Issue 237 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published January 2000 Copyright © Socialist Review
I was probably the last person on earth to see The Blair Witch Project. I went into the cinema resolved to resist the hype--instead I found it disturbing and riveting, precisely because it lacked all the production values of a Hollywood horror. No computer-assisted facial distortions, no showers of blood or exotic tortures; just fear itself, on screen and behind it.
Three arrogant, cynical American film students set out to resolve the legend of a local serial killer--the Blair witch. The group's first night in the woods is like summer camp and the film an awkward home movie. Then they lose their map and everything changes. The trees are all identical. The paths are obscured or marked by strange signs and symbols. The three are physically lost--but they are also adrift. What is fearsome is the disorientation. The brash middle class kids are suddenly frightened and alone--the presence they feel around them is their own fear.
What is it that makes The Blair Witch Project genuinely different from the standard crop of horror--the Stephen King season, the uninterrupted Friday the 13th series, serial killers, dismembered corpses, vampires and Killer Volvos? There is a ritual quality about all the Poltergeist and Halloween films; nearly all of them are set in small, neat and safe US towns. The menacing presence first hovers outside the window, looking in on scenes of family harmony or domestic pleasures.
All of these films address a fear of what lies out there in the shadows. The fear they produce is somehow reassuring--so long as you stay inside the perimeter fence. There are shadows and menace on the other side, but the camera will keep them there. The effect is deeply conservative--fright at the unfamiliar, suspicion of the foreign. The beneficiaries are the sellers of alarm systems and personal security gadgets.
The films that really evoke fear address a different kind of unknown--the fears within us. The Blair Witch Project succeeds because it leaves everything at a level of possibility and suggestion--it never solves the enigma.
As the student filmmakers of The Blair Witch Project begin to fall apart they still go on filming--even their own disintegration is fascinating and compulsive. The film slips constantly into a grainy black and white--you see very little but trees and grass and indistinct bits of the tent. It's what you hear and sense that creates the drama.
Something else is involved here. It is not just terror, but a kind of heroic curiosity. Because there is nowhere to escape to, and no doubt about the outcome, we are turned back on the fear itself. That's the paradox; if we always turn away from what is beyond the boundary fence, then we are safe--but somehow imprisoned. If we press on into the darkness, the dangers are real, not manufactured, and so is the fear. And yet it is, in some sense, an assertion of our freedom to imagine other possibilities and to seek them out.
Perhaps in the end that's the difference between dreams and nightmares. The nightmare makes you double lock the door, turn up the music and pull the blinds. The dream, on the other hand, draws you out into the darkness because somehow that's where the future is to be found.
Amazons of the Avante-Garde
The turbulent years around the First World War and the Russian Revolution gave rise to some of the most exciting art ever produced. The experience of industrial urban life encouraged artists across Europe to break with traditional representations of reality and to experiment. It was in revolutionary Russia, however, that this process went furthest with the participation of the women whose work is exhibited here. Their contemporaries gave them equal status to painters of the calibre of Malevich, Tatlin and Rodchenko, and this wonderful exhibition shows why.
The early paintings in the exhibition show how the most advanced European styles were blended with ancient traditions of Russian painting, in combinations that suggested the uneven development of Russian society itself. For example Natalia Goncharova, the 'suffragist of Russian painting' and one of Russia's most influential prewar painters, combined traditional icon painting with Cubism and transcended both in Rayonism, a style which expressed space and shape through rays of colour. The Russian experience shaped the artists' world view in other ways. For example, in contrast to the Italian Futurists, these radicals saw machinery as potentially liberating. Goncharova's impressive 'The Weaver (loom and woman)', (1912-13), suggests this: amongst the mechanical angles and cogs, under the harsh artificial light, is the faint shape of a woman, the power that drives the machine, the humanising presence.
These radical young women mastered Modernist styles and used them as a springboard to develop new abstract representations. Goncharova left Russia in 1915 but the others stayed and participated in the social and artistic revolution of 1917. The revolution gave them a renewed purpose and the confidence to innovate.
Olga Rosanova, for example, helped to run the Bolshevik government's Department of the Arts. Her explorations of colour culminated in the intense, challenging 'Green Stripe' which looks as modern now as it must have done in 1917. Liubov Popova, who was in the forefront of the post-revolution drive to remake industry along artistic lines, also painted the brilliant 'architectronic' paintings which explore what she called 'spacial-force construction'. Before Varvara Stepanova went with Popova to work in a textile factory to construct their socialist society, she explored how to represent figures in new dynamic ways, as in her 'Billiard Players'. Alexandra Exter showed her mastery of Futurism in the beautiful 'Venice', and made a major contribution to the radical art of her native country. After 1918 Nadezha Udaltsova had her studios in the Higher Technical-Artistic Studios where artists, students and the public came to discuss and create art. Her monumental compositions in this exhibition are really vigorous and dynamic, showing how fruitful this collaboration was.
The artists saw in the revolution the opportunity to overcome their alienation, but their aspirations could not survive the harsh material conditions of the civil war. The fact that two out the six women died in their 20s demonstrates the terrible conditions the Russians endured. They continued to work in theatre and cinema but eventually they and their reputations were obliterated by Stalinist Social Realism.
Although the exhibition's commentary says frustratingly little about the women's political ideas, their optimism and concern with remaking the everyday world shines through. Revived by the enduring interest in Russian revolutionary art, the work of these women should be celebrated. This exhibition is fantastic--the sheer exuberant confidence of these artists, their ability to develop new styles which are still fresh and challenging, leaves you feeling exhilarated and excited about the possibilities of revolutionary art.
The Turner Prize
The Tate Gallery
If I'm asked whether Tracey Emin's work is art, my answer is yes, but who cares? In Tracey's language: who gives a fuck? The point is it is a tremendous experience because it tells the truth.
The Turner Prize show as a whole was pretty strong: clever photographs by Steve Pippin, impressive images from Jane and Louise Wilson, subtle elegant film installations from Steve McQueen--but Emin's show overwhelmed the rest.
When I say Emin's work 'tells the truth' I do not mean the truth in painting, or eternal truth or even autobiographical truth, I mean a simple everyday social truth about the experience of women, especially working class teenage girls.
In Ways of Seeing John Berger refers to the 'disingenuous' that 'bedevils' much writing about art. Art critics and art historians have a remarkable capacity to miss what is in front of their noses. In the case of Emin they seem to miss the 'obvious' fact that her work is a powerful protest against women's oppression from the perspective of a working class young woman. They refer repeatedly to the autobiographical nature of her work, to her brutal, frank self exposure, but the key point is that what she 'exposes' are typical, shared experiences for many girls growing up and for many women struggling to survive and live in our sexist society.
One of Emin's most striking achievements is to have developed an artistic language that is both completely comprehensible at street level and a continuation of the Modernist avant garde tradition. Take 'My Bed' which has been the subject of so much media hype and outrage. On the one hand 'My Bed' is a classic Modernist provocation in the tradition of Duchamp's ready made urinal and Hirst's ready made shark. On the other, it makes an easily readable statement about the artist's life and life in general.
The arrangement of the bed and the detritus of everyday life around it--ashtray, cigarettes, empty vodka bottle, condom, stained knickers--say I am a woman who gets drunk, smokes too much, has sex, is something of a slob and from time to time loses it. 'My Bed' speaks of suffering, sickness, depression, loneliness and of luxurious self indulgence, pleasure, intimacy and a place of safety. Emin's work offers its audience the possibility of identification in a way that is absent in most recent 'high' art.
This is particularly likely to be lost on most journalists and art critics by virtue of their gender, class and elitist attitudes, but it was clearly not lost on the visitors. Studies report that gallery visitors devote about two seconds on average to looking at individual works but when I was at the Tate the crowds, who were concentrated overwhelmingly on Emin's section, were scrutinising the work with rapt attention.
Reviewing the Sensation exhibition 18 months ago I wrote of Emin's tent--'Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-1995'--that it was 'based on a powerful idea, both sad and grimly funny, but it lacks visual impact'. This criticism cannot be made of 'My Bed' which is visually strong, beautiful even, nor of the wall of her pen and ink drawings. Emin's line is at the same time simple, clear and very sensitive. Even the small watercolours, which are minimal indeed, stand up in counterpoint to the big in-your-face work.
Nor should Emin's directness and her working class identified persona lead to her being seen as 'primitive'. Her work bristles with art historical influences and references. 'My Bed' and its ephemera obviously refer to Robert Rauschenberg, who first entered a real bed as a gallery exhibit and who pioneered the aesthetics of rubbish. Most cleverly the arrangement of linen and combination of whites on the bed evokes the bed in Manet's 'Olympia' of 1863. If we remember that the Manet painting depicts a working class prostitute defiantly returning the male gaze and that it was greeted with press outrage quite similar to that which met Emin's bed, then it is clear that this is the key reference. It is also clear, however, that the art references are never the main point of the work. Emin uses the resources of art history but the art is driven by real life concerns in the here and now.
Ideologically there is one big problem in Emin's work. It celebrates triumph in the face of brutal treatment and brutalising social circumstances and thereby says to others, you can do the same. But the triumph it celebrates is personal and individual. There is no sense of collective struggle, of social movement, as there is, for example, in the equally 'personal' photography of Jo Spence. This weakness does not at all invalidate her brilliant achievement, but it does create the danger that as she settles into her success the sources of her art will dry up.
But that is for the future, and in art the future is always full of surprises. Right now we have a substantial body of powerful work in a range of media which is there to be experienced, enjoyed and defended against its denigrators.
Magnum, Our Turning World: Photographs 1989-1999
Some of the most memorable, iconic photos of the events of the second half of the 20th century have been taken by photographers from the Magnum photo agency which is unique in that it is owned and run as a collective by the photographers themselves. The prologue to this show includes some famous images--the Chinese student halting a line of tanks in Tiananmen Square and the fall of the Berlin Wall--but the exhibition itself is a diverse collection of photo essays all taken during the decade following 1989.
It is a truly fascinating exhibition in three parts which shows a huge range of photographic styles and subjects. The first, 'Enduring Rituals', looks at families, religions and other traditions from all over the globe. The second, 'Chronicle of Confusion', shows a world riven by war, poverty and disease.Many of these powerful pictures may yet become the images which will epitomise the horror of the end of the 20th century. One picture of a young Hutu man in profile, his face deeply scarred by machete wounds, is haunting because it portrays both the horror and the hope of humanity--he suffered the attack for refusing to take part in the genocide of his fellow Rwandans.
The final section, 'Daily Aesthetics', focuses on fashion, culture and mass consumption--photos which have led some commentators to comment that Magnum has lost its way, that it no longer sees coverage of world events as the cutting edge of photography. But this collection (for which one of the founders, Henri Cartier-Bresson, came out of retirement to take part) is proof that Magnum is living up to its reputation.
The Commissar Vanishes
In 1997 David King published his book The Commissar Vanishes--his inspiration was Leon Trotsky. King's research showed that Stalin's counter-revolution falsified history. Trotsky's leading role in the revolution of 1917 was literally excised from photographs, his empty space disguised with an airbrush. Woodcuts and oil paintings put Stalin at the centre. Placing the original photos next to Stalin's forgeries revealed the lengths Russia's ruling class would go to hide the truth.
In order to stage The Commissar Vanishes King used two collaborators. Composer Michael Nyman is a postmodernist icon. His scores for ad soundtracks, concerts and films (most famously The Piano) draw on a limited range of motifs from the classics of the past. The music for The Commissar Vanishes is actually his ballet The Fall Of Icarus.
Christopher Kondek is a video artist. Favouring an 'intuitive' approach, he filmed photos that caught his eye and then montaged them on two video screens. Nyman and Kondek responded most enthusiastically to images by Rodchenko which King had found. Rodchenko designed the 1920s revolutionary art journal LEF. But by 1934 Rodchenko was designing albums of Soviet bureaucrats and pompous publications. It was the images in Rodchenko's own copy of one such book, Ten Years of Uzbekistan, that King had found interesting. Rodchenko was so terrified to be in possession of photo-portraits of bureaucrats 'purged' in 1937, that he blotted out their faces. These macabre defacings occupied at least two thirds of the video--blowing out of proportion what is really a postscript to King's photo essay. Combined with the heroic mournfulness of Nyman's music the flood of anonymous, sepia toned portraits became a lament about individual mortality and the passage of time. Showing complete ignorance of King's argument, Kondek even poignantly faded an image of Stalin!
The Barbican staging of The Commissar Vanishes didn't bring the truth about 1917 to a wider audience. Rather, it reveals the pitiful ineptitude of the arts establishment when faced with 20th century history. Nyman and Kondek took moral gravitas from King's images and then expended it on a facile requiem for atrocities now safely in the past, conflating revolution and counter-revolution. Along with Trotsky (barely visible and never named), King's elegant juxtapositions and subversive humour had vanished.
Luckily the original book version of The Commissar Vanishes is out soon in paperback.
Volpone, or The Fox
by Ben Jonson
RSC at the Pit, Barbican
'Mischiefs feast until they be fat and then they bleed' says the anti-hero Volpone in Ben Jonson's 1606 play. The 16th century Venice in which the play is set certainly seeps corruption in high, and low, places. Everyone is at it. Double dealing, scheming, bribery and debauchery infect the whole society.
Out of this mire crawl Volpone and his servant Mosca. Both are out to gain as much wealth by as crooked means as possible. However, Volpone is not a Fagin figure. He is a Venetian nobleman and Mosca regards himself as a better class of 'parasite' altogether. This duo set out to fleece three gullible and greedy upstanding members of the community--a lawyer, an old gentleman of means and a merchant. Mosca has convinced them that his master is on the verge of dying. If they shower Volpone with gifts and promises he will write them into his will. Volpone knows they cannot resist the temptation.
'Honour' and 'virtue' are subverted in this society. The old gentleman disinherits his son and the merchant attempts to force his wife to prostitute herself for the chance of getting in on Volpone's future. The lawyer tells a pack of lies in court to weasel his way into Volpone's gratitude. The only people who have any virtue, the old gentleman's son and the merchant's wife, are the ones who end up clapped in irons. In Jonson's attempt at a Jacobean tragedy, the plot and numerous sub-plots twist and turn like mad. In this production you do get a real feel for a society whose outward veneer of morality hides the very opposite.
Jonson wrote the play to be performed by the King's Men at the Globe Theatre. He had just got the job of playwright to the royal court of King James. So Jonson is careful in Volpone that those who have transgressed get their come-uppance while the noble and virtuous are restored to their position. But along the way he takes great comic delight in uncovering hypocrisy in high places. In short the rich and powerful do not come out smelling of roses. There must have been some nervous laughter at court when Volpone was staged.
For a modern audience the corruption and decadence portrayed have powerful resonances. Let's hope today's Ben Jonson has been sitting in on the Hamilton/Al Fayed libel trial.
Royal National Theatre
The Oresteia, a Greek tragedy by Aeschylus, is a powerful trilogy of plays portraying the physical and mental havoc wreaked by the prevailing tribal culture of blood feuds on the family of Agamemnon, ruler of Argos in Greece. The psychological impasse reached after a series of bloody revenge murders leads to an unusual resolution to the problem posed by them, namely the setting up by the goddess Athena of a jury made up of 12 citizens of Athens who deliver justice with sweet reasonableness instead of tribal vengeance. Sadly, the hopes for true justice engendered by this innovation of Greek democracy are currently, after over 2,000 years, being whittled away by none other than Blair's New Labour minister of the interior, Jack Straw.
The tragedy is presented in modern dress in a new version by the late poet laureate Ted Hughes. The language therefore is modern, simple and clear, and very beautiful. It encourages philosophical questioning of modern problems: what are the gods and what are, or should be, their powers? Should they be placated, in this particular case, by the sacrifice of a child for their granting of martial victory to the father who perpetrated the sacrifice? What is the nature of justice and how should it be applied? The philosophical questioning goes on throughout the six and more hours of the tragedy's production, keeping the audience's attention alive throughout.
The presentation by living actors assisted by camera shots reflected on a huge screen is enthralling, and the acting of a high order. Clytemnestra (played by Anastasia Hille)--the queen who murders her husband and herself gets murdered--shines. Her arm and body movements in trying to seduce her husband, newly returned from war, are like those of a beautiful ballet dancer, the very opposite of her vengeful outburst on killing him.
The whole production by Katie Mitchell is dramatically very imaginative, with a modern audience always in mind, to keep it alive. This great tragedy is well worth seeing, if you have over six hours to spare.
Dir: Tony Bui
Three Seasons opens with a series of contradictory images. Kien An starts her new job as a lotus flower picker with an evident sense of unease but the minute she sees the beauty of the lake covered in lotus flowers her outlook changes. Kien An's job takes her from the serenity of the lake to the bustle of the city. The juxtaposition of the 'traditional' flower pickers with the built up city is superbly shot. The clash of classes is acutely felt by two other characters--Hai, a cyclo driver and Lan, a prostitute. Both work mainly with clients from the hotels around the city--either European tourists or affluent Vietnamese.
As the seasons change Kien An comes closer to Teacher Dao, the leprosy stricken poet who inhabits the temple. Her singing takes Dao back to his childhood and awakens his senses. She offers her fingers to him so he can once again give voice to the poetry inside himself.
Gently interwoven into these slow moving stories Tony Bui introduces Woody, a child street peddler whose story focuses on him sloshing through the rain of the wet season to hunt down his stolen suitcase full of trinkets to sell. The difference between his life and that of the tourists he tries to sell to is one of sharp confrontation.
Finally the story of an American returning to Vietnam to find his daughter unfolds. His search is an attempt 'to make some sort of peace with this place' and seems to be an echo of the young director's attempt to come to terms with his own experience of Vietnam. Bui, born in Vietnam, left for the US at the age of two. On returning at the age of 19 he was 'completely shocked... After about five hours I wanted to go home. I hated it.'
Three Seasons is a stunning film, although it does have an over-romanticised feel to it. Nevertheless the scenes of Woody falling asleep in the pouring rain or Lan being abused by a client still manage to hit through the dreamy quality. The antagonisms between the poor and the affluent, traditional and modern, American and Vietnamese seep through, and the overwhelming feel of the film is a search for appeasement. Although naive in places, Bui's debut is the first American film shot on location in Vietnam with a Vietnamese cast (with the exception of Harvey Keitel as the American ex-GI). It is certainly a unique and aesthetic piece.
Summer of Sam
Dir: Spike Lee
Summer of Sam is based on a spate of killings in the Bronx, New York City, in 1977, carried out by the serial killer David Berkowitz, dubbed 'Son of Sam' by the tabloid newspapers. The film explores the emotional backlash the killings bring to a close-knit working class Italian community.
It's summer, the hottest on record. The clubs are buzzing with the new sound of disco music and punk rock is making its debut. As Abba plays on and the temperature continues to soar, we meet Sam, an outsider ravaged by his own torment, desperately struggling with the voices inside his head that tell him to kill. As the music plays to a deafening pitch, drowning out Sam's cries, a young couple are shot at point blank range on Vinny's street.
Vinny is the stereotypical macho man, and his wife, Dionna, is the 'girl next door'. According to Vinny there are only two types of women: his wife, who he puts on a pedestal and women like Gloria, who have a 'reputation'. With Dionna he feels stifled. With Gloria he is sexually liberated.
Vinny doesn't like change, so when his best friend, Ritchie, returns after 'finding himself' is no longer an 'Italian homeboy' but a punk rocker, and begins a relationship with Ruby, Vinny becomes unnerved.
As the killings continue and the heat becomes unbearable, newspaper articles print gruesome details of the deaths. Headlines scream out with emotive rhetoric, spreading pandemonium and fear within the community. A blackout adds to the confusion--people grab what commodities they can and Vinny's friends grab baseball bats, determined to sort out what the police can't. They draw up a list of 'suspects', targeting anyone who is different. Homosexuals and punk rockers are questioned and intimidated--Ritchie becomes an obvious scapegoat. Sexism, homophobia and conservatism lurk behind the strong bonds of friendship. People who are different are tolerated, not accepted. Nonetheless, the feelings of suffocation of one's own identity and individuality under the pillow of society's norms and values are stark, and each character is aware of the pressure to conform.
This film is ultimately about friendship and betrayal, but on a deeper note it is a classic example of how a working class community, faced with external changes they feel they cannot control, can become divided. In this situation variety and colour within people are neither tolerated nor embraced, but used as a focal point for the alienation born of a society that suppresses any form of self expression or individuality. People then become reactionary--creating a barrier to questioning society itself.