The “Fight of the Century”: An orgy of wealth and profit

mayweather-signed-contract-main

By Joseph Santolan
6 May 2015

On Saturday, Floyd “Money” Mayweather Jr. and Manny “Pacman” Pacquiao boxed for twelve rounds in the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada. The bout had been billed as the “Fight of the Century.” At the end of the 36-minute fight, Mayweather defeated Pacquiao by unanimous decision by the three fight judges.

The fight was the subject of extravagant media hype. It was broadcast in the United States and many countries internationally by Pay-Per-View (PPV) television. Some poorer countries, such as the Philippines and Mexico, broadcast the bout without charge, subsidized by advertising revenue.

The figures involved in this one boxing match are mind-boggling.

The fight had a $300 million purse. Mayweather will make around $180 million while Pacquiao will pocket an estimated $120 million. But these figures pale before the total revenue that the fight generated.

The final figures have not yet been released, but the Wall Street Journalreported that Pay-Per-View industry executives have estimated there were three million paid viewers in the United States. HBO and Showtime charged viewers $99 to watch the fight in high definition and $89 for standard definition. Total PPV revenue in the United States is now estimated to be $300-$400 million.

But the money does not stop there. The fight brought in profits from ticket sales, hotel bookings, gambling, promotional merchandise and advertising. For the promoters and profiteers of the boxing and entertainment industries, the bout was a bonanza of over a billion dollars.

Ostentatious amounts of money oozed from every pore of the event. The shorts that Pacquiao wore in the ring displayed seven advertising logos that netted Pacquiao $2.5 million. A two-square-inch space on Pacquiao’s rear end cost Nike $416,000. Burger King paid $1 million to have their mascot walk in Mayweather’s entourage as he entered the arena, displacing the pop star Justin Bieber.

The bout was quite the fashionable to-do. Hedge fund managers and A-list actors and celebrities rubbed elbows as they posed for selfies. Many were there to be seen and not necessarily to watch the match. They spent a total of $80 million on the 16,000 tickets available for the event.

Ringside tickets sold for $250,000. About six rows back could cost anywhere from $85,000 to $100,000.

According to ABC News, the fight was “one of the most exclusive boxing events the destination has ever hosted. Only 500 tickets were offered to the public, and they sold in seconds.” To get your hands on a ticket you needed connections.

Celebrities of Hollywood and the music industry were there in droves. Music moguls Jay-Z and Beyoncé were in attendance as was billionaire heiress Paris Hilton, Robert de Niro and Michael Jordan, Clint Eastwood and Nicki Minaj, and real estate billionaire Donald Trump.

Long-time Democratic Party operative and charlatan purveyor of identity politics, Rev. Jesse Jackson, was seated in a section that averaged at least $10,000 per ticket. There were so many celebrities that many could not find space on the floor level and had to sit among the ordinary folks in the $4,000 nosebleed seats.

The multimillionaires and billionaires flew to Las Vegas in their private jets for the fight and turned McCarran International Airport into a parking lot. Pictures posted on Instragram and Twitter show the tarmac covered in hundreds of Gulf Streams and Cessnas and Lears, the exclusive air transit of the extremely wealthy. The tarmac was so crowded that McCarran had to temporarily close the terminal. Forty members of the National Guard were brought in to ensure that no one would disturb the arrival and departure of passengers for the fight.

Some late arrivals jetted in for the fight from the Kentucky Derby horse race. The Derby ran at 6:26 pm Eastern time. According to the Washington Post, they raced in police-escorted limousines from Millionaire’s Row at Churchill Downs where they had just watched a horse named American Pharaoh win at the races, to the airport. From there they boarded private jets, which flew them to Las Vegas to round out the day with the Pacquiao-Mayweather fight.

Less prominently featured in the press, but very much in attendance, were the billionaire managers of the world’s leading hedge funds. The Pacquiao-Mayweather bout had been scheduled to take place the day before the opening of the annual SkyBridge Alternatives (SALT) convention in Las Vegas.

The SALT convention is an annual gathering of around 2,000 executives from the world’s largest hedge fund companies that collectively control the majority of the planet’s wealth. This year’s convention has a speakers list that includes former head of the Federal Reserve Ben Bernanke, former head of the NSA Keith Alexander, former US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, former director of the CIA David Petraeus, and former secretary of State Condoleeza Rice. The former prime ministers of Australia and Greece, Julia Gillard and George Papandreou, were among dozens of other world leaders and CEOs.

What better way was there to kick off a convention of the financial aristocracy and its war criminals than watching a high-ticket gladiator bout?

Then there was the money to be made off gambling. Early estimates predicted over that $80 million would be placed in bets in Nevada alone. Celebrities Mark Wahlberg and P. Diddy announced to television crews that they had each bet $250,000 on the fight.

Many working people gathered on Saturday night in homes with a friend who happened to have cable or DirectTV, and they often pooled the money to pay the $100 cost for the pay-per-view. But then pay-per-view broke. Cable companies across the country, unable to meet the demand, displayed blank screens. HBO and Showtime delayed the bout as cable companies tried to restore service. Most customers were denied refunds.

Todd DuBoef, the president of fight promoter Top Rank Inc., threatened to carry out legal action against video-sharing companies and individuals who used smartphone apps and other technology to watch the fight for free.

Nevertheless, the promoters of the fight are understandably pleased with the result. The inconclusive character of the bout lays open the possibility of the “rematch of the century,” and there are again immense sums of money to be made.

The entire farcical affair was the athletic equivalent of a derivatives swap. Obscene amounts of profit were extracted from a spectacle that had little connection to any real event.

Professional sports have always labored under the deadening influence of too much money and the rapacious pursuit of profit. Nowhere has this been more evident than in boxing, with its intimate connections with casinos, gambling and organized crime. The competitors come from the most oppressed layers of society, and the vast majority have been exploited and then beaten to a pulp.

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2015/05/06/figh-m06.html

“Montage of Heck” captures the contradictions of Kurt Cobain — and the America that shaped him

Smells like doomed genius: 

Yes, it’s Courtney-approved, but this documentary is a moving and powerful portrait of Kurt Cobain’s America

Smells like doomed genius: "Montage of Heck" captures the contradictions of Kurt Cobain -- and the America that shaped him

“Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck” (Credit: Sundance Institute)

I remember coming to work on the morning Kurt Cobain was found dead, and feeling puzzled that a younger writer at our San Francisco alternative weekly – who would go on to become a prominent newspaper and magazine editor in New York – was so upset that she sat at her desk all day crying. I could psychoanalyze myself at Cobain-like depth, but the reasons I didn’t get it were basically stupid and defensive. Of course I knew Cobain’s music, and I understood that his death was a big story. But I was also deeply committed to my own disillusionment, to never being taken by surprise. I had already been through the first wave of punk rock, the worst years of AIDS, the deaths of a lot of people less famous than him. I would have rejected Cobain’s status as generational icon even more forcefully than he did – which, in retrospect, looks a lot like deep yearning, thinly wrapped in snobbery. His combination of suburban angst, drug addiction and mental-health issues was an old story, wasn’t it? Just another “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide,” a song David Bowie wrote in 1972. Nothing to cry about.

Fourteen years later, I was with my kids at a beachfront amusement park when my friend Laura Miller, Salon’s book critic, called to tell me that David Foster Wallace was dead. I got out of the roller coaster line to talk to her – Laura knew Wallace, but I didn’t – and one of the first things to swim into my brain, addled as it was by sunshine and a friend’s grief, was Kurt Cobain. At the time, I understood the connection as a personal commandment to have this experience, complete with all the Cobain-like and Wallace-like ironic introspection it might require; I took it as an edict not to insulate myself against the shared emotion, and potential shared meaning, of this moment of collective mourning. It took longer to see that the linkages between Cobain and Wallace go much deeper than that, and that many other people registered the connection in approximately the same way.

For many viewers of Brett Morgen’s extraordinary HBO documentary “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck,” the most fascinating and powerful elements of the film will be found in the intimate home videos shot by Cobain and Courtney Love in the early ‘90s, before and after their daughter Frances was born. (Frances Bean Cobain is an executive producer of the film, and both its remarkable depth and its limitations derive from the fact that it’s an authorized biography, made with the cooperation of Love, Cobain’s parents and various former friends and bandmates.) That footage is absolutely heartbreaking in its depiction of a loving, flawed, high-spirited and essentially normal young family, a long way from the drug-crazed rock-star fiends favored by the tabloids of that not-so-distant era. Yes, rock fans, you do get to see Courtney naked. Impressive as that is, it’s not half as much fun as hearing her ventriloquize baby Frances complaining that her dad’s band are self-indulgent whiners who aren’t as good as Guns N’ Roses. (Footnote for scholars: Cobain’s obsession with GnR frontman Axl Rose is fascinating, but ultimately aren’t they more alike than different?)

But I watched that amazing material with a sense that by that time the die had already been cast. Love and Cobain were famous and their baby, allegedly born addicted to heroin, was famous too. What they were “really like,” as human beings, was irrelevant. As long as they lived they were going to be famous rock ‘n’ roll fuckups, damaged symbols of a damaged generation. For someone with Cobain’s particular set of neuroses, ailments and vulnerabilities, not to mention his philosophical and aesthetic predilections, that might literally be a fate worse than death. I’m not saying that other outcomes, not involving a shotgun blast to the head, were not possible. But there was no easy or painless exit from the prison-house of celebrity available to Kurt Cobain, and he didn’t much like living in it.

Morgen’s title refers both to an extended audio collage Cobain once recorded on cassette tape – just one example of his explosive, unstoppable cultural output – and to the method of the film itself, which assembles an immense trove of public and private material to illustrate a life spent first in obscurity and then in the unbearable spotlight. He has Cobain’s famous notebooks full of lyrics, journal entries, cartoons and momentary observations, of course, but also home movies of his 3rd birthday party, a collection of family snapshots, recordings of early radio interviews and footage of the first Nirvana shows in Aberdeen or Olympia, with a few dozen people in attendance.

He interviews Wendy O’Connor, Cobain’s overly loquacious mother, Don Cobain, his monosyllabic father, and Tracy Marander, who was Cobain’s first serious girlfriend and the first woman he lived with. (He was a total deadbeat, from the sound of things, but Marander doesn’t seem to regret working for a living while he played guitar and watched TV. Here she is in a movie, all these years later.) Oh, and there’s music – a lot of it, the famous tracks and a bunch of lesser-known ones. You will indeed hear “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” in a number of versions and a variety of contexts – and when we finally get the actual Nirvana recording over the closing credits, well, I’m not saying I cried in grief and joy and anger but I’m not saying I didn’t.

Rather than trying to describe all these people who have lived on and gotten older, and who now find themselves sitting on their couches struggling to describe or explain a guy they used to know who became very famous and then died, I would say that “Montage of Heck” paints a bitter but compassionate portrait of the downscale white America that shaped Kurt Cobain. He was born in 1967, which surely felt more like 1957 in Aberdeen, Washington, than it did in the tumultuous climate of big cities and college towns. O’Connor says she remembers Aberdeen as a wonderful place to raise a family, and that her kids had a happy childhood. Not much later in the film we hear Cobain describe Aberdeen, in a recorded conversation with an old friend, as an “isolated hellhole” dominated by moralistic Reaganite conformity. You don’t get the feeling that teenage Kurt was an easy kid to live with, or someone who naturally made the best out of difficult circumstances. But his inarticulate sense that the society around him was fundamentally inauthentic, and his yearning to transform it or destroy it, molded one of the last and greatest voices of what Casey Kasem used to call the “rock era.”

Teenage alienation and rebellion is of course not a new phenomenon, and is not unique to the depressed lumber towns of the Pacific Northwest (although I imagine that lent it a particular coloration). In the animations Morgen’s team has created to illustrate Cobain’s audio montages, we witness the highly familiar quality of Cobain’s childhood and teen years: His parents were unhappy and got divorced, he smoked a lot of pot and had frustrating sexual experiences, he was an intelligent and creative kid who found school to be soul-deadening and found some release in loud music. There may be no comprehensible answer to the question of why he responded so keenly to these stimuli, which were applied with equal force to millions of other kids of the downward-trending ‘70s and ‘80s. From an early age, Kurt Cobain yearned to make memorable art, escape his surroundings and become famous, and from an early age he contemplated ending his life, with the kind of obsessive, repeated “jokes” that are impossible to gauge from the outside.

If Cobain and Wallace worked in different mediums and different registers, and emerged from different sectors of middle-class white suburbia – indeed, you can only call Cobain’s background “middle class” under the postwar convention that all white Americans who have jobs and cars belong to that class by definition – there is no mistaking the kinship of their unnaturally keen responses. They were 1960s babies who grew up amid Vietnam and Watergate and the gas crisis and Whip Inflation Now and Jimmy Carter in his cardigan talking about our “national malaise,” and who were teenagers and young adults as that malaise and turmoil turned to amnesia and denial and the suicidal, delusional counterrevolution of the Reagan years. America has not recovered from the cultural and political whiplash of those years and probably never will.

All of us who lived through that period bear the scars, and we have all tried to react to it and push forward as best we can. Of course Wallace is not the only important writer of their generation, nor is Cobain the only memorable singer-songwriter. But they are joined by the intensity of their response – “Nevermind” and “Infinite Jest” are highly singular works in totally different traditions, but I think they represent the same scale of achievement and possess a similar cultural resonance – and by the way they touched a deep well of passion, hunger and unease that transcended demographic or generational clichés. It’s by no means irrelevant that they were both white heterosexual men who were deeply aware of the problematic nature of the Great Man archetype, and committed to addressing that issue in their work and their private lives. And it’s certainly not irrelevant that they became overwhelmed by the vicious contradictions of fame in our era — or, to put it more simply, that they could not escape the private demons of mental illness and drug addiction and ended by killing themselves.

As I noted earlier, “Montage of Heck” was made with the cooperation of Courtney Love and several other relatives or intimate friends of Kurt Cobain. (The most prominent omission is Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl.) Among other things, that means the movie does not traffic in any of the pathological conspiracy theories around Cobain’s death, or indeed depict his death in any way. It may whitewash some details of Love and Cobain’s relationship – I wouldn’t know, and don’t especially care – and it certainly depicts the reporters who raked up dirt on the couple, especially Lynn Hirschberg of Vanity Fair, as unscrupulous vultures.

I would agree that the media’s vampirical obsession with the Kurt-and-Courtney story was not journalism’s finest hour, and that it reflected profound anxiety about the youth-culture moment they were seen to represent. But that’s too large a problem to unpack here; I think it’s best to take the Courtney-centric area of the film with a grain of salt and draw your own conclusions. Those are minor issues in a masterful and often deeply moving portrait of a volatile American genius, a portrait that goes far beyond one man, one family and one rain-sodden small town. It depicts the society that nurtured and fed that genius, and that made his unlikely creative explosion possible, as being the same environment that poisoned him — and suggests that the rise and fall were inextricably connected. Kurt Cobain was a canary in the coalmine, as was David Foster Wallace. You and I are still in it, and it’s getting harder to breathe.

“Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck” opens this week in Los Angeles, New York and Seattle, and then premieres May 4 on HBO.

 

http://www.salon.com/2015/04/23/smells_like_doomed_genius_montage_of_heck_captures_the_contradictions_of_kurt_cobain_and_the_america_that_shaped_him/?source=newsletter

Bill Maher’s bigoted atheism

His showdown with Fareed Zakaria shows how far he’s fallen

Bill Maher's bigoted atheism: His arrogant shtick is just as ugly as religious intolerance
Bill Maher (Credit: HBO/Janet Van Ham)

You know what you call someone who makes sweeping generalizations on billions of people based on the extreme actions of a few? A bigot. Bill Maher, for example, is a bigot. And if you’re a fan of his smug, dismissive shtick, you’re a bigot too.

On Friday’s “Real Time,” Maher, who has been openly atheist his whole career but has been increasingly vocal against organized religion in recent years, squared off against Fareed Zakaria, who gave a powerful rebuttal to Maher’s reiteration of the “Islam is the motherlode of bad ideas” assertion. “My problem with the way you approach it,” Zakaria said, “is I don’t think you’re going to reform a religion by telling 1.6 billion people — most of whom are just devout people who get some inspiration from that religion and go about their daily lives — I don’t think you’re going to change religion by saying your religion is the motherlode of bad ideas, it’s a terrible thing. Frankly, you’re going to make a lot of news for yourself and you’re going to get a lot of applause lines and joke lines.” Instead, he urged, “Push for reform with some sense of respect for the spiritual values.”And on behalf of Muslims, Christians, Jews and anybody else who prays to somebody sometimes, let me just say, thank you.

As the threats of terrorism and right-wing Christianity have risen in the past few years, Maher’s aggressive brand of atheism — also popularized by the likes of Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris — has gained a strong following among a certain type of self-professed intellectual. Maher has famously said, “Religion is dangerous because it allows human beings who don’t have all the answers to think that they do” — which is pretty funny, given the know-it-all arrogance of the anti-religion big leaguers like Maher himself. As Zakaria very eloquently pointed out, that stance has given Maher more power and reach than he’s ever had in his long career. But whatever you believe or don’t, if you’re selling blanket intolerance, you don’t get to call yourself one of the good guys. You shouldn’t even get to call yourself one of the smart ones.

I’m a Christian, which in my urban, media-centric world is basically equivalent to self-identifying as a hillbilly. It also means that I have to accept that I apply the same word to myself that a lot of hateful morons do. But on Sunday at my little neighborhood church, our priest delivered a sermon in which he said, “I can’t understand how in places like Indiana, people are using Christianity as an excuse to close their doors, when we should be welcoming to everyone.” Guess what? That’s faith too. I am also keenly aware that in other parts of the world, people are being murdered for a faith that I am privileged to practice openly and without fear. And anyone, anywhere, who is openly hateful to others for their religion is part of a culture that permits that kind of persecution to endure.

Here’s what I would like Bill Maher and his smug, self-righteous acolytes to understand. There are literally billions of individuals in this world who are not murderous, ignorant, superstitious, hatemongers, who also happen to practice a religion. Billions of people who I swear — to God — have no investment in forcing their beliefs on Bill Maher. Right here in the U.S., there are millions of my fellow Christians who are strongly committed to the ideals of the Constitution, and who don’t want to live in a theocracy any more than they do.

I recently had a conversation with an atheist friend who asked why, knowing all I do of the wrongs committed by the Catholic Church, disagreeing as strongly as I do with many of its positions on women’s rights, LGBT equality and reproductive justice, I continue to stay within it. And my reply was that this is where I feel I can do the most good. I am not a disinterested party. I’m a citizen of my church and I’m going to continue to demand better of it. I don’t, however, want to sell it to anybody else. You don’t have to believe in God — or however else you may define the concept of something else out there. I don’t have all the answers to life, the universe and everything; I’m just trying to get through this plane of existence in a manner that’s philosophically satisfying and guides me in the direction of not being a selfish jerk. That’s it. All I ask — all that many, many, many of us who practice their respective religions ask — is that you conduct yourself with respect and compassion and a spirit of coexistence, and we’ll do the same. I ask that you not make assumptions about the vast majority of the world’s population based on your own need to feel good about yourself and how smart you are. Like Zakaria says, you’re not going to bring about reform that way. And as Maher and his ilk prove, you don’t need a religion to be in the business of spreading hate.

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and the author of “Gimme Shelter: My Three Years Searching for the American Dream.” Follow her on Twitter: @embeedub.

 

http://www.salon.com/2015/04/13/bill_mahers_atheism_is_just_bigotry/?source=newsletter

Nimoy transformed the classic intellectual, self-questioning archetype…

 …into a dashing “Star Trek” action hero

How Leonard Nimoy made Spock an American Jewish icon
Leonard Nimoy as Spock on “Star Trek” (Credit: CBS)

I suspect I can speak for most American Jews when I say: Before I’d watched even a single episode of “Star Trek,” I knew about Leonard Nimoy.

Although there are plenty of Jews who have achieved fame and esteem in American culture, only a handful have their Jewishness explicitly intertwined with their larger cultural image. Much of the difference has to do with how frequently the celebrity in question alludes to his or her heritage within their body of work. This explains why, for instance, a comedian like Adam Sandler is widely identified as Jewish while Andrew Dice Clay is not, or how pitcher Sandy Koufax became famous as a “Jewish athlete” after skipping Game 1 of the 1965 World Series to observe Yom Kippur, while wide receiver Julian Edelman’s Hebraic heritage has remained more obscure.

With this context in mind, it becomes much easier to understand how Nimoy became an iconic figure in the American Jewish community. Take Nimoy’s explanation of the origin of the famous Vulcan salute, courtesy of a 2000 interview with the Baltimore Sun: “In the [Jewish] blessing, the Kohanim (a high priest of a Hebrew tribe) makes the gesture with both hands, and it struck me as a very magical and mystical moment. I taught myself how to do it without even knowing what it meant, and later I inserted it into ‘Star Trek.’”

Nimoy’s public celebration of his own Jewishness extends far beyond this literal gesture. He has openly discussed experiencing anti-Semitism in early-20th century Boston,speaking Yiddish to his Ukrainian grandparents, and pursuing an acting career in large part due to his Jewish heritage. “I became an actor, I’m convinced, because I found a home in a play about a Jewish family just like mine,” Nimoy told Abigail Pogrebin in “Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish.” “Clifford Odets’s ‘Awake and Sing.’ I was seventeen years old, cast in this local production, with some pretty good amateur and semiprofessional actors, playing this teenage kid in this Jewish family that was so much like mine it was amazing.”



Significantly, Nimoy did not disregard his Jewishness after becoming a star. Even after his depiction of Dr. Spock became famous throughout the world, Nimoy continued to actively participate in Jewish causes, from fighting to preserve the Yiddish language and narrating a documentary about Hasidic Jews to publishing a Kabbalah-inspired book of photography, The Shekhina Project, which explored “the feminine essence of God.” He even called for peace in Israel by drawing on the mythology from “Star Trek,” recalling an episode in which “two men, half black, half white, are the last survivors of their peoples who have been at war with each other for thousands of years, yet the Enterprise crew could find no differences separating these two raging men.” The message, he wisely intuited, was that “assigning blame over all other priorities is self-defeating. Myth can be a snare. The two sides need our help to evade the snare and search for a way to compromise.”

As we pay our respects to Nimoy’s life and legacy, his status as an American Jewish icon is important in two ways. The first, and by far most pressing, is socio-political: As anti-Semitism continues to rise in American colleges and throughout the world at large, it is important to acknowledge beloved cultural figures who not only came from a Jewish background, but who allowed their heritage to influence their work and continued to participate in Jewish causes throughout their lives. When you consider the frequency with which American Jews will either downplay their Jewishness (e.g., Andy Samberg) or primarily use it as grounds for cracking jokes at the expense of Jews (e.g., Matt Stone of “South Park”), Nimoy’s legacy as an outspokenly pro-Jewish Jew is particularly meaningful right now.

In addition to this, however, there is the simple fact that Nimoy presented American Jews with an archetype that was at once fresh and traditional. The trope of the intellectual, self-questioning Jew has been around for as long as there have been Chosen People, and yet Nimoy managed to transmogrify that character into something exotic and adventurous. Nimoy’s Mr. Spock was a creature driven by logic and a thirst for knowledge, yes, but he was also an action hero and idealist when circumstances demanded it. For the countless Jews who, like me, grew up as nerds and social outcasts, it was always inspiring to see a famous Jewish actor play a character who was at once so much like us and yet flung far enough across the universe to allow us temporary escape from our realities. This may not be the most topically relevant of Nimoy’s legacies, but my guess is that it will be his most lasting as long as there are Jewish children who yearn to learn more, whether by turning inward into their own heritage or casting their gaze upon the distant stars.

Matthew Rozsa is a Ph.D. student in history at Lehigh University as well as a political columnist. His editorials have been published in “The Morning Call,” “The Express-Times,” “The Newark Star-Ledger,” “The Baltimore Sun,” and various college newspapers and blogs. He actively encourages people to reach out to him at matt.rozsa@gmail.com

 

German television series Tannbach and German postwar history

By Sybille Fuchs
9 February 2015

The three-part series Tannbach—Fate of a Village broadcast by ZDF [German public-service television], which achieved high ratings in January, attempted to follow on from the great success of the trilogy Generation War (2013). The latter dealt with the impact on five young Germans of the crimes of the Nazi regime. Tannbachattempts to encompass the history of divided Germany in the years following the Second World War by dramatising the fate of the inhabitants of a small village on the border between the two Germanys.

Tannbach

ZDF broadcasting director Norbert Himmler asserts that the television series “tells how it all began: from our roots in the postwar Germany of both republics, the German Democratic Republic [former Stalinist East Germany, GDR] and the Federal Republic of Germany [former capitalist West Germany, FRG]”. This claim, however, is misleading. Despite some excellent performances, the series is loaded with clichés and prejudices, which it often promotes in quite an embarrassing way.

With respect to both the “West Germans’ view of East Germany” and “East Germans’ formulaic attitudes and prejudices”, screenwriters Josephin and Robert Thayenthal fail to critically examine issues in any depth. Despite the supposedly “objective picture” of the times, the view upheld in official propaganda since the demise of the GDR predominates: that in eastern Germany one kind of totalitarian dictatorship [Nazism] was replaced by another [Stalinism], which was no less brutal and cruel than the first. The screenwriters themselves speak of the “two great German dictatorships of the twentieth century”.

This equation of two completely different regimes—on the one hand, the Hitler dictatorship, which destroyed the labour movement in the interests of German business, unleashed the Second World War and murdered millions of Jews, Gypsies, Roma, disabled persons and prisoners of war; and, on the other, the Stalinist dictatorship, which nationalised large estates and industries, but suppressed workers’ democracy in order to secure the rule of a privileged bureaucracy—precludes the possibility of any realistic and credible representation of the period. Tannbach tends to present viewers with stock figures rather than human characters.

The US forces, who initially occupy the village at the end of the war, are generous, benevolent and “cool”. The Soviets, who later take over from the Americans, descend on the defenceless villagers like barbarian hordes. At the end of Part 1, the first appearance of the Soviet military concludes with their shooting of an innocent old man, a mother and a child, simply because a portrait of Hitler is found in a drawer. This pattern of presentation runs through the whole film.

Trying to balance this one-sided view by including two “good” communists fails to make things better. Both of them—Konrad Werner (Ronald Zehrfeld), who has returned from exile in the USSR, and Friedrich Erler (Jonas Nay), the son of a Communist murdered by the Nazis—appear naive and implausible in their idealistic belief in a better future.

The film’s scriptwriters are so unaware of their own prejudices that they even reproduce the kind of bigotry characteristic of the Nazi era. Of the two young friends who flee to Tannbach from the rubble of Berlin, Friedrich Erler (non-Jew) becomes a farmer, while Lothar Erler (a Jew) ends up a smuggler. The writers should be ashamed of themselves.

“The Morning After the War”

Tannbach is a fictional village on the Thuringian-Bavarian border. It is based on the actual village of Mödlareuth in Upper Franconia-Thuringia, which was split between the US and Soviet occupation zones in 1945. The stream running through that small village is the Tannbach. The three-part series was actually filmed in Besno in the Czech Republic. Considerable effort was put into the attempt to make details of scenery, costumes and props as historically accurate as possible.

Part 1, “The Morning After the War”, begins in the last days of World War II. Just before US troops break into the estate of Count Georg von Striesow (Heiner Lauterbach), a young SS officer (David Zimmerschied) has the Countess (Natalie Wörner) shot because she refuses to betray her husband who has returned from the war as a deserter.

The count was denounced by Franz Schober (Alexander Held), a prosperous farmer and fanatical Nazi, who immediately offers to serve the Americans with his meticulously recorded insider knowledge of Nazi members and their activities. The SS officer, Schober’s illegitimate son, is exposed to the Americans by his own mother, Hilde (Martina Gedeck).

In any event, the US occupation is brief. Thuringia is assigned to the Soviet occupation zone, while Bavaria remains under American control. Soviet troops take over the village. Following a later revision of demarcation lines, US troops return to the western side of the village, which is divided down the middle.

The Soviet soldiers are portrayed as violent thugs, taking revenge for the atrocities of the German military through rape and plunder. What the German troops have done in the east is not revealed until the third part of the trilogy. Schober’s firstborn son, returning late from the war, shouts into the count’s face that he himself had ordered massacres before deserting his command. In retaliation for the killing of German soldiers, entire village populations—men, women and children—were shot as partisans.

One of the most powerful scenes in the first part includes the screening of a film recording the Americans troops’ liberation of Buchenwald concentration camp, which the Tannbach villagers are made to watch.

Further plot developments focus on the count’s daughter, Anna (Henriette Confusius), and Friedrich Erler, the working class youth from Berlin. The young couple fall in love, hoping to find fulfilment in a new and better world, where there are “no top and no bottom classes, and no more war”. Friedrich’s mother, Liesbeth Erler (Nadja Uhl), wants to escape the bad times, go to America and take her family with her.

Meanwhile the countess’s parents, former brewery owners from Zwickau and still fervent Nazis, have prepared their escape to Argentina via the “rat line” organised by Nazi operatives in collaboration with the Vatican, and want to take their granddaughter Anna with them, but she refuses.

“The Expropriation”

Part 2, “The expropriation”, deals with land reform in the Soviet occupation zone. Landowners who possess more than 100 hectares [247 acres] of property, or who were members of the Nazi party and committed war crimes, are expropriated without compensation. The land is then divided into five-hectare [12-acre] portions and allotted to the so-called “new farmers”.

Tannbach

The film fails to explain the brutal and reactionary role played by the Junkerclass (Prussian nobility) during the Wilhelmine Empire (1871-1918), the Weimar Republic (1919-1933) and the Nazis’ seizure of power in 1933. Instead, Count von Striesow (convincingly played by Lauterbach) is presented as not such a bad fellow, although he reacts to the expropriation of his estate as the worst injustice imaginable.

After returning from POW incarceration in France, he refuses to accept that his daughter Anna has married Friedrich and is working with him to cultivate five hectares of land allocated to them from the Striesow family’s former estate.

“My Land, Your Land”

In Part 3, “My Land, Your Land”, Anna and Friedrich are living on their small farm, which is barely capable of supporting them and their child. Lothar contributes significantly to the family’s subsistence through his cross-border smuggling and as a black marketeer.

Tannbach

Four years later, in 1952 and during the Cold War, the East German Stalinists build a fence running across the whole of Germany. It goes through the middle of Tannbach, which lies within the five-kilometre protected area behind the fence. The entire population of the eastern part of the village is subjected to stringent security regulations.

At this point, Liesbeth visits Tannbach from America, enthusiastically praising New York, where everyone can say what he or she wants and it “doesn’t matter whether anyone is a Jew or a Catholic”. She denies that anyone wants a new war: “You’ve all just talked yourselves into believing that.”

No one watching Tannbach would know that the US had just initiated a bloody war against North Korea and China that claimed three-four million lives, that the American ruling elite was engaged in the ferocious, anti-democratic McCarthyite witch-hunts and that African Americans were subject to brutal apartheid conditions in the US South.

A young East German border guard in Tannbach is shot and killed by West German border guards, leading to a tightening of border security. All people suspected of not being one hundred percent loyal to the Stalinist regime are forced to relocate away from the immediate border area or face prison if they oppose the evacuation order.

Tannbach

District administration head Konrad Werner, an idealistic communist, initially protects the Erlers when they are targeted for arrest by the increasingly powerful state security forces because of Lothar’s smuggling activities. Lothar is shot by East German border guards as he attempts to illegally cross the demarcation area to attend the baptism of Anna and Friedrich’s child, which Anna had requested be held at the village church in Tannbach’s western half.

After the baptism, Liesbeth remains in West Germany. The family is finally separated. District commissar Werner is removed to Berlin. He says goodbye to Friedrich with the words: “Working for a fairer world is not a bad idea, but unfortunately there’ll be setbacks along the way. New world orders take time to bring into existence.” Anna receives her downcast husband, Friedrich, with the words: “I’m proud of you. I believe in this here. I believe in everything we’ve built up here. This is our home”.

This open but scarcely credible conclusion is apparently designed to allow the filmmakers to claim they have presented the problems and perspectives of East and West Germans objectively.

Screenwriters Josephin and Robert Thayenthal write in response to the many questions raised by the period treated in the film, as follows: “Television won’t be able to give the answers, but perhaps it will give a sense of how people feel, think and act, how they develop and harden, how they behave under the threat of overwhelming power and in the grip of extreme fear”.

This statement points to the dilemma, faced by television productions, which claim simultaneously to entertain and educate. Communication of vague “feelings” is not enough for the understanding of history. Different viewpoints and experiences are juxtaposed, but they cannot be comprehended in any profound way because the socio-historical context has not been presented.

What Tannbach entirely leaves out, among other things, is the role of the parties responsible for the defeat of the German working class and the catastrophe of fascism, the Social Democrats and, above all, the Communist Party, which due to Stalin’s catastrophic policies, facilitated Hitler’s rise to power. Apart from coming to terms with the failure of the social revolution in Germany due to the crisis of working class leadership, no significant chapter of mid- and late-20th century German history can be profoundly understood.

Due to certain outstanding performances, the production offers numerous impressive scenes, but ultimately Tannbach is unsatisfactory. Compared to Edgar Reitz’s epic series Heimat: A Chronicle of Germany (1984), for example, the portrayal of the characters and their involvement in various events is often quite flat and unconvincing. But this is more the fault of the weak and limited script, and not so much that of the director, Alexander Dierbach, or the performers.

The documentary Spring 1945, broadcast by Arte on January 13, is far more successful in conveying an accurate picture of the immediate postwar period. The three episodes of Tannbach and related documentation are currently available in the ZDF media library.

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2015/02/09/tann-f09.html

“Better Call Saul” humanizes the smooth-talking “Breaking Bad” sidekick in a surprisingly solid spin-off

Vince Gilligan’s new antihero origin story has more in common with “Mad Men” than “Breaking Bad”

“Better Call Saul” humanizes the smooth-talking “Breaking Bad” sidekick in a surprisingly solid spin-off
Bob Odenkirk in “Better Call Saul” (Credit: AMC/Ursula Coyote)

I’m surprised how much I liked “Better Call Saul.” We might as well start there.

“Better Call Saul” isn’t exactly supposed to be good. It’s a spin-off of a beloved television show, “Breaking Bad”; and unlike “Friends” or “Cheers,” which both spawned spinoffs, “Breaking Bad” isn’t a feel-good sitcom with a happy ending. The five seasons of the original AMC show were a slow, brutal transformation story, from Walter White the man to Heisenberg the monster, and if the drug-dealing arc didn’t interest you, the incredible direction and once-in-a-lifetime performances might.

So when AMC announced the production of “Better Call Saul,” I was skeptical—not because I thought something from Vince Gilligan, Peter Gould and actor Bob Odenkirk couldn’t be good, but because I worried that the spin-off might tarnish the original. (I wish I could forget the “Star Wars” prequels. I wish I could.) The production decision is undoubtedly an attempt to make more money off of a successful franchise with an established fanbase—a situation that can privilege hacky fan service over quality and creativity. (Think “Joey,” the spinoff from “Friends,” as opposed to “Frasier,” the spinoff from “Cheers.”)

Vince Gilligan and his team, as usual, have surprised me. I haven’t totally fallen for the prequel series “Better Call Saul”—it doesn’t quite feel like its own show yet—but it did make me care about the man who becomes Saul Goodman in a way I never did in “Breaking Bad.” And though the story of Walter White is done and dead, series creators Gilligan and Gould have found a way to tell the story of Saul—currently known as Jimmy McGill, public defender—in a way that echoes and parallels White’s story without necessarily covering the same ground. The general premise is the same: The world makes it hard to be a good man (or a Goodman). But the sordid particulars will always vary.



When we meet Jimmy McGill—six years before the events of “Breaking Bad”—what’s fascinating about him is that he seems to know this already. Not exactly for himself, although his career has already brushed the wrong side of the law. But definitely for others. Jimmy makes ends barely meet by defending criminals in county court, where he is forced to come up with a narrative of explanation and redemption for possibly guilty defendants, multiple times a day. Jimmy’s a talker—that’s what he’s good at. That’s why he’s a lawyer, that’s what he brings to the table. But he’s not just a talker, he’s a storyteller of sorts: a salesman, a charlatan, an ad man. He’s got a plausible explanation for his clients’ many missteps, a ready tale of sympathy for anyone willing to listen—the judge, the jury, the prosecutor, the woman validating his parking. And though it sounds glib, it’s not effortless—we see him rehearse in mirrors, practice in his car, work through talking points before knocking on doors. He has to work up the energy to bluster. Maybe because he just wants to build momentum, and maybe because when you’re essentially a legal con man, you have to be careful to get your words right. But there’s a hint of something more tragic, too: Jimmy has to convince himself of the truth of his words so that he can have the most impact. He’s got to believe that his clients are innocent-ish in order to fight for them; he’s got to become the lie, or to become, more specifically, the most convenient version of the truth.

It’s there, in Jimmy McGill’s fast-talking attempt to come out on top, that “Better Call Saul” really shines. Despite being a spin-off of “Breaking Bad,” McGill has more in common with “Mad Men’s” Don Draper—not the womanizing or the mythos, but certainly that same fanatical commitment to selling a version of reality that both men end up half-believing, just to survive.

By the time we meet him in “Breaking Bad,” Bob Odenkirk’s Saul is a static figure—he’s part of the criminal environment that Walt and Jesse break into. His answers and advice are all world-weary and polished. “Better Call Saul” offers the viewer a chance to see how he would become that man. It’s more than a little convoluted—there’s a brother, a situation with a big law firm that is only explained in bits and pieces, a scheme gone wrong and the familiar landscape of the desert-suburbia of Albuquerque, shot with the same golden filters and wide angles. At times, the familiarity is exciting; at other times, it’s jarring. And the rest of the time, it’s vaguely frustrating—we’ve explored this landscape of abandoned strip malls, remote gas stations and cheap flip-phones before. There are a few familiar faces in the first three episodes; at least one made me roll my eyes. But there’s something a little delicious about the continuity, too: Spin-offs are the type of weird pop-culture artifact unique to serialized forms, and television in particular. It’s absurd and intriguing to see a master of the form take it on.

So for right now, I’m willing to go along with “Better Call Saul’s” smooth-talking appeal. Gilligan did masterful work with “Breaking Bad,” telling a story not just about Walter White but also about the culture that shaped and enabled him. Now he’s taking on another type of criminal—a trickster, not a mastermind. Jimmy McGill is very good at what he does, and as the first few episodes with him show, at least several years ago his heart was mostly in the right place. But he started to believe his own ready supply of lies, and that was the beginning of the end. You can’t talk your way out of the truth forever.

“Better Call Saul” premieres on AMC at 10 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 8. The second episode will air at 10 p.m. on Monday, Feb. 9. The series will air on Mondays.

The Killing of America’s Creative Class

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A review of Scott Timberg’s fascinating new book, ‘Culture Crash.’

Some of my friends became artists, writers, and musicians to rebel against their practical parents. I went into a creative field with encouragement from my folks. It’s not too rare for Millennials to have their bohemian dreams blessed by their parents, because, as progeny of the Boomers, we were mentored by aging rebels who idolized rogue poets, iconoclast cartoonists, and scrappy musicians.

The problem, warns Scott Timberg in his new book Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class, is that if parents are basing their advice on how the economy used to support creativity – record deals for musicians, book contracts for writers, staff positions for journalists – then they might be surprised when their YouTube-famous daughter still needs help paying off her student loans. A mix of economic, cultural, and technological changes emanating from a neoliberal agenda, writes Timberg, “have undermined the way that culture has been produced for the past two centuries, crippling the economic prospects of not only artists but also the many people who supported and spread their work, and nothing yet has taken its place.”

 

Tech vs. the Creative Class

Timberg isn’t the first to notice. The supposed economic recovery that followed the recession of 2008 did nothing to repair the damage that had been done to the middle class. Only a wealthy few bounced back, and bounced higher than ever before, many of them the elites of Silicon Valley who found a way to harvest much of the wealth generated by new technologies. InCulture Crash, however, Timberg has framed the struggle of the working artist to make a living on his talents.

Besides the overall stagnation of the economy, Timberg shows how information technology has destabilized the creative class and deprofessionalized their labor, leading to an oligopoly of the mega corporations Apple, Google, and Facebook, where success is measured (and often paid) in webpage hits.

What Timberg glances over is that if this new system is an oligopoly of tech companies, then what it replaced – or is still in the process of replacing – was a feudal system of newspapers, publishing houses, record labels, operas, and art galleries. The book is full of enough discouraging data and painful portraits of artists, though, to make this point moot. Things are definitely getting worse.

Why should these worldly worries make the Muse stutter when she is expected to sing from outside of history and without health insurance? Timberg proposes that if we are to save the “creative class” – the often young, often from middle-class backgrounds sector of society that generates cultural content – we need to shake this old myth. The Muse can inspire but not sustain. Members of the creative class, argues Timberg, depend not just on that original inspiration, but on an infrastructure that moves creations into the larger culture and somehow provides material support for those who make, distribute, and assess them. Today, that indispensable infrastructure is at risk…

Artists may never entirely disappear, but they are certainly vulnerable to the economic and cultural zeitgeist. Remember the Dark Ages? Timberg does, and drapes this shroud over every chapter. It comes off as alarmist at times. Culture is obviously no longer smothered by an authoritarian Catholic church.

 

Art as the Province of the Young and Independently Wealthy

But Timberg suggests that contemporary artists have signed away their rights in a new contract with the market. Cultural producers, no matter how important their output is to the rest of us, are expected to exhaust themselves without compensation because their work is, by definition, worthless until it’s profitable. Art is an act of passion – why not produce it for free, never mind that Apple, Google, and Facebook have the right to generate revenue from your production? “According to this way of thinking,” wrote Miya Tokumitsu describing the do-what-you-love mantra that rode out of Silicon Valley on the back of TED Talks, “labor is not something one does for compensation, but an act of self-love. If profit doesn’t happen to follow, it is because the worker’s passion and determination were insufficient.”

The fact is, when creativity becomes financially unsustainable, less is created, and that which does emerge is the product of trust-fund kids in their spare time. “If working in culture becomes something only for the wealthy, or those supported by corporate patronage, we lose the independent perspective that artistry is necessarily built on,” writes Timberg.

It would seem to be a position with many proponents except that artists have few loyal advocates on either side of the political spectrum. “A working artist is seen neither as the salt of the earth by the left, nor as a ‘job creator’ by the right – but as a kind of self-indulgent parasite by both sides,” writes Timberg.

That’s with respect to unsuccessful artists – in other words, the creative class’s 99 percent. But, as Timberg disparages, “everyone loves a winner.” In their own way, both conservatives and liberals have stumbled into Voltaire’sCandide, accepting that all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. If artists cannot make money, it’s because they are either untalented or esoteric elitists. It is the giants of pop music who are taking all the spoils, both financially and morally, in this new climate.

Timberg blames this winner-take-all attitude on the postmodernists who, beginning in the 1960s with film critic Pauline Kael, dismantled the idea that creative genius must be rescued from underneath the boots of mass appeal and replaced it with the concept of genius-as-mass-appeal. “Instead of coverage of, say, the lost recordings of pioneering bebop guitarist Charlie Christian,” writes Timberg, “we read pieces ‘in defense’ of blockbuster acts like the Eagles (the bestselling rock band in history), Billy Joel, Rush – groups whose songs…it was once impossible to get away from.”

Timberg doesn’t give enough weight to the fact that the same rebellion at the university liberated an enormous swath of art, literature, and music from the shadow of an exclusive (which is not to say unworthy) canon made up mostly of white men. In fact, many postmodernists have taken it upon themselves to look neither to the pop charts nor the Western canon for genius but, with the help of the Internet, to the broad creative class that Timberg wants to defend.

 

Creating in the Age of Poptimism

This doesn’t mean that today’s discovered geniuses can pay their bills, though, and Timberg is right to be shocked that, for the first time in history, pop culture is untouchable, off limits to critics or laypeople either on the grounds of taste or principle. If you can’t stand pop music because of the hackneyed rhythms and indiscernible voices, you’ve failed to appreciate the wonders of crowdsourced culture – the same mystery that propels the market.

Sadly, Timberg puts himself in checkmate early on by repeatedly pitting black mega-stars like Kanye West against white indie-rockers like the Decembrists, whose ascent to the pop-charts he characterizes as a rare triumph of mass taste.

But beyond his anti-hip-hop bias is an important argument: With ideological immunity, the pop charts are mimicking the stratification of our society. Under the guise of a popular carnival where a home-made YouTube video can bring a talented nobody the absurd fame of a celebrity, creative industries have nevertheless become more monotonous and inaccessible to new and disparate voices. In 1986, thirty-one chart-toppers came from twenty-nine different artists. Between 2008 and mid-2012, half of the number-one songs were property of only six stars. “Of course, it’s never been easy to land a hit record,” writes Timberg. “But recession-era rock has brought rewards to a smaller fraction of the artists than it did previously. Call it the music industry’s one percent.”

The same thing is happening with the written word. In the first decade of the new millennium, points out Timberg, citing Wired magazine, the market share of page views for the Internet’s top ten websites rose from 31 percent to 75 percent.

Timberg doesn’t mention that none of the six artists dominating the pop charts for those four years was a white man, but maybe that’s beside the point. In Borges’s “Babylon Lottery,” every citizen has the chance to be a sovereign. That doesn’t mean they were living in a democracy. Superstars are coming up from poverty, without the help of white male privilege, like never before, at the same time that poverty – for artists and for everyone else – is getting worse.

Essayists are often guilted into proposing solutions to the problems they perceive, but in many cases they should have left it alone. Timberg wisely avoids laying out a ten-point plan to clean up the mess, but even his initial thrust toward justice – identifying the roots of the crisis – is a pastiche of sometimes contradictory liberal biases that looks to the past for temporary fixes.

Timberg puts the kibosh on corporate patronage of the arts, but pines for the days of newspapers run by wealthy families. When information technology is his target because it forces artists to distribute their work for free, removes the record store and bookstore clerks from the scene, and feeds consumer dollars to only a few Silicon Valley tsars, Timberg’s answer is to retrace our steps twenty years to the days of big record companies and Borders book stores – since that model was slightly more compensatory to the creative class.

When his target is postmodern intellectuals who slander “middle-brow” culture as elitist, only to expend their breath in defense of super-rich pop stars, Timberg retreats fifty years to when intellectuals like Marshall McLuhan and Norman Mailer debated on network television and the word “philharmonic” excited the uncultured with awe rather than tickled them with anti-elitist mockery. Maybe television back then was more tolerable, but Timberg hardly even tries to sound uplifting. “At some point, someone will come up with a conception better than middlebrow,” he writes. “But until then, it beats the alternatives.”

 

The Fallacy of the Good Old Days

Timberg’s biggest mistake is that he tries to find a point in history when things were better for artists and then reroute us back there for fear of continued decline. What this translates to is a program of bipartisan moderation – a little bit more public funding here, a little more philanthropy there. Something everyone can agree on, but no one would ever get excited about.

Why not boldly state that a society is dysfunctional if there is enough food, shelter, and clothing to go around and yet an individual is forced to sacrifice these things in order to produce, out of humanistic virtue, the very thing which society has never demanded more of – culture? And if skeptics ask for a solution, why not suggest something big, a reorganization of society, from top to bottom, not just a vintage flotation device for the middle class? Rather than blame technological innovation for the poverty of artists, why not point the finger at those who own the technology and call for a system whereby efficiency doesn’t put people out of work, but allows them to work fewer hours for the same salary; whereby information is free not because an unpaid intern wrote content in a race for employment, but because we collectively pick up the tab?

This might not satisfy the TED Talk connoisseur’s taste for a clever and apolitical fix, but it definitely trumps championing a middle-ground littered with the casualties of cronyism, colonialism, racism, patriarchy, and all their siblings. And change must come soon because, if Timberg is right, “the price we ultimately pay” for allowing our creative class to remain on its crash course “is in the decline of art itself, diminishing understanding of ourselves, one another, and the eternal human spirit.”

 

http://www.alternet.org/news-amp-politics/killing-americas-creative-class?akid=12719.265072.45wrwl&rd=1&src=newsletter1030855&t=9