Issue 239 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published March 2000 Copyright © Socialist Review
When the duke takes his band of exiles into the Forest of Arden in Shakespeare's As You Like It, he promises them a new kind of existence: 'And this our life, exempt from public haunt/Finds tongues in trees/books in the running brooks/Sermons in stones, and good in everything.'
It is an environmentalist's utopia, the refuge from a materialist world, where human beings can rediscover some kind of authenticity. In theory, the BBC's Castaways was going to provide just such a place. But right now the Outer Hebrides must seem a far from idyllic place--not just because of the powerful winds that have battered Scotland over these last few weeks, but because, in a matter of days, the experiment in community construction already seemed to be disintegrating. Of course, it was hardly 'exempt from public haunt', with all those cameras peering out from every corner.
The odd thing is that people queued and battled to become part of this band of warring brothers and sisters. For many of them it was obviously a matter of starting over--of remaking their life, knowing what they know now. For others it was a fascination with the 'primitive' that took them there--a 'natural' enviroment and a chance to test their most 'basic' instincts.
We could make a guess at what the producers would like the outcome to be. The psychologists will be happy with living proof that human beings are competitive and greedy, and will turn on one another at the drop of a hat. The television producers want drama above all--by which they mean conflict, jealousy, tension. Harmony and cooperation make very boring telly, so it's reasonable to assume that they are promising their audience crisis, breakdown and confrontation.
John Sayles's beautiful and moving film Limbo takes three very different people who end up shipwrecked on an island. This accident has enabled them to get away from their tense Alaskan community, where the last fish factory has closed down and the inhabitants are destined to become part of a theme park recreation where they will offer a kind of living waxworks, but they carry some of its tensions and misunderstandings with them. As the teenage girl reads every night from a diary they have found buried in the ruins, she creates a narrative for them, a story of the people they have now become. And gradually the world seems to fade as they create a kind of Eden--though it remains an uneasy place.
In their very different ways, Castaways and Limbo play to a constant yearning to reinvent ourselves. In a much more trivial sense, it's why all those interminable 'Changing Rooms/Gardens/Clothes/Image/Car/Holiday plans' are so popular. An 'expert' arrives with a television production team, a budget, and a promise of transformation. The lucky viewer becomes the sorcerer's apprentice--and a spectator at their own metamorphosis. To stretch the metaphor, they become castaways, wrenched from their surroundings and promised entry to a new world. Of course, when the team has moved on, things mostly go back to the way they were.
But the dream remains--and it sits at the heart of so many of the stories, tales and myths we carry with us. What they all have in common is some idea of an external intervention, some magic that will transform the way things are. The island is a metaphor for a place without history--a spot somehow exempt from the laws that govern the surrounding world. In fact, the castaways carry with them values, aspirations, ideas and expectations that make them who they are. The community is divided as the world is divided--by class, gender, race. There is no pristine, presocial nature to return to. Robinson Crusoe was not interested in creating some primitive village, but in shaping a world in which his values could have meaning--a world of money, hierachy, power and exploitation.
The truth is that utopian communities are a concentrated version of the societies from which they declare themselves autonomous--the rules of social conduct are global, even if they are applied on islands or in communities with locked gates.
We can't escape the complex relationships we live within--but we can transform them. Having spent such a long time forging the means and instruments of our own liberation, harnessing nature to human purposes, it seems a mad experiment to go back to the beginning and voluntarily subject ourselves to the tyranny of want and scarcity all over again. Presumably the lesson that will most clearly emerge when the castaways return is that exposure to a ruthless nature is the worst of conditions in which to discover what is best in humankind. And I imagine that's why a number of those who fought so hard to get on the telly never made it beyond the comfortable and warm hotel at Oban.
The next time you visit Habitat or Ikea, or sit in a tubular steel chair, or remark on the typography adorning an advertisement, spare a thought for the Bauhaus. The remarkable school of arts and crafts in Germany lasted 14 years before the Nazis closed it down in 1933. During that time it brought together some of the most talented artists in Europe and produced many of the most influential designs of the 20th century. An exhibition at the Design Museum in London, which runs until 4 June, provides a wonderful introduction both to the people who taught there and to the work they and their students developed.
Initially, under its first director, Walter Gropius, the Bauhaus continued a pre First World War handicraft tradition, heavily influenced by the Expressionist style of art which many artists looked to following the horror of the trenches. But within three years the school's direction changed radically towards the rationalist ideas flowing out of Russia following the 1917 revolution. Gropius appointed as lecturers some of the most pioneering artists of the day, such as Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Marcel Breuer, László Moholy-Nagy and Theo van Doesburg. This was capped by the school's move in 1925 to Dessau, an industrial town in eastern Germany.
Gropius's design for the new school was, and remains, one of the classics of the 20th century, with its expansive use of glass curtain walls, open deck floors, free-standing staircases, and some of the first fitted furniture, such as kitchen suites, in houses and apartments. The exhibition concentrates on the Dessau years--the most productive, not just in terms of artistic research and development, but also in terms of the production of mass produced goods.
For one of the Bauhaus's central aims was to, in Gropius's words, 'break down the arrogant wall between the artist and artisan'. Much effort was put into producing works--such as furniture, light fittings, pottery, metal goods, wallpaper, wall-hangings, textiles and typography--which could be readily made or applied on a mass scale. Nor was the aim purely philosophical. The Bauhaus was almost continuously in financial crisis. Earning cash from its designs was one way to deal with it. This unique combination of revolutionary aesthetics, pioneering artists and practical industrial application produced a vast array of really beautiful objects.
Some of the most fascinating exhibits at the Design Museum are study materials, such as experimental compositions in colour and tone, and sculptural combinations of wood, steel and glass. Such study and research influenced all the disciplines which the Bauhaus taught, from furniture right through to photography and typography. But it is the finished objects themselves which are the most thrilling, brimming with designs and features which remain as fresh as the day they were created.
The exhibition's final area is devoted to architecture--a discipline which, ironically for a school directed by a series of three architects, did not have an architectural course until 1927. But the school's influence over so much of 20th century building design, and particularly on housing, can be seen immediately--although not all of it positively.
The only real criticism of the exhibition is its lack of any direct acknowledgement of Russian artistic influence, particularly from the immediate post-revolutionary years of 1917 to 1923. For there can be little doubt that the massive strides which Russian art made during these years, and particularly in the fields of architecture and typography, had an enormous impact on European art, and particularly Germany's.
Van Doesburg had, before joining the Bauhaus, worked with the Russian architect Eleazar Lissitzky to develop what they called the Constructivist International, launched at a conference of avant-garde artists in Dusseldorf in 1922. And Gropius, on visiting the exhibition of Russian revolutionary art in Berlin that same year, completely revised his views on Bauhaus policy. It was from this point that Expressionism was ditched in favour of rational design.
The exhibition's silence on Russian influence is echoed in its skipping over of German revolutionary struggle in its otherwise useful chronological ribbons which run around the exhibition. These criticisms are small beer, but it is always worth remembering that, although some of the ground work for the Bauhaus was laid before the outbreak of war--in the British Arts and Crafts movement and Germany's Werkbund--it was the impact of revolution that drove its ideas forward.
Beyond the Fall: The Former Soviet Bloc in Transition 1989-1999
Royal Festival Hall
Anthony Suau is a photojournalist with a worldwide reputation. But the reasons for his fascination with the former Soviet bloc are not establishment ones:
Dir: Michael Mann
In 1998 the US tobacco industry settled lawsuits filed against it by the state of Mississippi along with 49 other states. In total seven major tobacco companies agreed to pay out $246 billion because they were forced to admit that cigarettes were addictive and were responsible for the ill health of millions of people. It was a landmark decision. The tobacco giants were forced to concede because of the information supplied by one man, Jeffrey Wigand--a former head of research and development at one of the tobacco companies who turned against his former employer and broke a confidentiality clause to reveal all in an interview on the popular US current affairs programme 60 Minutes.
It is this extraordinary exposé that forms the backdrop to Michael Mann's excellent new film, The Insider. Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe) is the central witness in the lawsuit brought by the state of Mississippi. After deciding to turn against his former employer he faces a campaign of smears, is sued, suffers death threats, and his marriage and family life fall apart. At times he doubts whether it is all worth it.
Yet this is where Lowell Bergman (superbly played by Al Pacino) comes in. An investigative reporter and producer on 60 Minutes, Bergman is determined to get this scoop on the air. He arranges a legal team to support Wigand, provides private detectives for him and his family when they are under threat, and is there as a friend when Wigand is feeling down and doubts nearly get the better of him. Bergman is inspired by the big vision--he wants to nail the multinationals; he wants to do what is right for the millions of people who have suffered ill health from an addiction that they cannot beat--but he is an investigative journalist and is inspired by the desire to get the big news story.
Admirers of Michael Mann's last film, Heat, will enjoy The Insider. Mann brings his unique directorial style to the film with lots of wide panoramic shots, intense close ups and indirect focus shots all bathed in cool blue light with a superb soundtrack. But whereas Heat was at times an intense action movie, The Insider derives its tensions from the drama of an ordinary man's life--the humiliation that Wigand faces, the deterioration of his life and ultimately how he loses all belief in himself. These are all explored in the sort of atmospheric detail which makes Michael Mann's films so impressive.
Mann also goes further--he wants to show us the lengths that large and powerful companies will go to to try and protect their interests and crush the spirit of ordinary people. In part he succeeds. Jeffrey Wigand is an intense yet quiet and ordinary character, and our sympathies are clearly with him. While Mann explores the deterioration of his life, it is devoid of any social context--the community or the wider world doesn't intrude on what appears to be just personal despair.
But Mann is a master of suspense, and as the film develops it becomes less one of Wigand's fight against the tobacco companies and more of investigative reporter Bergman fighting to get his interview on the air. The owners of the CBS corporation are on the verge of being bought out, and so are reluctant for CBS News to show something that could result in a multibillion dollar lawsuit. Editorial content and newsworthiness are suddenly under the domain of the lawyers, and financial concerns dictate what should and should not be seen. And so the same interests that were trying to prevent Wigand from exposing the practices of the tobacco companies--profit, greed and secrecy--are at work trying to get Bergman's scoop suppressed.
Mann deals with this superbly, never sacrificing the ideal of what is right or what interests are at play. In doing so he has made a film that has a lot to say about what is rotten with big business and corporate America and what is right about those who choose to fight them.
The End of the Affair
Dir: Neil Jordan
A story of passion, betrayal, sexual jealousy and guilt--Graham Greene's The End of the Affair is arguably his most autobiographical novel. Sarah Miles is an attractive young middle class woman trapped in a passionless marriage to well meaning but dull civil servant Henry. In 1939, on the eve of the Second World War, she meets and falls in love with Maurice Bendrix, a brooding writer who is studying Henry as a character for a novel. They begin a passionate, sexually liberating love affair which ends suddenly in 1944 after an air raid which severely damages the house in which Bendrix lives.
Sarah, who as a child had a secret Catholic baptism, believes Bendrix to have been killed and begins to pray. Bendrix reappears out of the dust and Sarah believes a miracle has occurred. She breaks off the relationship without an explanation, leaving Bendrix mystified, bitter and jealous. Two years later, with the war over, Bendrix remains eaten up with jealousy and hires a private detective, seemingly on Henry's behalf, to discover the identity of his imagined rival. He tails Sarah to a house where he spots her through the window engaged in animated conversation with a strange man. He turns out to be a priest, Smythe. Bendrix discovers the full truth from a diary stolen from Sarah's bedroom by the detective's young son. Bendrix's rival is god.
Jordan's film is faithful to the spirit of Greene's novel. It conjures up superbly the austere atmosphere of wartime London, with its ration books and gasfires. However, in one departure from the book, Jordan has added a scene. After Bendrix confronts Sarah with her diary, they briefly revive their affair, spending a final illicit weekend together in Brighton. Jordan thus soft pedals the religious content of the book. In the novel the implication of Sarah's illness is that it represents the impossibility of escaping from the results of sin, the lovers' ultimate sacrifice to god for betraying the sacrament of marriage. In the film the implication is rather that her death is a psychosomatic expression of her guilt and consequent need for punishment following her relapse into adultery. What the film tones down is Greene's religious ambiguity and his struggle with religious doubt, culminating in Bendrix's expression of hatred of god. What we have instead is a more secular version of the struggle with guilt but one containing a similar suggestion of the damage religion inflicts on human beings.
The weakness of the story is the characters' apparent lack of interest in any of the moral or political aspects of the war, preoccupied as they are with their own salvation. The film contains some marvellous performances, with Ralph Fiennes excellent as the glum novelist and Julianne Moore equally convincing as the frustrated, soul-searching, oppressed wife. Stephen Rea provides a moving portrayal of a man who doesn't know how to love, with Ian Hart giving a brilliantly comic rendering of the detective.