Issue 182 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published January 1995 Copyright © Socialist Review

REVIEWS

FILM

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Even Cowgirls Get the Blues
Dir: Gus Van Sant

Meanwhile back at the ranch John Hurt faces a cowgirls' revolt
Meanwhile back at the ranch John Hurt faces a cowgirls' revolt

When Tom Robbins' novel Even Cowgirls Get the Blues came out in 1976 it was hailed as a hippy cult classic. Women's liberation and sexual freedom were firmly on the political agenda at the time, and the novel reflected and promoted the spirit of free love and self discovery that had emerged. Robbins' book was wacky, strongly influenced by psychedelic drugs, and had at its core a celebration of women's sexuality--lesbian and heterosexual--albeit strongly tinged with mysticism.
Unfortunately Gus Van Sant (director of My Own Private Idaho) has not succeeded in translating the book to film. Apparently the first draft of his script was very close to the style of the book but was rejected by the studio executives who were 'baffled' by the unconventional narrative.
What has been approved by the studio is a pale shadow of the book. The leading character is Sissy, a woman born into the sexually repressive 1950s with abnormally large thumbs. The best part of the film is the first ten minutes which show how stifling that period was for women. It looks promising when her mother, concerned that Sissy's thumbs will hinder her chances of finding a husband, takes her to a fortune teller (a cameo by Roseanne Arnold) only to be told that her daughter will meet 'lots of women, lots and lots of women'.
But it's all downhill from there. Supposedly on an odyssey of self discovery, Sissy puts her thumbs to use and becomes a famous hitchhiker, models in ads for feminine hygiene sprays and ends up on a ranch run by a camp, woman-hating John Hurt which gets taken over by cowgirls.
The film is nowhere near fantastic enough to carry off this tall tale, and the heroine appears wishy washy rather than assertive. The scenes of sexual love are not remotely moving (unlike My Own Private Idaho), and the whole thing meanders along with no clear direction or statement.
More than just silly, there is also a more covertly reactionary element to the film. The debate about whether women should be assertive and forceful in their fight for equality with men, or whether they should attempt to change things by emphasising their 'feminine natures' is resolved by the triumph of the feminine.
And Van Sant has stated that women's sexual freedom is less on the agenda today than in the 1970s--the 'updated challenge is to find some personal space where you can feel comfortable with yourself'. All of which assumes that feminism 'worked' and we're all equal now--a theory beloved of media feminists but completely out of touch with ordinary women's lives.
This film may look like a positive affirmation of female sexuality from the poster, but if you're tempted you'd be better off spending your fiver on the (now pretty dated) book. Better still, get the excellent kd lang soundtrack or get My Own Private Idaho on video.
Megan Trudell


Vampire with style

Cronos
Dir: Guillermo del Toro

A bout of cold turkey
A bout of cold turkey

I imagine that to many readers of Socialist Review the words 'vampire' and 'film' would have the same effect as a crucifix had on Christopher Lee ín so many Dracula films, or at best send them into a stifling stupor of boredom.
Occasionally, however, films are made which show that form does not necessarily dictate content. Cronos, a film by Mexican director Guillermo del Toro, is such a film. There are no fangs or garlic and just a few buckets full of blood.
The story revolves around a curious and intricate piece of jewellery, a fabulous half clockwork, half insect creation from which the film takes its name. The cronos device was made by a 16th century alchemist who, fleeing from the inquisition, discovered the secret of eternal life.
After 300 years the cronos falls into the hands of an amiable old antiques dealer, superbly played by Frederico Luppi. He is bitten, develops a raging thirst for blood and after a quick bout of cold turkey becomes a vampire.
He does not understand what is happening to him, but he begins to make sense of things when the dying boss of a multinational company, obsessed with gaining eternal life, tries ruthlessly to take the device from him. A struggle unfolds between the two old men which casts the traditional fight between good and evil in an interesting new light.
The antiques dealer is involved in a fight not only against the 'evil capitalist vampire' but also for his own humanity. He is helped in this by his young granddaughter, who is played convincingly by Tamara Ahaneth without ever approaching Macaulay Caulkin type cuteness.
The film works on many levels--it is visually spectacular without being overblown and elegant without being glamorous.
There are also some very funny moments, such as when his granddaughter builds him a makeshift coffin out of an old clothes trunk in the attic to sleep in during daylight hours.
This is an entertaining and imaginative alternative to current Hollywood fashion for blockbuster horror, which transcends the limits of its genre--beautifully.
Tim Sanders


THEATRE

Absurd reality

Out of a House Walked a Man
by Daniil Kharms

The old woman who wouldn't die
The old woman who wouldn't die

Trotsky once said that the nightingale of poetry sings only in the dusk of revolution, but the new art forms which flourished after the Russian Revolution were confronted all too soon by the rise of the Stalinist class. As the new bureaucracy fought to establish itself, it had to crush not only the revolution but the great artistic innovations that it spawned. Shostakovich, Einsenstein, Mayakovsky were all faced with repression. The trick became using the newly developed abstract forms of modernism to criticise the misery and repression that came with the new ruling class.
Daniil Kharms, whose work is compiled into Out of a House Walked a Man, was a Russian poet. He formed the Association for Real Art in 1927 and wrote, 'When you come to us, forget everything that you have been accustomed to seeing in the theatre.' He was arrested in 1931 and charged with 'distracting the people from the task of industrial construction with transient poetry.' Although he was a banned writer, Russians kept his books and enjoyed the absurdities which reflected the absurdities of their own lives.
The production begins with a brief look at Kharms' ideas and extracts from his work before fixing on one story. On the surface it is a comic nightmare about an old woman who dies on Kharms' living room floor and what he should do with the corpse which, to make matters more difficult, refuses to stay dead. The theme of the old woman has far greater depth in Russian literature, however. Dostoevsky, Pushkin and Gogol all used old women to highlight crisis and inequality in Tsarist Russia. In this play the old woman (who refuses to die) seems to be a reference to the re-emergence of crisis and inequality as the first Five Year Plans are introduced. You are never sure--is she really dead, did she dream it all, is it Kharms, or one of Kharms' stories you are witnessing? Is the reference to a red haired man, who amounted to nothing, his opinion of Lenin or Lenin's ideas? Is his problem with writers' block really about the gagging of writers under Stalin?
The production combines fine music and brilliant set design with high quality acting and the actors' commitment to the play shines through. Initially two hours without an interval seemed rather daunting, but the clever mixture of humour and violence, cruelty and tenderness, and most of all an acknowledgement of the audience's participation in the event, make it engrossing throughout.
Kharms uses absurd human logic to highlight the absurd reality of his time. This is the sort of play that will disappear if the government persists in cutting funding to the arts. So if you want a change from set piece theatre that is neither pretentious or inaccessible, this absorbing play is well worth seeing.
Weyman Bennett

Out of a House Walked a Man plays at the National Theatre, London, in repertory


Missing the point

The Threepenny Opera
by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill

Brecht pointing out the real criminals
Brecht pointing out the real criminals

I went to see this new staging of the most famous collaboration between the left wing German playwright Bertolt Brecht and the composer Kurt Weill with high expectations. I came away very disappointed.
The translation of the song lyrics was the best I've come across, making political points that are usually lost in other renderings. The singing was often brilliant. The technical props were very cleverly designed. Yet the final product just did not cohere, with the action often dragging and failing utterly to measure up to the pungency of many of the songs.
The Threepenny Opera is a musical rather than a conventional opera. The story line centres upon various sections of the London criminal classes--Peachum, the respectable petty bourgeois who profits from exploiting beggars, MacHeath, the leader of a gang of thieves, the captain, the corrupt police chief.
The criminals mimic the behaviour of high bourgeois society, plot against each other and shop one another to the police. The point, for Brecht, was to show that there was not a difference in essence between the bourgeoisie and the cold blooded thief and murderer--except the bourgeoisie know how to avoid direct implication in their crimes. As the most famous Brecht-Weill song puts it, 'The shark bites with his teeth/ scarlet billows start to spread/ fancy gloves, though, wears MacHeath/ and there's not a trace of red'.
But there always seem to have been problems getting productions of The Threepenny Opera to put this point across clearly. Brecht worked on the play in the late 1920s shortly before he became a full blown Marxist and, setting it in Victorian London, did not use it to make direct contemporary political comment. This meant well heeled theatre audiences could always see it just as a farce about gangsters. As one of Brecht's biographers, Ronald Hayman, says, 'The well dressed entrepreneurs in the stalls could feel comfortably superior to the robber gangs that aped the social pretensions of the nouveaux-riches.'
The very success of the work served further to emasculate its political points, as it became a modern classic which merited sumptuous productions designed to give value for money to those who could afford f30 a seat.
This new production seeks to overcome these problems by setting the action in Britain in the near future, with television screens broadcasting Crime Watch programmes and a special Evening Standard on MacHeath's arrest. But the good intentions come to little as a result of poor acting and sloppy stage work. Peachum and his wife do not come across as respectable petty bourgeois. MacHeath and his gang are not convincing caricatures of 1930s villains, let alone of 1990s villains who ape the rich. The performances of the captain and his police falter. The end result is a spectacle without political content, a series of extremely good songs interspersed with not particularly funny farce.
It is a shame, because Britain today is remarkably like the world caricatured by Brecht 65 years ago. There are thousands of beggars. There are hordes of corrupt police chiefs. There are crooked politicians. There are supercriminals of the Maxwell variety that go unpunished. And there are big businessmen who trade in wholesale murder. Never have much of the respectable bourgeoisie and the nastier section of the criminal classes been so alike. And never would a successful musical that made these points be more relevant.
As it is, it is worth going to the Donmar to hear the songs. But if you want to get the point of the whole operation, you will need to read the excellent Threepenny Novel (Penguin, f6.99) written by the Marxist Brecht four years after the first stage performance.
Chris Harman

The Threepenny Opera plays at the Donmar Theatre, London, until March


Six men and a play

My Night with Reg
by Kevin Elyot

This play is a deserved winner of the Evening Standard's comedy award. Great one liners pepper the dialogue; while the action is hurried along with excellent acting from all the six characters, with John Sessions superb as a rumbustious extrovert with a heart of gold.
The unfolding tale of six gay men's relationships with the Reg of the title--who we never get to meet--and with each other, is alternately comic, poignant and moving. The audience is reminded of the deadly threat of Aids, without the writer moralising at us.
But this is not a play specifically about Aids or gay lifestyles. Instead it examines the nature of fidelity between lovers and trust between friends and lovers. It looks at both the stifling and liberating effects of long term relationships and the exhilaration of beginning a new one.
Its presentation doesn't aim to convince us of a particular message, but is genuinely thought-provoking. It is easy to like the characters, even the staid, complacent and boring Bernard, without ever becoming too involved with them. This encourages a type of voyeurism, partly engineered by the structure of the play, helping us to draw conclusions about our own lives. Certainly the audience I was part of adored it.
Amazingly the play has not attracted the attention of the Mary Whitehouse brigade, given the combination of the nature of some of its scenes and its refreshing approach to family life.
This is a thoroughly enjoyable performance which everyone should make the effort to see, despite the steep prices charged by West End theatres.
Alex Bourn

My Night with Reg plays at the Criterion Theatre, London, in January and February

One of the few black cowboys to make the big time--Bill Pickett became famous at the turn of the century for being able to bring a steer to it's knees by biting its upper lip!
Most other blacks faced racism and discrimination from ranch bosses and fellow cowboys. Their stories are rarely if ever featured in traditional images of the wild west, yet they constituted between 1/2 and 1/4 of the total cowboy population in the late 1800s.
These are only a few of the rare photos and facts in a recently released book on the cowboys of the Americas. As well as racism against blacks and native Americans it covers women ranchers and popular literature and myths surrounding the cowboy culture.
Cowboys of the Americas by Richard W. Slatta is published by Yale University Press, f14.95, and can be ordered from Bookmarks

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