Issue 181 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published December 1994 Copyright © Socialist Review



The link between films and violence is now a subject of debate. We review Oliver Stone's recent film which has been withheld from distribution in Britain, and Quentin Tarantino's film Pulp Fiction

Licensed to kill

Natural Born Killers
Dir: Oliver Stone

Oliver Stone's new film about violence in US society goes well beyond a predictable moral indictment of television and the media.
Instead Stone parodies the role of the media in a way that brilliantly reflects the pent up anger against the system felt by US workers today.
'The whole world is coming apart', Stone has his main character say early in the film. 'This is the 1990s and a man has got to have choices.'
But the film's two 'heroes', psychotic mass murderers Mickey and Mallory Nash, are given no choices. As their story develops, Stone makes it clear that society's killers are 'made', not 'born'.
The film delivers a devastating criticism of so called 'family values'. But its main targets are the media, the cops and the prison system.
As Mickey and Mallory race down Highway 666 in a killing spree which leaves 52 dead, the tabloids and television talk shows can't get enough of them. All of this misplaced glorification of violence is shown to be the result of a cynical and profit hungry industry.
The film also draws an important distinction between kinds of violence. Some of Mickey and Mallory's murders are rightly portrayed as unjustified and brutal. But viewers understand why Mickey and Mallory's first victims are her sexually abusive father and complicit mother, and many applaud when Mallory kills Jack Scagnetti, the psychotic cop who hunts the couple down and who wants to rape Mallory in her jail cell.
A visual reminder of the Rodney King beating by the Los Angeles police occurs when Mickey and Mallory are finally arrested. This scene introduces the last segment of the movie, which is an allegory of the LA rebellion and offers a distorted image of revolution in general.
When a riot breaks out in the prison where they are held, the audience cheers on Mickey and Mallory's escape. But viewers are not allowed to identify uncritically with Mickey and Mallory.
Stone's film forces the audience to attempt to understand cause and effect in society at a deeper level.
Tom Lewis

Fire Power
Dir: Quentin Tarantino

Dashing killers
Dashing killers

The films of Hollywood whizz kid Quentin Tarantino have revitalised the ongoing debate about screen violence. His latest, Pulp Fiction, has divided the critics, as did his Reservoir Dogs. Some have argued that with the unabashed portrayal of routine gangland violence and the elevation of hitmen and hoodlums into heroes, the films degrade human life and betray traditional values. Others have hailed them as authentic portrayals of contemporary life in the raw, against the background of social decay.
The two hitmen in Pulp Fiction are for most of the film ruthless killers, yet they are portrayed as rather dashing figures. The films rely overwhelmingly on inner city atmosphere and fast moving, admittedly brilliant, dialogue. But the danger of over-reliance on street dialogue is that the mobsters become glamorised. Certain scenes descend to the level of farce, such as when they have to clean a car flooded with blood following an accidental shooting in which the head of a third man has been blown off. Here Tarantino is guilty of trivialising violence.
His characters, both here and in Reservoir Dogs, are not explored in any depth. There is little attempt to arouse our interest in or sympathy with them, except in the most superficial way. When one (John Travolta) gets his come uppance it is conveyed in the spirit of 'you win some, you lose some'. And when the second (Samuel Jackson) experiences a religious crisis it is simply not believable. Ultimately, because it is difficult to really care about the characters, the films risk ending up simply reinforcing current fears of contemporary urban violence stoked up in the popular media. They are in danger of becoming fodder for the law and order lobby.
By contrast, films on a similar subject by directors such as Francis Coppola or Martin Scorsese have created rounded characters that help us grasp what made America the kind of society it is. Such films are able to both move and shock through their portrayal of a world of brutality and corruption where aping the rich and powerful has always been seen as an option.
In The Godfather Part I Coppola offers us two views of the Corleone family: from the inside we see them as real, even charismatic personalities, with their own motives and conflicts; from the outside they are depicted as steeped in a moral code based on greed and violence, a microcosm of American capitalism. The Godfather Part II transformed our perception of organised crime, suggesting parallels between the Mafia and any profit oriented corporation.
Scorsese's Mean Streets shows small time hoods embedded in the Italian community living on the edge of the American dream as they aspire to make it either in business or crime. In his Goodfellas the brutality of the main character was shaped by a childhood of systematic deprivation and violent abuse from a father ground down by poverty and chronic insecurity.
In the film of Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep, detective Philip Marlowe's crackling dialogue expresses a hardboiled cynicism that exposes the connections between the Californian upper class and lower level gangsterism.
Tarantino has nothing significant to say about contemporary America, other than that its inner cities have become cesspits of violence--hardly a challenging notion in the 1990s.
He ends up giving us glitzy films whose violence is not related to its social roots. We don't understand, and he is apparently not really interested in, what made his mobsters the kind of men they are, or how the mob is part of a wider social world.
Sabby Sagall


Home viewing

Do you never have time to get to the cinema? Are the ticket prices too expensive or is it just impossible to get babysitters? Don't despair. More and more films are being released on video within months of appearing on the big screen. This month Socialist Review highlights some of this year's video releases now available to watch over the Xmas holidays.

The Wedding Banquet: a New York comedy about a gay Taiwanese man who tries to appease his parents with a fake wedding. Recommended.
Raining Stones: a Ken Loach mix of laughs and tears in this tale of life on the dole in Manchester.
The Piano: award winning story of repressed passions set deep in the forests of a New Zealand plantation in the last century.
Dave: a great spoof on the idea that any ordinary person off the street could make a better US president than the real one.
Farewell my Concubine: one of the best of this year's many films from China portraying the last 50 years through the lives of two actors in the Peking opera.
And the Band Played On: Randy Shilts' book adapted for the big screen on the story behind the spread of Aids and the hunt for a cure.
The Age of Innocence: Martin Scorsese's stunning version of love in the repressive and brutal world of high class New York in the 1870s.
Bhaji on the Beach: a hilarious day out in Blackpool with a group of Asian women, young and old.
Philadelphia: forget Tom Hanks's nauseating Oscar acceptance speech. This is a welcome big budget movie on gay oppression.
Four Weddings and a Funeral: a feel good film for the 1990s though some say he should have stopped at two!
Germinal: Gérard Depardieu leads a miners' uprising in this powerful adaptation of Zola's novel.
Daens: another story of an epic struggle of workers rising up against their bosses, this time led by an idealistic priest.
There are also many classic old films and a growing collection of foreign language films in most big video stores for sale or rental. Artificial Eye videos have a great video catalogue, as do Connoisseur Videos and Electric Pictures.


Vertical divisions

by David Edgar

Searching for truth and reason
Searching for truth and reason

David Edgar attempts to deal with one of the big issues of our time: the rise of nationalism and how it divides us. In response to this nationalism he searches for a common cultural identity.
The play is set in the bitter mess of war torn Eastern Europe, where the end of Stalinism and onset of capitalist crisis have often led to deep national chauvinism. We see people who have been forced to speak an alien language and have had their culture stunted. We are on the border of a divided nation, in a ruined church that has been used over its history as a place of worship for Catholics and the Orthodox church, as a stable, a Nazi torture chamber and a Stalinist art gallery.
A curator from the national museum has discovered a bricked up fresco on the wall which she believes predates Giotto, and therefore the previously established beginnings of Renaissance painting, which began to demonstrate a rational view of the world. If she is right this would rewrite the history of Western art.
The fresco becomes a metaphor in the search for (and ownership of) truth and reason through the layers of historical distortion. A British art historian, sponsored by a German engineering firm, is persuaded to help uncover the painting. The plan is to remove it from the plaster wall, 'clean it up' and exhibit it in the national gallery.
A rival Jewish American art historian intervenes against 'restoration' and conservation, wanting to keep the painting as it is with all the effects of history to remind us of our past.
The painting becomes the subject of fierce argument between the local ultra-nationalist, the churches and the minister of tourism, who plays the nationalist card to move the painting to the museum, which will give his government a linked foreign investment.
Into the debate burst a group of armed refugees. Edgar portrays this as representative of the world's oppressed. The academics are taken hostage in exchange for the refugees' passage to safe countries. Outside the church a crowd of Nazi skinheads gather, threatening to burn it down, but are pre-empted by the national guard who storm the building, smash the painting and murder the British art historian.
The strongest aspect of the play is Edgar's warning of the need to act against fascism. He presents the choice between fascism and a sort of unity of the oppressed. To make his point Edgar takes us through an argument which has the oppressed uniting around a common mythical language.
Despite some witty dialogue surrounding the irony of the Statue of Liberty welcoming the 'huddled masses' while at the same time the US slaughters masses of people around the world, Edgar gets caught up in the idea that all individuals are responsible for oppression. So all Americans share some responsibility for slavery and all Europeans some blame for the Holocaust.
Absent is any sense of class forces shaping the world. But it is this which will decide the fate of fascism.
The structure of the play hangs on the art history detective story, and through this the academic is challenged in his assumptions about the development of Western culture. It is a very stimulating three hours of polemical debate, with many ideas packed in. But ultimately it seems like a large jigsaw puzzle that does not quite fit.
Patrick Connellan

Pentecost is in repertory at The Other Place, Stratford upon Avon, and then touring


Our secret history

Forbidden Britain
BBC2 Thursdays 9.45pm

Cover me quick--Oxford Street protest against unemployment 1938
Cover me quick--Oxford Street protest against unemployment 1938

Instability. The word is instantly recognisable as a description of the current situation. The rich and powerful lurch from one scandal or crisis to another. The lives of ordinary people are blighted by poverty, violence, homelessness and insecurity.
Yet the myth persists that this is something new and unusual. British history is surely characterised by long periods of calm development, of a society broadly at peace with itself. Not so, as this television series and the accompanying book vividly show.
The unifying theme of the six parts of the series is the way in which official and unofficial censorship have worked to obscure the recent past. By dredging up facts on delinquency, sex, unemployment, public and private violence, and homelessness, the makers of the series provide two sets of fascinating insights, which show how much society has remained the same, and yet how dynamically it has changed.
The question of crime is always shrouded in the 'we didn't used to be like that' myth. Yet the first episode showed the lives of many young people between the wars marked by the same desperation and alienation that afflicts young people today. Individuals stole to get by, gangs wrecked things to get through the day.
The story of crime in this period also lays bare the myths about punishment and its effectiveness. True, young people often got the proverbial 'clip round the ear' from a strict but father-like policeman. They also got slammed up in jails and prison hulks, subjected to beatings and slave labour. Each of the verbal histories shows the same pattern: poverty, a turn to crime, followed by a life in institutions broken only by the outbreak of the Second World War.
The episode on sex and marriage carried similar echoes from today--of royal scandal and the imposition of values on the working class that the ruling class could not itself maintain. However, the impression of change is overwhelming. Between the 1900s and the 1930s the annual number of divorces rose 15-fold, it rose four times again by 1947.
The social disruption of war, and two separate influxes of women into the workforce, cracked the late Victorian ideal of family life. For many the sole choice of life long monogamy was ended as men went off with the army and women found themselves in new situations.
The secret history was a product of a society in turmoil. Economic crisis produced tensions and then changes in the way people lived. These are found in the individual tales which make up so much of the series, but they also produced mass revolts.
The third part of the series, 'Bloodshed and Burning', shows that riots and other disorders were a common occurrence. Yet their nature was complex, and shifted according to the situation.
In 1919 soldiers and others rioted around Britain in frustration at being ignored and abused after the sacrifice of war. Overwhelmingly, such protests were directed at the authorities, such as Winston Churchill, who sent troops onto the streets of Liverpool. Sometimes, however, the most downtrodden were on the receiving end, as with attacks on black people in East London, Liverpool and Cardiff in the same year.
The 1930s saw a similar pattern of desperation, met with a patchwork of fightbacks and reaction. Sectarianism continued to seriously divide the working class in cities such as Liverpool and Glasgow. Worse, Mosley's fascists grew and started to terrorise Jewish and other immigrant communities.
On the other hand, mass agitation against unemployment coupled with opposition to the Blackshirts produced a counter-movement which turned the situation around.
The makers of Forbidden Britain have done a service in collecting a wealth of information. Together it makes for a picture of society in which times were hard, the rich ruthless, and people responded either by lashing out against the weakest, or by fighting back collectively against their real enemy. Surely history for today.
Duncan Blackie

Forbidden Britain: Our Secret Past 1900-1960
Steve Humphries and Pamela Gordon
BBC Books £12.99

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