. The first continues to recount the middle-aged relationship of a sock executive and a Nigerian nurse in a way that expands on what in season one was an often too sit-com cliched presentation of the Nigerian world. In this season the loneliness of Kimi, played by series co-creator Gina Yashere, Abishola’s best friend, in a white world not of her making, comes touchingly to the forefront. The last season of The Kominsky Method, a sit-com about aging, is fittingly about death as two characters come to an end and as Michael Douglas’ acting coach struggles with the finality of life in a way that is still often achingly funny.

Home Before Dark Season 2 – This series about a pre-teen crusading journalist in its sophomore outing has Hilde tackling a company that has for years polluted her Washington state town and that affects her relationship with her grandfather directly. In this moment of the battle to keep Julian Assange from being turned over to the blindness of U.S. justice for the crime of revealing the empire’s secrets, this series is again a refreshing fictional reminder of what journalism can be. It is also a riposte to Apple’s mammoth-budget celebration of the banality of the form in The Morning Show.

Back to life Season 2 – Second season of this Daisy (Episodes) Haggard BBC series, streaming on Showtime, has Mimi, having returned from prison, this time pursued by the sadistic police chief who is the father of the friend she unwittingly victimized. The show covers ground initially mapped out on the Sundance series Rectify but with Haggard’s humor intact as she battles to be recognized as someone who has paid her debt in an unforgiving and narrow-minded society.

Bitter Daisies – The second season of this Netflix series about a woman fighting back and trying to expose the systematic male power and brutality of a Galician town in Spain culminates in an Eyes Wide Shut “party” that results in a final revenge for multiple young and underage women exploited in a Ghislaine Maxwell/Jeffrey Epstein mode. Season two does partly show a voyeuristic “pleasure” in this forced copulation but its sharper edge still echoes forcefully. In so doing it points out how another Spanish Netflix hit Money Heist, which began on Spanish TV with so much potential, has in the initial episodes of its final season substituted an ever-accelerating series of ever more meaningless shocks for what was initially a populist fantasy about returning wealth to the people.  

C.B. Strike – The heart of this series, based on the J. K. Rowling novels, is the relationship between the hobbling detective Strike and his one-time secretary, now partner, Robin. The intrigues, often involving the crimes of state officials or wealthy families, take a back seat in the series to Robin’s slow and painful coming to grips with the realization that the comfortable life offered to her by her corporate partner and soon-to-be husband does not make her happy. This lifestyle of the rich and privileged begins to exact more and more a burden on her as the series progresses and as she begins to question its value. A quandary that those still fortunate enough to have a job find themselves in today.  

The Chair – Sandra Oh, the put-upon government agent in Killing Eve, is even more harried here as the newly appointed chair of a liberal arts English department that is, like most liberal arts disciplines, left for dead, supplanted by technical and business programs. The focus here is more on “woke” student culture and its challenge to aging professors, but the highlight of the series is an appearance by David Duchovny as himself, playing an arrogant Hollywood “author” who supposes that academia is now simply another form of entertainment. It suggests that the neoliberalizing of the university has in fact resulted in it becoming just another receptacle for the detritus of pop culture.  

Honourable Mentions

Comfortable as opposed to challenging TV but nevertheless worth a look:

Kung Fu – Particularly strong in this CW martial arts series, streaming on HBO Max, was episode 5 which dealt with Asian bashing in the wake of Trump’s Chinese COVID panic. The final moment where the traditionally conservative mother and restaurant owner is converted to activism, offering herself up to be arrested to save an African-American protestor, has a particular frisson.

Big Sky – The first half of this David E. Kelly ABC series was a stunning reversal of the usual powerlessness of the serial killer plot, with combinations of women of mixed races and sexual orientations fighting back. The second arc, involving the decaying head of a Montana ranch, was also powerful but by the second season the show had fallen into a more simplified “twisty” tale that moved the series from groundbreaking to comfort TV, from a challenging series to one that is a guilty pleasure.  

Burden of Truth Season 4 – A revival for this Canadian series (streaming on Hulu) as former corporate lawyer Joanna defends a Native American woman who wages a lone battle against a mining company which plans to lay waste the town as her fellows urge her to take the money and run. The indigenous element enlivens multiple plot lines on the series and gives it its raison d’être.

Resident Alien – An alien apocalypse comedy set in small-town Colorado, streaming on YouTube, where the most endearing relationship is between the alien doctor (Firefly’s Alan Tudyk), sent to destroy the earth, and his Native American nurse/office administrator who teaches him what it means to be human, or rather, that all humans are not evil.

WandaVision – Most inventive Marvel series, streaming on Disney Plus, with the whole history of the sit com encompassed in its several episodes, a marvel of set design that still could have resounded more if it had increased the emphasis on the eerie emptiness of the form.

The Vampires of Midland – Russian Dracula series, available on Vimeo, that rather than focus on the decadence of the genre in the now departed Anne Rice Lestat mode, instead, in a very Russian manner, centers on the warmth of all generations of a vampire family which has ceased feasting on humans, but which is now prey to a predatory mercantile world surrounding them.

The Last Socialist ArtefactThe Music Man meets Eisenstein’s Strike in this Croatian series, streaming on the French service Salto, about two bumbling “entrepreneurs” who attempt to restore a factory and a town long-since given up for dead as part of the de-industrialization of Eastern Europe.

Biohackers Season 2 – The waters muddy a bit in this second outing for the Netflix German series, initially exploring the underside of biogenetic engineering with last season’s scientist/professor/villainess enlisted by Mia, the student who took her down, against an even more powerful and ruthless foe, the private financier of a pharmaceutical empire.

The Upshaws – This Netflix series is a refreshing throwback to Black working-class sitcoms like Sanford and Son and very alive with the self-deprecating but sustaining humor of its lead couple, a mechanic and a nurse battling to better themselves.

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We are all The Walking Dead

The Walking Dead Season 11 – Dynamite action opening of this last season of the perennial cable ratings leader has the newly returned Maggie leading a raid for supplies in an underground lair of the sleeping dead who, of course, waken. Final seasons, let alone an 11th season, are difficult to sustain (just ask the creators of the overblown last season of Game of Thrones) but this one does it with its perpetual focus on the characters even as we watch successive invasions of oxy and fentanyl plus COVID and its variants turn hollowed out Western “democracies” into zombie apocalypses that each day make the show less of a fantasy and more of a documentary.

The 5 Worst Series

Rutherford Falls – Comedy which gets the set-up completely wrong as Ed Helms (a little bit of him went a long way on The Office) instead of being the Anglo oppressor of the Native American community becomes instead their defender. A chance for first rate satire muffed and turned into ridiculous sentimentality.

Bloodlands – Psychotically reactionary BBC tripe from the network which brought you the equally conservative The Bodyguard and Line of Duty. What starts out as a twisty mystery, circles back on itself and moves insufferably to a cynical conclusion which poses as “ambiguous.” Equally reprehensible was the BBC’s Time which regurgitated the worst prison cliches about guards who are victims of vicious prisoners without a thought about the cruelty of the system itself.

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Nine Perfectly Boring Strangers

Nine Perfect Strangers – In light of the spotlighting of class tensions in the multi-character The White Lotus, this David E. Kelly series, which sets out to spoof retreat centres, seems instead a highly irrelevant, retrograde way of simply restoring a fixation on their privileged clientele.

ChapelwaiteThe Shining meets Moby Dick as Adrien Brody’s retired sea captain is haunted by and haunts a New England seafaring village. The floor of the old house his family inhabits creaks and so does the rickety plot as Steven King’s horror tales expose the wires that hold these rapidly aging contraptions together, especially in the light of the more socially relevant use of the genre by Jordan Peele (Get Out, Us, Candyman).  

Foundation – The neverending search for a sequel to Game of Thrones (Dune, Wheel of Time, the now-cancelled Game of Thrones prequel) reached a low point in this Apple + high-budget, low energy adaptation of the Isaac Asimov novel where the only hope to save an oligarchic inbred empire is by a technological fix, ala a new iteration of the iPhone or the iPad. Less than meets the eye, this pretentious series instead is more like 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Podcast.

Bonus Worst, or Liverwurst

On the Verge – The life, loves and angst of upper-middle-class women in LA with nothing much at stake. When the going gets tough, they go to the beach or Rodeo Drive. The only thing they are on the verge of is a shopping spree, in this series, streaming on Netflix, that is really just Much Ado About Spending.

From Black Radicalism to British Royals in Space
Tuesday, 05 October 2021 13:55

From Black Radicalism to British Royals in Space

Dennis Broe continues his series reviews. Image above: The Wonder Years

Now, at this point when most series TV has moved online and the autumn TV season is a thing of the past, a relic of - what did your parents used to call it? - oh yeah, network TV.  That quirky period of television history where three behemoths strode across the TV landscape forever locked in a death grip that mostly yielded copies of whatever was the latest hit on the other channel.

Yet another nail was driven into the coffin of this kind of traditional television, as opposed to boutique pay-by-subscription streaming television, at this year’s Emmys. For the first time, Netflix beat even pay cable TV favourite HBO by a margin of 44 to 19 – a score that would be labelled a rout on a football field.  

In addition, the streamers, supposedly free of network TV restrictions, have initiated what amounts to their own subscription drive, with each attempting to outdo the other in big special event series that also brand the company.

The greed and murderousness of drugs companies

There is Apple TV+’s celebration of the wonder of technology within a declining empire, in Isaac Asimov’s Sci-Fi-classic Foundation. There is the conservative company Comcast’s Peacock with a reactionary “War on Terror” overlay on Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol, and Amazon with a fourth and last season of David E. Kelly’s Goliath, which rightfully and insightfully attacks the greed and murderousness of drug companies while also nicely tilting the spotlight away from Jeff Bezos and Amazon.

All however fail to match the splendour of the remake of a network TV sitcom The Wonder Years on the terrestrial channel ABC (owned by Disney and part of its “diverse” family strategy), this time with a Black family and set in the revolutionary period of 1968.

It’s hard to overestimate the contribution this remake of the popular series, which began in the late 80s and also was set in the 60s, makes to a deepening and politicization of the standard sitcom. Don Cheadle’s voiceover narration begins the episode, as we watch the 12-year-old Dean Williams peddling home in a middle-class post-segregationist Black neighborhood recounting “the talk,” – not about sex, as might be the topic of the original series about a would-be white writer, but about how to behave in a Black boy’s first encounter with the police.

The somewhat nerdy Dean is positioned in typical Malcolm in the Middle sitcom mode between an athlete older brother and a beautiful popular debutante sister, feeling he will never live up to either. However, the twist here is that he is also positioned between them politically with his absent brother away in Vietnam and his sister becoming radicalized. A photo dropping out of her high school textbook shows her with a gun in a Patti Hearst pose and choosing Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice over her SAT prep manual, after a momentous event which rocks the family

Also emphasized is that “post-segregationist” America is no less racist. A wonderfully telling scene has Dean, and his Black and Jewish friends at the school water cooler – which a white girl and boy then avoid. In a nod to female emancipation, Dean is about to try to rescue his “crush,” the girl he adores, from an aggressive male bully when she instead grabs the bully around the neck.

The one stutter step in what is a near perfect 21-minute script by sitcom veteran Saladin K. Patterson, has Dean expressing anger not at the further disenfranchisement and futility of a political assassination, but at seeing his crush with another boy.

The sequence is scored to the 5th Dimension’s A Change Is Gonna Come and let’s hope the show will continue to integrate its social agenda with the typical coming-of-age story in a way that makes this series a new take on the old sitcom formula, surpassing the original and aided and abetted by the superb direction of the 80s Wonder Years’ child actor Fred Savage.

Goliath

Goliath

There is a lot of moralizing about the savage viciousness of drug companies such as Purdue Pharma, perpetuator of the opioid crisis, in the fourth and final season of Amazon’s Goliath. It’s all warranted of course, but also works to shine a better light on less murderous worker gaugers – such as the show’s parent company, which this week was revealed has carried its super-exploitation of its employees into Amazon’s space division as well.

Nevertheless, this is an extraordinary final season, that does a superb job of wrapping up this series about a self-destructive, alcoholic lawyer (Billy Bob Thornton in one of his greatest roles) who also happens to be a brilliant legal mind and who enjoys sticking it to corporations.

The series does not focus on the near-peddling of Oxycontin on an unwitting population – though a lead lawyer’s daughter has died from becoming addicted – but rather on an underreported aspect of the crisis. This is the way lawyers on both sides collude to fix a settlement price that amounts to mere peanuts for the companies involved and, in that way, prevent the most damning aspects of company policy from ever emerging in court.

Because there is so little government regulation – a main point that emerges is that the companies do their own drug testing which federal regulators then approve – corporations more than ever fear a jury trial where they will be dragged before the public. Billy, the recalcitrant lawyer, is appalled that over the last decades the amount of civil suits that have gone to court where companies must face the public, have declined from 20 to 2 percent.

Settlement and not airing the companies’ dirty linen is clearly a priority. There is an initial whistleblower who describes the way the drug companies championed sales to doctors, including a lavish musical production number extolling the drug’s painkilling virtues. But this is common knowledge and well covered, especially in Alex Gibney’s two-part series Crime of the Century, part one focusing on drug company creation of Oxycontin, and part two on the creation of its even more dangerous cousin Fentanyl.

What is unique here is the show’s late reveal that the company knew all along about the addictive quality, and embraced that aspect of the drug to further its profits, like the tobacco industry where the “smoking gun” was that the industry knew all along about the harmful and addictive aspects of cigarettes and yet cultivated those qualities.

The series was created by David E. Kelly, known for his stunning courtroom surprises. The finale does not disappoint, with Billy struck off the case and a stunning summary by a surprise witness sinking the Purdue Pharma and Sackler stand-in company. Billy says of Zax, in his most damning indictment of the drug companies as a whole, “He’s not in the pain relief business, he’s in the addiction business.”

The show also makes cinematic use of San Francisco, with its foggy, shadowy menacing exteriors where everyone is monitored, and with long takes on lavish corporate interiors that are the lush opposite of disjointed life on the streets. It references Rear Window, Chinatown and directly quotes from High Noon and 3:10 to Yuma, while also being an acting compendium with Billy Bob Thornton facing off in a multitude of scenes with his acting mentor Brue Dern.

Trap doors, hieroglyphs, cult villains and other shenanigans

Peacock’s splashy fall entry is an adaptation of Da Vinci Code author Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol which contains the Dan-Brown required trap doors, hieroglyphic imprints and shadowy cult villains, in this case the Masons. These old reliables work well enough, but there are two problems.

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Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon, pensive, bored or boring?

First, Comcast’s overlay of the now outmoded (if ever relevant) “War on Terror” on these shenanigans. The series opens with a reverse Abu Ghraib, with Muslims beating an American prisoner in a Turkish jail, which casts a pall over the series which is never quite dissipated and which feels like an extraneous and conservative sheen on the plot.

The second problem is the actor Ashley Zuckerman, playing  the young Robert Langdon, in a decision to turn back the clock. Brown is famous for his papier mâché characters who decode one symbol and then rush to the next. Even so, this Langdon is extraordinarily lifeless, affectless, boring, and without a trace of humor. At least Tom Hanks in the two films had a kind of smarmy Everyman morality that you could either love or hate, but here the writers completely abandon their job of fleshing out this lifeless Harvard quasi-archaeologist character, who makes Indiana Jones seem like Hamlet (or in the latest iteration, Lear).

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Royals in Space and a third-rate Loki in Foundation

The least successful and the silliest of the major series this Autumn is Apple TV+’s Foundation, based on the Isaac Asimov trilogy, about a future world where algorithms reign supreme. The empire has become a kind of cloned Dupont dynasty, inbred, self-perpetuating, decaying and under attack not by actual rebels who want to overthrow the imperial reign but by mathematicians who predict the empire will collapse and then move to try to preserve it and “civilization” against the self-destructive urges of its incestuously cloned leaders.

What better advertisement for Apple, a Silicon Valley company par excellence, which presents itself as outflanking government in both managing the future and preserving the integrity of its users? The phony British empire overlay – this is The Crown meets Star Trek, or Royals in Space – is heavy-handed, with the ultimate imperial villain, called “Empire,” scene-chewing as a kind of third-rate Loki.

A word about The Crown: “Yuck.” The success of this Emmy darling and British and U.S. fetish, with two actresses winning successive awards for playing various stages of the life of Queen Elizabeth, can probably best be explained as Elizabeth’s ‘grace under fire,” – the way she bears up under the fall of the British empire, as the American empire is itself in the process of crashing. Both sides of the Atlantic lionize an institution whose sell-by date has long since expired and which owns vast estates in the United Kingdom, while working-class tenancies deteriorate and homelessness abounds. The American royal equivalent is Bill Gates, who now owns large amounts of the country’s farmland.

The series does retain some of Asimov’s reverence for science, but often the special effects are gimmicky and leaden – it all adds up to a sort of 2001, A Space Odyssey: The Podcast. Finally, a 9/11-type terrorist attack on the empire with towers collapsing does not have the effect of say the pilot of Battlestar Galactica with everyone having to flee the planet. The main problem here is the ambivalence about preserving what amounts to a fascist empire, the same empire Apple is both building and helping to undercut as it moves itself to outflank all forms of government as it defines “civilization” not as culture but as algorithms.   

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

Cannes and Covid go together like a horse and carriage

Published in Films

Dennis Broe concludes his review of the Cannes Film Festival 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wealth-washing

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

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

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

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

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Colombian Protest in the 1990s and now in Amparo 

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

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

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

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

 
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Justin Chong and Alicia Vikander in the Immigrant Melodrama Blue Bayou

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

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Ukrainian Nationalists parading under the Swastika in Babi Yar 

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

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

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

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

Published in Films

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The best are well-intentioned but empty

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

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

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The Gravedigger’s Wife 

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

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

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

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

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

The worst are full of sound and fury

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

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A devilish Adam Driver and a bedevilled Marion Cotillard in Annette  

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

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

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

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

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Menacing Croatian patriarchy in Murina 

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

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

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

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

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

Published in Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published in Visual Arts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Social Expressionism to Abstract Expressionism and back again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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