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Tiny houses, decadence and nationalism

2021-10-10 | Arts and Entertainment

The entertainment content on TV is scarce and not very comforting this season. We discuss a close-up look at the USA of precarity (Tiny House Nation, Netflix); Alejandro Amenábar's first series (La Fortuna, Movistar); and the most incompetent reading imaginable of Asimov's "The Foundation" (Foundation, Apple TV).

Tiny House Nation

Tiny House Nation

Tiny House Nation

"Tiny House Nation" is one of those series that comes to Netflix after a long life. Originally premiered in 2014 and already with a couple of sequels, what the platform now presents us with is the sixth season (2019) divided into two parts.

It is one of those American series where a certain "cultural translation" is necessary to begin with.

With examples ranging from 45 to 220 square meters, the first conclusion for most viewers in the rest of the world is that we have always lived in tiny houses. The second, in view of the fact that the entire building is all woodwork and that the only shown pool is electrically heated with no buts from the happy new owners, is that electricity in the USA must be exceptionally cheap and that the protagonists are going to be wrecked by Biden's Green New Deal if it ever comes close to looking like the European one.

All of the above conclusions are true.

But the series' appeal after half a dozen seasons, stripped in its Netflix version of "celebrities" and moralizing minimalism, is that it opens one of the rare TV windows through which to glimpse the real precariousness of working life in America. In its own style, "Tiny House Nation" is the unabashedly LP version of the Ford Lightning ad.

We'll meet the nursing couple whose house needs wheels because they work at a different location every month, she during the day, he at night; the parents who sell their house and move to a mobile home to pay for their youngest daughter's college tuition; the family of the discharged soldier who works 16-hour days as a firefighter and nurse but can't pay the mortgage bills; or the Texas couple who want to use their house as a rehab center for oxycodone addicts and set up a "tiny home" not too far away so they have somewhere to live.

"Tiny House Nation" is the only series on the platform that shows real working families without the usual hate exuded by Netflix identitarianism. For once, the workers are not reactionary, violent, Trumpist "uneducated straight white guys". For once, they are portrayed for what they overwhelmingly are: good people working endless days, burdened with debt and bills and with chronic exhaustion in their eyes, watching their lives narrow by the day.

Someday we'll remember "Tiny House Nation" as the ultimate stamp of the "American dream": a "low cost" trompe l'oeil with tons of plywood glamour and raised loft beds. An XXS version of the frontier myth, an instant before it gets the axe from the coming Green New Deal.



The British bourgeoisie of the 18th century, at the very founding moment of capitalism, made its first approach to the decline of an earlier mode of production: "The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" by Gibbon. The book soon became a reference for the leaders of the first capitalist empire in history.

Two centuries later, in the midst of the decay of the system then created, Isaac Asimov wrote the first "Foundation" story in the USA which was poised to enter a new cataclysmic imperialist slaughter with the goal of becoming the new global empire. Gibbonsian idealism, vaguely irreligious and anti-Christian, by then had become an account of the survival of classical culture which, unlike Gibbon, idealized the monasteries and positioned them as the missing link between "the dark years" and the peripheral (Britain) rebirth of a new civilization worthy of the name.

As a parable of decadence itself, while the British ruling classes' imaginary of rising capitalism had been built on Gibbon's historiographical conquest, that of succeeding imperialisms would be built on the vulgate of historical ideology converted into pulp novels.

The original purpose of "The Foundation" is to give a message of opportunity to American imperialism at a time when the US still claims to want to stay out of the war: European culture, which threatens to be wiped out by the war, must be "saved" and brought to the new, peripheral American civilizational promise. European decline and global crisis is inevitable, but it can be shortened if the technological and scientific gap between the US and Europe is bridged.

Asimov, who was inspired by the arrival at Ivy League universities of dozens of European academics, couldn't have known it yet, but the Roosevelt administration was already on to it. The Manhattan Project was launched that same year.

Nearly 80 years later comes the Apple version. Little or nothing remains of the "mayors, merchants and merchant princes" cycle, with which Asimov summarizes his interpretation of Pirenne, to whom he pays homage with the name of a main character.

The decline is now no longer systemic. It does not begin as a long succession of seemingly unconnected crises which historical criticism manages to unite into a coherent account of causes and effects. What in Asimov had already been deformed is now unrecognizable: the Empire breaks down from its own particular 9/11 and instead of historical analysis there is an insane geometric determinism.

Asimov replaced historical criticism with "Psychohistory" in order to emphasize, as opposed to Marxism, the idealism of the bourgeois historiography he had consumed: ideas and attitudes would be the motor of history; however much they followed great probabilistic laws, historical destiny would depend on the will of individuals.

In the Apple version even this is not spared: "fate" - and inevitably with it, all the essentialisms so dear to the dominant ideology of the Anglo-Saxon world - come back with a vengeance. From the stress on genetics to the mystical-sectarian relationship of Hari Seldon's followers to the texts they study.

The result is a message even more reactionary than the book it is inspired by, with a plot that overcomes cosmic distances in order to bore us mercilessly. After the first chapter, there is no planetary explosion capable of waking up a viewer too busy dreaming of other things.

La Fortuna


Nearly a decade ago Spanish bureaucracy beat its chest against Odissey, a company of treasure hunters, by hiring some US lawyers to obtain what was plundered and, for once, financing an underwater archaeological expedition of some size to bring to light the remainder. Certainly it was neither the site that required the most urgent intervention from the point of view of conservation nor the most scientifically important of those located.

The story served as the basis a few years later for a comic book: "The Treasure of the Black Swan". Clean line drawing -itself a homage to Hergé- agile plot and all the necessary hooks and references to capture any nostalgic.

What does Amenábar do with those bases? He loads the script with a puerile and whiny nationalism [heir to the warmongering press of 1898 war](https://www.elespanol.com/reportajes/20180504/submarino-isaac-peral-historia-espana-sin-colonias/304720506_0. html), condemning the dialogues to house more ideological zombies than the retinue of Vox ‎Spanish far-right party‎ in a Corpus Christi procession: Spain is a victim country, embarrassed by bureaucratic difficulties, short-sighted in its eternal conflict between right and left; politicians and top bureaucrats argue continuously without listening to each other or getting anywhere but inaction; Andalusia is a mixture of politicians who duck the bullet, brutish civil guards and "volatile" legionnaires; etc. etc.

And when it seems impossible to list more nationalist clichés, nor would the script be able to handle them... Amenábar creates new ones from scratch to serve the new generations. A pathetic example: now it turns out that the taste for Opera, Cousteau's documentaries or Salgari's novels are "right-wing".

The driving force to pull so much dead weight would not even be able to move a Vespino: the relationship between two civil servants, each archetypes of one of "the two Spains united by the Transition", who in principle detest each other but who have to learn to love and collaborate together for love of country and (national) heritage.

However, the patriotic exaltation is not the worst thing about "La Fortuna". The worst is the lack of craftsmanship, the permanent suspicion that the author entered the editing room stuffed with muscle relaxants; the abundance of shots without input and synthetic violin surges at the wrong times; the aesthetic poverty of cinematography that wastes nautical charts, ancient maps, archives and underwater shots; the provincialism of a director who seems incapable of capturing beauty beyond Barquillo Street ‎Madrid‎.

The result is an exasperating and boring series, in which the plot fails to sustain its epic pretensions and the dialogue is too embarrassing to be bearable.