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Noir And Capitalism: Class, Crime And International Film Noir.
Long Island University professor and cultural historian Dennis Bros discusses his new book, delving into the connection between the international working class and film noir in movies. And some thoughts about the absence of the working class on screen - but what about when they are actually in movies, or even have a say about the content of those films. Professor Broe has a fascinating wealth of information to share, particularly when it comes to the politics of film noir in movies, and those resistance currents in cinema across the globe. Film noir by definition has historically been a way that filmmakers have symbolically critiqued the global reign of corporate capitalism. And the accumulation of capital, where lives are smashed and dreams are brutally broken. Broe is also the author of Film Noir: American Workers And Post-War Hollywood.
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I'm Dennis Broe and today I will be doing a wrap-up of the Paris Film Festival, 10 days of cinema heaven in the capital of cinema that closed yesterday and that this year remarkable resembled a festival which has also just wrapped up, and which is practically the only reason to endure the big city summer heat and that is New York’s Asian Film Festival in its 11th season. The differences though are instructive.
The film that opened the Asian Film Festival, which is a popular cinema fest that also includes all kinds of exploitational films, was the aptly titled Vulgaria, from Hong Kong about a film about making low budget films and with no skimping on the exploitation. The Paris festival, in its 10th season, opened on the other hand with Hong Kong impresario Johnnie To’s La Vie sans principe, Life Without Principle, To’s account of the impact of the economic crisis on Hong Kong, a selection in last year’s Venice Film Fest which should open soon in the US. The Paris opening selection stressed that here, while there is always the requisite amount of diversions, cinema is, like everything else here, also about politics. To attended the opening and introduced the film by saying he detested the Hong Kong corporations for what they had done to his city, and indeed their emblems absolutely define the city’s skyline in the film’s opening scenes. The film is a multi-character description of the greed that drove this eruption of the crisis in Asia, with the greediest characters all eventually suffering sometimes grisly fates, while the three innocent characters or couples are saved or profit by divine intervention. Best moment of the film is the lovable every-gangster, Panther’s, induction by a former mob crony into the mysteries of the financial markets, where the buddy has made a killing. Panther becomes absorbed in the profit and loss charts, looks up and exclaims excitedly, realizing he has solved the secret of the market, “This is baccarat with graphs.”
There were many more films from Hong Kong, the honoree of the festival, including an opening all-night Johnnie To fest, a film I saw from 2009 called Accident, about a hit-man and woman team in that city who perform killings by designing Rube Goldberg devices that result in the death of the victim and who are finally undone by the mixture of chance and planning that has allowed them to succeed, a film whose somewhat spurious debate between manipulation and fate is sleight, and retros like the director’s cut of Tsui Hark’s 1980s, Dangerous Encouters of the 1st Kind, whose topic is really the end of the student armed resistance moment of the 70s, As martial arts spectacle in disguise with the young Hark cutting his teeth on material that will later be reworked for his wujia epics to come, it was mildly interesting, but as coherent take on the period of the student movement turning violent, as say Fassbinder’s The Third Generation or Wakamatsu’s United Red Army are, it was laughably simplistic with the student’s blowing up things because they felt like it, more David Letterman than Baader Meinhoff. Sort of, “Stupid Terrorist Tricks.”
I saw three of the ten films in the festival’s competition, including new Portuguese sensation Miguel Gomes’ Tabou, a beautiful black and white three part examination of that country’s colonial past that is perhaps the best Raul Ruiz film Raul Ruiz, whose films were also featured in this fest, never made. The film is extraordinary in its experiments with narrative thought ultimately ordinary in where it gets to about the crime of Portuguese colonialism. In continuing with the Asian theme, there was also the South Korean anime King of Pigs, also in the New York fest, which stretches the animated form this time in its evocation of the class brutality of secondary school and being a kind of cartoon version of If, with all the bullying of that film intact. The best of the three films was from Hungary Just the Wind, about the treatment of Roma in that country where beatings and outright slaughter have become more frequent. The film opens with news of one family having been massacred, and, as the three members of another Roma family get up to do their day follows each as they live under the shadow of the massacre. This subterranean terror is excellently described, but there are two problems; one, the film, which crosses the horror with the neo-realist films of say the Dardenne brothers in a way that evokes the great Let the Right One In, ends violently when in fact the psychological violence that it has recounted throughout takes a greater toll and makes the horror film ending seem superfluous and, two, it presents the Roma, gypsies, in a liberal fashion, only as oppressed people, so that their actual culture of opposition and at times outright anarchy which might be a tonic to today’s overly regulated world is diluted by their more bland representation as universal victims. Still, a very interesting film which demonstrates that the recent restitution of the fascist General Horty in Hungary is simply a code for authorizing hate crimes against the non-Magyar minorities.
Finally, to return to the Asian theme, perhaps the strongest film in the festival, was a restoration of the 1960 South Korean film The Servant, a film whose remake was shown two years ago at Cannes. Firstly, this is an unbelievably gorgeous restoration of the original, except for a second half reel that apparently was too fragile to touch, with impeccably precise blacks and whites. The film itself is fairly blunt, as is often the way in the Korean cinema, out and out class warfare between the factory girls in a Korean town and their haughty middle class professor, and his equally entitled children, who teaches them music and lords it over them. The film, made in a brief thawing in the 1960s before a more hardline government returned, is every bit the equal or better than the similarly titled Joseph Losey film, four years later, with Dirk Bogarde. It’s a very dark exploration, like Losey’s, of the hatred of one class for another and the other classes’ imbibing of that hatred and turning it against itself. Coming to an internet video rental site near you, but here in Paris the stunning print has appeared in one of, what seems like hundreds of, repertory theater’s still in existence, and can be seen in its pristine beauty with the rain glistening off the trees as the professor’s maid attempts both to kill him and commit suicide. Now that’s an Asian Film Festival.
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Bro on the World Film Beat
It's Cannestastic: The Simulacrum Abides
Hi, this is Broe on the World Film Beat, today with a Cannes Cleanup.
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I’m Dennis Broe and all the other critics have left the Croissette and are home by now, but I’ve remained. I’m here alone sweeping and cleaning up after the event. Actually I didn’t go to Cannes but I did follow it from Paris where the films in three of the four main competitions play in theaters immediately after the event, theaters which include the Forum des Image and Reflet Medicis. Cannes is the main feeding ground for foreign films that will both be featured in the Fall New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center and that will be released in the U.S. throughout the year.
The main competition, far from being Cannestastic, was judged a bit lackluster this year, so instead today I’m going to discuss films in competition in the series Un Certain Regard, which generally deals with more established directors who did not make the main competition, and Quinzaine de Realisateurs, or Fortnight of Directors, created the year after the Cannes shut-down in 1968 which was said to have helped provoke the student strikes, and which, in line with the moment of its formation, boasts a strong emphasis on socially relevant films by new or established directors.
I will be reviewing a number of the films and handing out my own awards: My Palme Rouge, the Red Palme, for the most politically engaging film; the Palme Verte, the green palme for a film that makes a worthy contribution to, in line with the color, sustaining the planet aesthetically and spiritually; and, finally, the Palme d’Or de Dinde, the Golden Turkey Palme, to the film which litters the planet with consumerist crap, if I may be so blunt, and it is my segment, so I may be.
Cannestroversy. There are always many controversies at Cannes and this year a major one involved possible jury tampering, as 4 of 6 films which received prizes in a jury presided over by the avowedly left Italian filmmaker Nanno Moretti were distributed by the company Le Pacte distributor of Moretti’s last film Habemus Papam (We Have a Pope), a not very good white washing of the power of the Catholic Church about a pope who is uncomfortable about accepting that power—and who bears no relationship to a certain contemporary pope who shall remain nameless but, who, because of his power grabbing, is now the subject of exposes collectively dubbed Vaticangate.
Tierry Fremaux director of Cannes called the Moretti jury’s choices an exercise of their “subjectivity,” as so it is in the film industry where objectivity and subjectivity are always merged, that is, both monetary reward and aesthetics exist side by side—and neither is ever exclusive of the other—and Cannes is the supreme moment of this merger. (There was a similar controversy in 2004 when the Quentin Tarantino jury awarded the top prize, the Palme d’Or to Michael Moore for Farenheit 911, and they shared the same distributor, the Weinstein Company. Fremaux, perhaps worried about a rerunning of these accusations, just prior to the festival, broke his policy of never revealing the jury’s individual decisions and tweeted, and this was the first fully twittered Cannes, that Tarantino had not voted for Moore’s film.)
If you’re looking for a weightier controversy, why not try this one. A habitual sponsor and very public presence at Cannes is Hewlitt Packard, which proudly proclaims that its printers help bring the Cannes Film Festival to life by printing out all of the Cannes signs and transforming the town, and whose wondrous technology also helps aid the Israeli occupation of the West Bank by facilitating the checkpoints and thus also helping “transform” West Bank towns into armed settlements and for which it is currently one of the companies that Palestinians have asked the world to blockade. Of course nothing of this is mentioned on the Riviera where there are as yet no checkpoints, though with the financial crisis and the anger at the banks increasing throughout Europe, that day may come.
First, an overall observation on the films programmed. An overwhelming topic that filmmakers have chosen to deal with, something that seems to be uppermost on their minds given the number and the breadth of films addressing this topic, is what Mike Davis has termed, in light of neo-liberal globalization, now hastened by the economic collapse, the “Planet of Slums.” Thus we have films which deal with this typography in a number of places in the world and which stand in these two competitions in contrast to the main competition where you have the other side, David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis, where that world is kept carefully outside the hermetically sealed limo of the Wall Street baron who, rather than prowling, parades down the same mean streets that these other directors describe from the inside.
Thus we have God’s Horses about the slums of Casablanca, a film which very much employs the argot of the streets, and is very attuned to that argot, recounting an actual incident where so called “terrorists” exploded bombs in a nightclub. The film is at pains to explain how the making of a “terrorist” is primarily the product of the pronounced class difference between those who explode the bombs who live in the most impoverished outskirts with one of the bombers seeing the inner city for the first time on his mission to destroy it, and those who live in the Eurocentric center where wealth accrues.
White Elephant, by renowned New Argentine Film director Pablo Trapero, traces the attempts by two priests, the older one played by Ricardo Darin of the Academy Award winning Secret in Her Eyes, to ameliorate the effects of gang war and the brutality of the police on those in the inner city of Buenos Aires. The film, though good intentioned, is Trapero still trying to work out how to incorporate blockbuster melodrama, here much toned down from his previous Carancho, with the earlier neo-realism of his two great films Crane World and El Bonaerense, with this film suffering from too much of the Belgium and Spanish priests and too little of the townspeople.
Not to be left out, the U.S. is featured, the Bronx to be exact, in Adam Leon’s Gimme the Loot, an again well-intentioned story of male-female, tag-team, graffiti artists whose goal is to leave their mark on Mr. Met at Citifield, which the female character, a very engaging Tashiana Washington, who you will be hearing more of, pointedly refuses to call by its corporate name and persists in calling Shea Stadium. The trajectory of a day when all their attempts to raise the money to bribe the guardian to get access to Mr. Met go wrong is meant to describe the frustrated life of many in this condition, but it is not quite inventive or authentic feeling and sounding enough to make its point resound.
More interesting is the first Columbian film in Cannes competition, La Playa DC, which traces the efforts of a teenage artist, Tomas, and his two brothers to make some kind of living in a place where the streets threaten to kill his younger brother, already addicted and imbibing the drugs he is supposed to be selling, and have already deadened the older brother. Tomas finds a way to use his creativity, expressed around designs to be chiseled into hair—they are all impressed with the US hair style called, The Koby (Go Lakers)—and the film links the family’s tragedy ultimately to the death of their father at the hands of paramilitaries, in a way which suggests that the fascist militarization of the country, supported in the North as the US/Columbia War on Drugs, acts in concert with the poverty to limit its people.
Finally, we have the Algerian street scene in Repenti, which details the fate of a Muslim sect member who has committed acts of violence and who is promised redemption if he reneges on the struggle and becomes a Repenti, a repentant. Unfortunately the film is too little about the Repenti, whose character and past, accused of a bombing in which some in his village were killed, is too little examined. It instead becomes too much a kind of The Bedroom Window—middle class revenge posing as existential angst--with the introduction of a plot about a couple whose marriage is damaged by the group’s kidnapping of their daughter. The film in its middle class, more bourgie stand against terrorism also ends up validating the FLN in Algeria, the reigning powers that be, which have just been accused of rigging the last election.
Down a weirder path tread two widely different, yet in the end maybe not so different, looks at historical figures; Renoir, about the last moments of the father’s life and the moment of the sons’ becoming a director, and, Japanese director Koji Wakamatsu’s, John Milius turn in examining the quest of the militarist writer Michima’s suicide over not being able to lead Japan back to its imperial days by restoring the emperor in 11/25 The Day Mishima Chose His Own Fate. The Renoir film is a British genre, the heritage film—you know all those stolid upright Brit’s who serve the empire with tight upper lip presented in misty Merchant/Ivory shots—transplanted to France, with the heritage in this case the extreme one of the father being the greatest French painter of the 19th century and the son the greatest French director.
Since it’s a French heritage film though, it’s heritage with, as the producers urge in Sullivan’s Travels, a little bit of sex, in this case in the form of the nymph-model who Renoir pere paints, nude of course, and Renoir fils falls for. The film touches on fascinating subjects such as the continuity/opposition of painting/cinema in the history of visual imagery but its heart is still in tasteful bodice ripping and in the end it does not disturb the basic mission of the heritage film which is to clean up the past and make it safe for consumption.
An oddly similar cleanup occurs in Wakamatsu’s Mishima, the director and his subject here being a meeting of one of Japan’s most left directors, participant in the student movement and for a while in the subsequent Red Army, and one of its most right wing ideologues, the renowned writer, subject of a Paul Schrader earlier biopic, whose organization of a right wing band to rearm the military Wakamatsu wonderfully situates in the context of the student protests of the late 1960s, but then relates to the equally distorted left violence of the Red Army, akin to the Weathermen in the US, in a way that, especially in the suicide sequence, seems to negate Mishima’s own brand of craziness and flatten it out.
And now the Palmes, last first. Honorable mention to Pablo Lorain’s No, the third and concluding part of the Chilean director’s Pinochet trilogy, which includes perhaps the finest description of the ways fascism penetrates working class culture in Tony Manero and a second film just released in the US Post-Mortem. No is about the plebiscite that Pinochet authorized in 1988 in which the choices were yes Pinochet or No, no one, and Pinochet lost.
The film might have been a riveting story of the struggle to bring democracy back to Chile and it does not skimp on that aspect of the story, but it is much smarter, and instead focuses on the electoral campaign itself with Gale Garcia Bernal’s advertising assistant for the No opposing his boss, played by Lorain perennial Alfredo Castro, who played Tony Manero, and with both involved in selling candidates just as they sell any other product. It is Lorain’s thesis that the moment of overthrowing Pinochet was also the moment of the triumph of a kind of consumerism that in the end may be far more pernicious. The eerie moment of the triumph will echo loudly with anyone who remembers the giddiness at the moment of Obama’s triumph and the capitulation which to wax Shakespearean about it, followed hard upon as the day the night.
Green Palmare, 2nd place, to Senegalese director Mossa Toure’s Pirouge, a very quiet, very beautiful, very desperate film about Africans from Senegal making a contemporary boat journey to land in Europe that is compared to a kind of Atlantic crossing, recalling the slave journey of their African forebears, with the journey in the present provoked because the country’s natural resources, on the coast in Senegal it is fishing, have been decimated by the Europeans. Along the way, in this journey of a group in an open motor boat, the great sea sagas are recalled, including Melville’s “Benito Cereno,” where literally two ships pass, in this case another vessel like theirs where the motor has died and those aboard will not make it, a kind of eerie foreshadowing of what may happen to them. The ending, their reception in Europe, is heartbreaking and is also, in its very quiet protest and in the way it emphasizes the uncommon dignity of the main character, just right.
Palme Rose, 1st prize, Gangs of Wasseypur. What can you say about a nearly five-and-a-half-hour Indian gangster film that manages to innovatively revive the genre, not least by using it as a vehicle for outlining a history of the political economy of the country since before Independence in 1941, other than, “Bring it on.” So, bring it on. Here’s hoping for a US release of this extraordinary film that is a bridge between the popular melodrama of Bollywood and the more interior sagas of the Indian Independent cinema; think Scorsese, and you will not be far off, especially since the narrator’s continual passages about the overall exploitation of the country and the way the gang’s manipulate that exploitation and the attention paid to how their moneymaking schemes work recalls the wonderful first half of Casino, about the political economy of Vegas.
Which is not to say that there are not brilliant Tarantino touches, such as the long, hilarious discussion about what the real name of the one of the gangsters who calls himself Definite is (It turns out his real name is Definite). I hope American audiences get a chance to see the film (it’s being released in India in two parts in Kill Bill fashion) because they will Definite(ly) enjoy it. Friendly hint, stay to the end, the last sequence is a Godfather-like ceremonial cleansing and also a comment, again, on the disappearing, or disappeared, nature of democracy, western and otherwise, as the bloodbath that becomes the way of resolving problems takes place on election day.
Finally, the Golden Turkey. For a film as embarrassing as it is bad, 7 Days in Havana. It must have sounded like a great idea to the fairly talented 7 directors, including Benecio del Toro and the aforementioned Pablo Trapero, who were each enlisted to make a short film that would supposedly catch the nature of an old-time, now disappearing, Havana. Unfortunately what it does instead, in sometimes painful ways, is project onto Havana old-time colonialism, which if the movie is any indication is in no way disappearing. The problem here isn’t the directors so much as the producers, the Saatchi Ad Agency, who famously also brought you Margaret Thatcher, here acting for its client, Havana Club, the rum makers.
Most of the films center on the tourist hotels and reinvigorate the colonial gaze on the inhabitants, the other whose life beyond the hotels only becomes interesting when it intersects with the guests. You will learn many interesting things from this film about Cuba, for example I did not know that, judging from the weight given to the topic by several of the episodes, much of the island is gay. The worst of the worst of the subgroup of these films, which distorts what is a legitimate problem in Cuba, is Gaspar Noe’s thoroughly racist and colonial “Ritual” which recounts the exorcising of a woman caught with another woman in a ceremony which takes place in the jungle complete with sound track drumbeats. The major sentiment in the film, though, is that Cuba is a place of beautiful bodies and that all questions pale behind the one of how, using the Saatchi-esque gaze of the camera, to convert these bodies into global commodities. Two thumbs down, way down, on this one.
That’s my very personal Cannes roundup.
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New Golden Age, Same as the Old Golden Age (And That’s a Good Thing)?
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I’m Dennis Broe and today I want to talk about what film distributor and promoter of Academy Award winning Best Picture The Artist, Harvey Weinstein recently termed the “New Golden Age” of French Cinema. What Harvey was referring to was new laws to protect against what the film industry terms piracy and what ordinary people now simply refer to as “downloading,” but he’s also talking about his candidate for heralding this new golden age, The Artist, which might instead be called “Sarkozyite entertainment,” just as Robin Wood and Andrew Britain once characterized the mindless Hollywood drivel of the early ‘80s, delivered in a ‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy’ mode, as “Reaganite entertainment.”
Thus, we have a new kind of French drivel which is particularly characterized by its kissing up to Hollywood and introjecting the Hollywood style in films like The Artist and the recently released Delicacy with the French Audrey Hepburn by way of Renee Zellwegger, Audrey Tatou, although she is Audrey Hepburn light, very light. So this is surely not the new Golden Age, but there were some other films, besides Delicacy, at the recent Lincoln Center Rendez-vous with French Cinema which do suggest that there may be a New Golden Age which has the qualities of the period of the 1930s, the first “Golden Age,” where French films achieved a kind of raw yet mythic quality, called poetic realism, as they commented on working class life and the moment of the Depression.
These new “Golden Age” films do what French films have often famously done, they question major phenomena in French life and the major one going on today is the interpenetration of the collective values of that society by Anglo-capitalism. No film does this better than 38 Witnesses by Lucas Delvaux, a major improvement over his last film Rapt about the kidnapping of an executive that really didn’t get going until the third act when the executive returned to face the contradictions of his life.
The new film uses the port of Le Havre, famous in French film and painting, and centers around what used to be called a tug boat captain, which refers to a golden age film with Jean Gabin called Remorques, who like many others is witness to a murder that he does not try to stop. The film is based on a novel based on the Kitty Genevose case in New York in 1964 and its point is that French society has now broken down in ways similar to America decades ago to where people stay locked in their safe apartments and containerized lives, like the eerie containers that come into the port seemingly with no human element needed. Very well done examination using the crime film but never veering into a false ‘who dunnit’ where the witness will come forward and neatly catch the criminal. The criminal element is in the society as a whole and what has become of it.
Also interesting is Smuggler’s Songs (Les Chants de Mandrin) a film about a French Robin Hood and his band of smugglers in pre-revolutionary France, guest starring Jean-Luc Nancy as the imprimeur, the printer, who publishes the poems and who has published revolutionary tracts today. The smugglers are pointedly a racially and class mixed band, including their Arab leader and a nobleman, a marquis, who aids the cause, suggesting as does the also interesting Low Life which deals with students and their intersection with immigrants, that the contemporary barricades are being manned (and womaned) in France by a polyglot band.
Best of all is Snows of Kilimajaro—by longtime French working class cinema stalwart Robert Guediguian whose films like Le Ville est tranquille, have often centered around Marsaille as does this one about the idea of what the French call retrait, of the retirement of a union man—suggesting that the bourgeois notion of retrait, is, as the word sounds, a retreat, but that for someone who is committed to changing a world that is shot full of inequality, retirement is not a retreat but a continuation of the struggle by helping those in the younger generation who must now make their way in an ever harsher world. This is a very wise film, in its own way a masterpiece, which puts Guediguian in the category of a Ken Loach and this is a blatant plug for it to get a U.S. release.
Also heads up to Louise Wimmer, a kind of Dardenne Brothers type film about a woman with no apartment who struggles to live, a sort of Rosetta with an oddly happy ending.
On the down side –there is Ici-bas (Here Below). In the cinema we’ve had many Joan of Arcs, Premingers’ Joan as politically persecuted, Dreyer’s and Bresson’s as spiritual maladroit, but here for the first time we have the quizzling Joan of Arc, betrayer of those who fought the Nazis.(She serves a higher God, her own desire.) Yes its fascist feminism, a fatuous fable about a nun who falls for a priest in the Resistance, then is betrayed by him—more horrible than heartrending, an example of the perverse left that is an active element of French films.
And finally, there is Gang Story whose title in French is Les Lyonnais, referring to a famous gang from that city in the ‘70s. Notice the great difference in the specificity of the titles, the American title a clear nod to the American and global market. The film manages to enlist every Hollywood gang cliché adding up to a kind of French cousin to its already clichéd cousin American Gangster, all bombast and predictable action with a revolting finale in which the one non-reactionary element of the genre, that there is honor among thieves, is struck down as the hero becomes a fink and the film smiles in agreement. This is a film that indeed belongs to the Sarkozyite Golden Age.
So we have two kinds of French Golden Age, one a false one that simply aids and abets global capital and is a cheerleader for its penetration into French life, and one, in the spirit of the Golden Age films of the ‘30s which thoroughly critiques this phenomenon.
Dennis Broe can be heard on WBAI Radio in New York and on the Pacifica Network on Arts Express Radio. He is the author of a Choice Outstanding Academic Book Film Noir, American Workers and Postwar Hollywood, and has written for Newsday, The Boston Phoenix, Social Justice and Framework, and Jump Cut.