Issue 174 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published April 1994 Copyright © Socialist Review



Passing strangers

Short cuts
Dir: Robert Altman

Putting on a happy face
Putting on a happy face

Robert Altman is Hollywood's supreme debunker of American mythology. From his first success MASH to his great 1970s films McCabe and Mrs Miller and Nashville and his recent work The Player, he has sought to present an image of American society that challenges the official version.

Short Cuts is an adaptation of a series of Raymond Carver short stories. Its style is reminiscent of Nashville, with a complex story that cuts continuously between the overlapping lives of a series of lower middle class characters in Los Angeles.

The camera flits in and out of their lives like an eavesdropper. The sudden shifts are so skilful, and the interweaving group of losers and loners so deftly drawn, that we never lose track of the different strands.

There is no plot as such, rather a mosaic of linked stories. There is the waitress who, afraid of loneliness, always takes back her drunken down and out husband. Running over a child, who claims to be unhurt and insists on hurrying home alone, she never discovers the unspeakable outcome of the accident.

There are the child's parents, their marriage undermined by an undercurrent of resentment, who the accident brings closer together. There is their neighbour, a middle aged jazz singer who has never really noticed her cellist daughter.

There is the hospital doctor who treats the child--on the surface a stable, dedicated professional but below it simmering with jealous rage at his wife's infidelity.

The stories are not of equal strength. Yet the many small brushstrokes amount to a coherent vision of contemporary America--a deeply pessimistic one.

We see the characters trapped in their own selfishness and isolation, bumping into and bouncing off each other, never really meeting, and unable to control their own destinies.

If the film falls short of a masterpiece, it is partly because its one sided bleakness offers little sense that even in the darkest moments human beings are capable of solidarity. This is tied into an ambiguity at the film's heart.

At times it seems one is being offered a picture of a society, of Americans who had hopes and expectations and who are now struggling to make sense of why the American Dream has passed them by. At other times, it seems that Altman is simply saying: this is life, this is what people are like.

However, the vigorous, often amusing performances draw out one's sympathy towards the characters and make the film alive if limited in its vision.
Sabby Sagall

Lost generation

The Joy Luck Club
Dir: Wayne Wang

Over emotional?
Over emotional?

Amy Tan's novel The Joy Luck Club centres on four Chinese mother and daughter couples in San Francisco. Wayne Wang's film greatly simplifies the story, but has captured its humour and emotional power.

At the heart of the novel is a tangled mix of generational and cultural conflicts. While the mothers see themselves as Chinese living in America, the daughters are caught halfway between being Chinese and American, and reject their mothers' attempts to shape or direct their lives.

Yet these are far from the conventional stereotypes of conservative, backward looking Chinese culture versus progressive Americanism. A large part of the conflicts come from the mothers' ambitions for their daughters, ambitions which the daughters can never totally shake off.

The points of conflict and difference vary in each family, defying any generalisations about either generation. That feeling is heightened in the novel by the way in which the different families' stories weave in and out of each other. The director has chosen instead to tell each individual's story one after another.

This makes the film easier to follow, but loses some of the novel's subtlety. In particular, the tensions between the daughters are mostly lost.

The film has been much criticised for being overemotional, and it's true that the director has over-reached too many moments of high drama which break up the story's continuity. The mood music is particularly intrusive.

But it is, after all, a very emotional story and, by concentrating on emotional interplay rather than events, the film remains faithful to the spirit of the novel. We see both generations trapped by each other, our sympathies drawn to even the most unlikeable of the women (men are mostly peripheral to the story, presented simply as obstacles or problems). Rarely has a film captured so well the idea of the family as both haven and hell.

That feeling is heightened by the scenes set in China itself in the 1930s and 1940s, as the mothers flash back to their own childhoods. These women were a generation in transition as Chinese society fell apart around them.

Amy Tan began her writing career as an attempt to understand the world that her mother's generation had left behind, and both the novel and the film are superb in bringing that experience to a wider audience. Parts of the film may jar, particularly if you've read the book, but I defy you to come away unmoved.
Charlie Hore

Crossroads in history

Belle Époque
Dir: Fernando Trueba

Belle Époque is the story of Fernando, a young army deserter, who finds shelter in the country estate of a liberal artist 'somewhere in Spain' early in 1931. The artist's four daughters arrive from Madrid seeking refuge from the 'turmoil' of strikes and demonstrations, and Fernando falls in love with them one after another.

The early 1930s was probably the most crucial period in Spanish history and the struggles then in embryonic form culminated in the Spanish Civil War. After seeing off a military dictatorship the working class, through revolutionary strikes, disposed of the monarchy and forced the ruling class to introduce a republic.

The film begins at this vital crossroads in Spanish history when Fernando is arrested by two Civil Guards as he makes his way across Spain following the failed Republican coup of 1930.

A pattern of incidental comment on Spanish political history is repeated throughout the film and many important references pass unnoticed, except to the historian.

Indeed the entire revolutionary period is treated as one great farce--the sacristan who burns down the church (because, we are told, he wants a pay rise) replaces the much more serious hostility to the feudal Catholic Church from both peasants and workers.

Yet Belle Époque portrays the important advances made by the working class in the period--laws permitting divorce and abortion, giving women the vote, curtailing church interference in education--not as the result of struggles taking place in society at large, but of bohemian attitudes.

Despite the humour and the occasionally sharp criticism of state institutions, particularly the church, the overriding impression is of confusion and disorder in an outside world which is never actually glimpsed.

While the film parodies the simplistic attitude of Juanito, the Carlist school teacher, to free love, the supposedly liberated attitudes of the daughters are no more enlightened. At root, all view marriage and economic security under a husband as the ultimate goal. The artist, a great 'liberal', is unable to accept the fact that one of his daughters is a lesbian and goes into paroxysms of delight when he discovers she has had sex with Fernando.

The plot soon reveals itself as being little more than the conventional boy meets girl(s) love story.

Belle Époque is a beautifully made film with skilful camera work and excellent acting. In the end, however, the past is seen through a prism of the present. The concern to downplay the political events and to treat them as either farce or pathos is more of a comment on the modern Spanish middle class's disillusion with parliamentary politics than it is a reflection of a period of tremendous revolutionary upheaval.
Pat Collins


The modern merchant

David Thacker is a director with the Royal Shakespeare Company. His production of Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice at the Barbican Theatre is a modern dress production set in the city of London. Patrick Connellan asked him what problems this presented.

Some would say that The Merchant of Venice is a difficult play to perform. Shylock suffers discrimination and seeks justice through revenge. Can you make that revenge an anti-racist statement?

Normally when I direct plays by Shakespeare I have the same attitude as I do when I direct any great playwright. That is, I have an obligation to express the play, trust the play as written and attempt to give it life on stage. I would try not to alter or distort the playwright's central intentions. With The Merchant of Venice this is not the case. If Shakespeare were aware of the oppression of Jews this century and the Holocaust I feel strongly that he would not allow the play to be performed in its present form. As he is not alive we should either not perform the play or we should make changes that would turn it into a play that Shakespeare might have allowed to be performed.

It has been necessary to cut quite a lot and shift the emphasis of some of the material. I think the play is unconsciously anti-Semitic. Only by making adjustments can the play be revealed as an analysis of the causes of racism and not a racist play.

I felt that this Shylock deserved a pound of Antonio's flesh partly because of David Calder's brilliant performance but also because of a strong sense of the ruthlessness of the state. Was it your intention that we should sympathise with Shylock to the point of murder?

I would like the audience to draw the line at murder but to be emotionally carried along with him and to be intellectually convinced of his case. We are trying to chart a society that has no interest in integrating with him. He wants to coexist. He wants to hang onto his culture and religion. He wants to be proud as a Jew and to trade on an equal footing. They will not allow him to trade freely and subject him to appalling racism.

He is hurt most acutely when his daughter is taken out of his cultural protection into what he sees as an alienating, threatening and forbidding one--which, in this production, is a Christian yuppie culture of the 1980s. There is drinking, drug taking and parties of a kind that Shylock would find unacceptable and frightening. That is the trigger for his desire for revenge.

The action he then takes needs to be challenged. At the trial we have set up a powerful opposition between his determination and a genuine appeal for mercy from Portia. She can only frame it within the limitations of her own class and religious perspectives--nevertheless it is an impressive appeal. Once Portia has invoked the law, the Christians seize the opportunity and take the appalling step of insisting he should become a Christian.

It was a great surprise to me that none of the reviews seemed to spot that if you set the play in the late 1980s it is post-Holocaust society and Shylock exists as a post-Holocaust Jew. So coexisting you have the discrimination of Shakespeare's society and the memory of the gas chambers. Within this context Shylock is driven into an absolutist position. The modern parallel is the Zionist Jew who, threatened with aggression, is locked into the attitude of 'We are going to get you before you get us.' Shylock becomes a metaphor for the state of Israel at its least forgiving and most dangerous.

It seems that Shakespeare vacillates between feudalism represented by Portia's background and the Venetian merchants. The two worlds combine forces in the court scene.

Shakespeare is a product of his own time. He changes his attitude throughout his life towards divine right, free will or determinism. There is an attempt at harmony at the end of the play although what has been done to Shylock casts a shadow over the last act. Despite that shadow Shakespeare attempts to bring about a sort of purification and harmony. This is illustrated by Lorenzo:

Shakespeare always asserts the possibility of human beings overcoming the things that separate and divide us.

He also shows how these questions are not so clear cut. Jessica has to betray her culture and her father to find some liberation.

Yes, he never finds a complete solution. The contradictions are always present. There are ways we treated Shylock to strengthen his case. We showed him as an intelligent, witty and cultured man as well as being a loving father. These human details make him a three dimensional character. Nevertheless, it has been necessary to cut some of his lines such as:

We had to get rid of the notion that Shylock was planning revenge from the beginning.

Wasn't Shylock simply trapped by circumstances? Elizabethan law decreed that the only people allowed to perform the lowly task of money lending were Jews so his grudge is not personal.

Yes, I agree. The people most in my head when I was directing the play were Jewish friends. The greatest test will be when Arthur Miller sees the production. I would be appalled to think that he might find Shylock portrayed in a way that was unacceptable or distasteful. With increasing racist assaults and Nazi activity throughout Europe, we have an obligation. There is a real responsibility to not only avoid any possibility of fuelling that racism but moreover to confront and reveal the source of that racist upsurge. I think that racism is inseparably linked to economic conditions. I hope that this play will reveal that to people in a way that might surprise them.
Opens 8 April Barbican Theatre.

Dali: the Early Years is at the Hayward Gallery in London to the end of May.
Show people 100 famous pictures and you could be sure that along with the Mona Lisa and Van Gogh's Sunflowers they'd recognise a painting by Salvador Dali.
Ultimately Dall became totally commercialised, painting the same picture over and over again, but his early work shows an enormous talent, experimenting and forging the style which became his trademark in the 1930s.
Dali: the Early Years is at the Hayward Gallery in London to the end of May.

Not the MCC

Wicked Yaar
by Garry Lyons

Asian youth set out in this play to 'rebel against our parents' generation and against racism'. Parents and racists are the two sorts of people who most need rebelling against so I was with them on their starting point.

The play examines the stance of those caught between two cultures: the traditional Islamic values of the East and the disco and soap opera society of the West. And maybe a third, the proud and earthy pig ignorance of Yorkshire Cricket Club.

Its problems arise from trying to cover too much. Racism, music, genies, mixed relationships, cricket and a parallel universe are probably one too many subjects for a single play. Especially as with each of these areas the same dilemma and conclusion is reached: that in rejecting Western racism and Pakistani 'back to basics', the young of areas like Bradford are creating an exciting fusion of cultures.

The plot involves the efforts of an Asian boy trying to make his way into the Yorkshire cricket team. Influential characters in Yorkshire cricket include Brian Close, who referred recently to problems with 'bloody Pakistanis', and Richard Hutton who once told a West Indian batsman to 'get back on your jam jar.' So the lad's ambition involves more than perfecting his cover drive. Along the way he's attacked by local bigoted hoodlums and rescued by a genie.

The most exciting illustrations of fusion culture's virtues come via the all too infrequent Bhangra songs, which with each display elevate the atmosphere to a new level.

The ambition of the cricketer is to be accepted by the English county. The demand to be part of English society is enthusiastically endorsed as more challenging than to live separately and court respect.

Those on the left with attitudes such as, 'Sudanese peasants may be starving but at least they're at one with themselves', and their patronising approval of Eastern culture's backward elements will no doubt feel uneasy.

It's a shame that between the excitement of the music and the fights with the racists the acting isn't strong enough to sustain the long periods of dialogue. But the cricket match with Bhangra backing, a dancing umpire and a woman 'batsman' bowled by a genie's magic powers makes it worth recommending to all members of the MCC, who would then have a collective heart attack and prove that theatre can have a progressive influence.
Mark Steel
Wicked Yaar plays in Basildon, Leicester, Bradford and Birmingham in April.

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