Issue 240 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published April 2000 Copyright © Socialist Review
A banner at one of Salvador Allende's election rallies in Chile in 1970 read, 'There can be no revolution without song.' And music--specifically the movement called 'la Nueva Canción Chilena' (New Chilean Song)--played an important part in the Popular Unity period. One of the first decrees issued by Pinochet after the military coup banned some music and some musical instruments--like the Andean pipes and the little mandolin-style guitar called the charango.
Recently I heard those instruments again, played by the Chilean group Inti-Illimani at a concert in memory of Victor Jara, a singer-songwriter brutally murdered by the military in 1973. I first heard Inti in 1974, on the first anniversary of Pinochet's coup. It was deeply moving to see them again the day after the man who sent these and hundreds of other musicians into exile, and murdered so many others, arrived back in Santiago to a military welcome. Jack Straw's act of political cowardice allowed the hundreds (it may be many more) of soldiers and civilians who carried out the torture and murder on Pinochet's orders to breathe more freely. His detention had made it possible to speak for the first time inside Chile about what really happened during his regime. Although he left power in 1989, he had negotiated a deal with the leaders of the democratic coalition that the past would be forgotten, that no one would have to face justice for their crimes.
But when the political leaders announce the shutdown of their own memory, they can't simply impose forgetfulness on a working class that remembers how their friends and comrades disappeared (the verb 'to disappear someone' is a legacy of the military regimes of Latin America). What struck me listening to Inti was that music is most often the bearer of popular memory. Perhaps that's because it is portable, easily transmitted. You can ban words (like the Uruguayan military regime), instruments (like the Chileans), films or books. But the memory will find some symbolic home, and it can sometimes be an instrument or a sound which becomes a shared code.
When the successful military rising against the fascist dictatorship in Portugal began, the signal was a record played on the radio--Jose Afonso's 'Grandola Vila Morena'--which echoed with references to the lives of ordinary people. Its associations with revolution have not paled with the years.
In Chile the developing class struggle bet ween 1971 and 1973 was recorded in song, and Victor Jara was the narrator. In the words of one of his own songs, 'Manifiesto', written in 1973, 'I don't sing for the sake of singing/or because I've a nice voice/I sing because my guitar/has feeling and tells the truth...'
Jara's songs taken together are a history of that time, and of the feelings it evoked. Inti sang those songs again last week, and they had an immediacy and a meaning--because in a sense that history has still not ended, that story still has no final chapter. That is what the demonstrators were shouting outside the Moneda Palace when Ricardo Lagos became the new president on Saturday 11 March.
The New Chilean Song movement began in the mid-1960s, in a club in downtown Santiago called La Pena de los Parra. It was founded by the great singer-songwriter and collector of folklore Violeta Parra, and her two children Angel and Isabel. It attracted young musicians who wanted to create an alternative music to the commercial sounds that a growing US-based music industry was pushing hard in Latin America. The first response was to rediscover buried folk traditions, to update them, to add electric guitars and amplification. But beyond that, this was the 1960s and a new generation was talking about the revolution.
The Chilean musicians began to play And ean musical instruments--pan pipes and flutes, and the high-pitched charango. These instruments had already been rediscovered after the Bolivian revolution of 1952, and now another generation found in them an appropriate way to express their revolutionary impulses. Somehow this strange, poignant mountain music spoke of struggle and a hidden history.
After the coup in 1973, Inti and some other Chilean groups--who had been outside Chile when the coup happened and couldn't return--began to play the pipes at solidarity concerts. It was true that in the years that followed the music was slowly evacuated of that meaning--in recent years there seemed to be enough Andean music groups to appear in every shopping precinct in the world. It became a sort of wallpaper music for a world music age. Yet it still remained the music of long-oppressed Indian communities whose experience became a more all-embracing emblem of struggle. When Inti played that music in honour of a revolutionary poet and singer, it was still bursting with history, anger, sadness and yearning.
Dir: Norman Jewison
This is a very powerful, and timely, film. Mumia Abu-Jamal faces the death penalty, four cops have been acquitted for the unlawful killing of an unarmed black man in New York, and the phenomenal incarceration rate in the US continues to grow, particularly among young black men. This makes a film about the corruption, racism and bias of the US justice system particularly apposite. When it is one of the most powerful Hollywood films in recent years, then its significance becomes all the greater.
Hurricane is based on the true story of Rubin 'Hurricane' Carter. In 1966 Rubin was middleweight boxing champion of the world when he was arrested for the murder of three people gunned down in a bar. Rubin had spent most of his childhood and adolescence in prison. His first brush with the law at the age of 11 brought him into contact with the cop who would eventually frame him for the murders. Like many other young blacks, boxing seemed to offer Rubin the route out of poverty and crime.
However, the political awareness of black America was growing. The civil rights movement had gained the attention of the world, and there was growing unrest in the Northern black ghettos. Following the outrage of the establishment at Muhammad Ali's anti Vietnam War stance, the last thing the US authorities wanted was another boxing champion challenging their values and rules.
Watching cops beat up black demonstrators on television in a bar, Rubin expressed sympathy with the demonstrators and talked about taking a gun and seeing off at least five coppers. It was a throwaway remark, but a journalist in his company ran it as a front page story, increasing police hostility to a man they already despised.
Rubin was put on trial before an all-white jury. Two of those giving evidence against him were white criminals spared prosecution for burglary as long as they positively identified him. Even though one of the victims, shortly before he died, shook his head when asked whether Rubin did it, Rubin and a friend were still found guilty and each given three life sentences with no parole.
The case first gained international attention in the 1970s when Bob Dylan recorded the song 'Hurricane'. The most powerful track on his highly acclaimed album Desire, the song told Rubin's story whilst raging against the racist frame-up.Yet despite the support of celebrities like Dylan and Muhammad Ali, Rubin continued to languish in prison.
The film tells the story of his life and his struggle for justice. It cleverly cuts in real clips of Ali speaking out for him, and of Dylan performing the song. These fit easily into the film, which adds real authenticity to the boxing scenes by screening them in black and white, giving them the feel of 1960s televised recordings.
In addition the soundtrack is comprised of an interesting mixture of songs which capture the mood of the time and the plight of the lead character very well. There are moments when seemingly casual shots--such as those of the crowd at the boxing match (all white and wealthy), Rubin's jury (all white), and the lines of prisoners queuing for the showers (all black bar one)--visually capture the racist nature of the US. Added to this is the incredible performance of Denzel Washington.
There are some shortcomings. The film is not set chronologically, which can occasionally leave the viewer confused. In addition, although Washington ages well, a number of the characters--notably, one of the prison officers and the corrupt cop-seem to age little over 30 and more years.
The film also features three white liberal Canadians and their relationship with a young inarticulate and illiterate black man who, despite his lack of formal education, is very bright and keen to be educated. For much of the film this relationship seems to have little relevance to the story, and appeared to be a rather clumsy and somewhat patronising narrative hook, put there to allow the film to have prominently white characters. However, these characters do end up playing a significant part in Rubin's life, and by the end of the film the reason they are featured becomes clear.
Still, I found the portrayal of the relationship between the white liberals and their black protégé the least satisfactory aspect of the film. Conversely, the portrayal of the relationship of Rubin and this young man was warm, subtle and moving.
Any criticisms, though, should not obscure the fact that this really is a very good movie, carrying a very powerful message. When it comes to a cinema near you, don't miss it.
Dir: Patricia Rozema
This new film of Jane Austen's Mansfield Park is Austen with attitude. The long frocks, stately homes and cracking character actors are all there, but this is Austen with politics, sex and a made-over heroine.
Mansfield Park was one of Austen's later novels, written some years after Pride and Prejudice, which she had come to feel was too bright and sparkling. While her early novels focused on the reform of the aristocracy through marriage with spirited women from the middle classes, her later books reveal a deeper sense of a society under threat from foreign subversion without and degeneracy within. Mansfield Park, Austen's most autobiographical novel, also deals with some of her broadest social themes: dependence and independence, virtue and selfishness, and even slavery.
Fanny is a poor relation taken to live with her wealthy cousins at Mansfield Park. Her social inferiority is matched by her moral superiority, which goes unrecognised by all but her cousin Edmund. The patriarch of the household, Sir Thomas Bertram, played by Harold Pinter, goes off to Antigua to look after his interests, leaving the household--like the country at the time of the Regency--without its rightful leader.
While he is away, his children make new friends--the sophisticated and seductive townies, the Crawfords, who represent an assault on the moral fabric of the traditional society at Mansfield Park. Together the young people set up amateur dramatics which conveniently disguise their flirtatious intrigues. Only Fanny stands aloof, isolated in her virtue. Sir Thomas's return puts a stop to the theatricals, but events are already in motion which lead to adultery, scandal and betrayal.
Fanny consistently refuses to act any role in life which she does not believe in, no matter what pressure is put on her. All those who selfishly pursue pleasure are suitably and satisfactorily punished. Needless to say, Fanny saves the day and gets her man--and everyone else's--her virtuous beliefs are vindicated, and her true worth is recognised and rewarded.
While all these elements are recreated in the film, Rozema makes some significant innovations. Firstly, she bring the question of slavery--Sir Thomas's 'interests' in Antigua--from the background into the foreground. In the novel there were subtle parallels between slavery and the dependence of people like Fanny. In the film slavery is a source of deep corruption, which sows the seed of brutality and violence in the heart of the aristocratic family. The other big change is in the character of Fanny. Rozema has integrated the character from the novel with the character of Jane Austen herself, using diaries and early writings to create a new Fanny who is witty, passionate and energetic. This Fanny is not prone to fainting--she is more likely to jump on a horse and gallop around in the middle of the night to cast off her frustrations.
It is obvious why the writer and director wanted to revamp Fanny, whose feeble character is often thought too goody-goody and wimpish for 20th century readers, but I am not sure the world needed another feisty, spirited heroine. Fanny ends up being neither fish nor fowl, not satirical enough to be Jane Austen, too perky to be Fanny Price. I think it would have been more interesting to have a heroine who was quiet, plain and obscure, whose strength of belief is all the greater because she is so used to deference and gratitude.
More importantly, I think the film--while fun and entertaining--fails to do justice to the subtlety of Austen's characters. Her great power is to suggest personality and the nature of relationships through small incidents like a game of cards or a discussion about improving an estate. Her characters' inner lives are brilliantly expressed through their outer actions. In contrast, I found this film heavy handed, with images of brutality, sex and even a dash of lesbian chic all signposting the characters with neon lights. This film is a love story in which good triumphs over evil, whereas the book is much more. As WH Auden put it, Austen's skill lay in the fact that, 'An English spinster of the middle class/ Describe the honourable effects of brass/ Reveal so frankly, with such sobriety/ The economic basis of society.'
The Cider House Rules
Dir: Lasse Hallstrom
Based on a John Irving novel, with a strong ensemble cast including Michael Caine, The Cider House Rules is an impressive coming of age film. The story takes place in New England during the Second World War--a time when abortion is illegal. Dr Larch, played by Caine, takes care of an orphanage called St Clouds. He also performs abortions. Homer is one of the children in his care who grows up helping Larch deliver unwanted babies, as well as witnessing abortions. Larch wants Homer to take over when he is gone, but there is a problem--Homer disagrees with abortion. However, Larch, believing right firmly to be on his side, expects it to be only a matter of time before Homer comes round and accepts Larch's role for him. In a powerful scene, after Larch has forced Homer to see the dreadful result of a botched abortion, Larch argues that it is their responsibility to perform abortions because they have the ability to do it safely.
With pressure from Larch unabating, Homer feels that his life is being mapped out for him. He is in his late teens, yet he has discovered little beyond St Clouds. When Candy and her boyfriend, a well-off couple, arrive in need of an early and discreet abortion, Homer seizes the opportunity to hitch a ride away with them and takes a job on their apple farm.
His new life is exciting. Away from the orphanage, he finds a new family. Mr Rose is the dignified head of the black labourers with whom Homer shares the old cider house. The cider house rules are pinned up on the wall. They are petty rules written by people who don't have to follow them, designed to remind others of their place in the pecking order. Homer develops strong relationships with Mr Rose, his daughter Rose Rose, and a more passionate one with Candy while her fiance is away at war. It is through his experiences with them that Homer grows and flourishes. When it is discovered that Rose Rose is pregnant he has to confront his beliefs. Homer must decide for himself which rules and values he is going to be guided by. Rules and laws are ignored and broken throughout--deciding which ones to keep and which to reject goes to the heart of the film.
This is a strongly pro-choice film but it is not issue-driven, despite the fact that the question of abortion is very prominent. It is surprising that there are no reports in the US of reaction against this from pro-lifers.
The Cider House Rules reveals the defining moments in the transition to adulthood without cliche. The complexities of relationships, heightened by race and class, are conveyed with great subtlety. Superb acting (especially from Toby Maguire, who plays Homer) combined with a screenplay written by the author himself means the film succeeds in avoiding sentimentality. It has funny moments too. This is a film that is definitely worth seeing.
Ordinary Decent Criminal
Dir: Thaddeus O'Sullivan
This film is a story about the life of the General, Dublin gangster Martin Cahill. Except it's not--because the life of Martin Cahill has been done very well, very recently, in John Boorman's The General, and the producers didn't want to make the same film twice. So whereas The General took the classic gangster film structure of the rise and fall of a crime lord and layered it with comment on the psychology of Cahill, and on society in general, Ordinary Decent Criminal settles for changing the names, removing the social context, speeding up the pace and turning it into a knockabout comedy.
Michael Lynch (Kevin Spacey) is Dublin's most notorious gangster, his brazen robberies making him the bane of the Gardaí and a hero to the working class Dubliners. He is brilliant, witty and clever, planning the robberies he carries out with as much concern for the spectacle as for the loot. Lynch wants to do over the establishment and challenge the authorities, culminating in the theft of Caravaggio's The Taking of Christ. The Gardaí try to foil Michael's thefts, but he cleverly tricks them each time, and we are encouraged to see the police as stupid, incompetent and cruel. The film tries hard to make Lynch and his gang as 'cool' as possible by portraying none of them as particularly violent.
There are some interesting sentiments struggling to get out--like solidarity, exemplified in a flashback to Michael's early life where he and his family defy the bailiffs and the local councillors who are trying to knock their block of flats down. When they occupy their flat they are offered the council's best accommodation rather than tossed out onto the streets, showing the value of sticking together and not betraying 'your own'.
The film is well-paced and exciting in parts, but it leaves you with the feeling that there is a lot of gloss and not very much substance. Although Kevin Spacey is a brilliant and versatile actor and he tries his best with the script, he can't save this film on his own.
The story of Cahill's life and death has been changed into a tale of the cost of fame. Instead of a study of urban crime and the mindset of those involved in it, Ordinary Decent Criminal is a slapstick farce about how a fun-loving guy achieves fame and notoriety to the cost of his career and friendships.
by Tennessee Williams
Royal National Theatre, London
Baby Doll lives in a house in Mississippi that has no furniture--except a baby's crib. Baby Doll's husband is Archie Lee Meighan. His cotton business is going to rack and ruin. It is slowly disintegrating in the humid heat of the delta.
You can almost smell the rotting timbers of Archie's cotton gin in the Birmingham Rep's exciting stage adaptation of Tennessee Williams's and Elia Kazan's 1956 film that has now transferred to the National Theatre. You can certainly smell the cheap whiskey on Archie's breath.
Archie is a frustrated man. Baby Doll will not let him touch her until she is 20 years old--which is in a couple of days time. But unless he can get some money together and get the furniture back from the hire purchase merchant all agreements are off.
When Archie married Baby Doll he promised her that he would restore the house, and by implication the South, to its full glory. He knows he has failed. Archie's nemesis, and Baby Doll's hope, is the smart and good looking Italian Silva Vacarro, who runs the nearby Syndicate plantation. Vacarro's big modern concern is forcing all the other small-time cotton growers and processors to the wall. The Italian is more sexually attractive than Archie and the other men in the town. As Baby Doll admits to him, the local men hang around 'like sick dogs'.
By the 1950s in America the old rule of the South, of the former slave economy, was threatened on all sides. But that is not to say that the old cur had no teeth left in its gums--the South in 1950s America could certainly bite back. The civil rights movement might have had 'right' on its side, and ultimately the tide of history, but much blood would be spilt before black kids could go to 'white schools' or black men and women could exercise their constitutional right to vote.
Like all of Tennessee Williams's work, such as A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, Baby Doll is charged with sexual tension. All sorts of codes and signposts about sexual relations between the dominating and the dominated, those who repel and attract simultaneously--black and white, men and women, and men and men--litter the text.
The film certainly got up the nose of the bigots, mainly because of the promotional poster that had Baby Doll lying in her crib, wearing a slip and sucking her thumb. The equivalent of today's Cardinal Winning, Cardinal Spellman, warned against 'Catholic people from patronising this film under pain of sin'. Time magazine described it as 'just possibly the dirtiest American-made motion picture that has ever been legally exhibited'.
Yet for all its exposure of the hatreds on which the deep South was built, Baby Doll shows that Williams was not without affection for it. He is certainly unsure of what would take its place. Vacarro may be an attractive, dynamic character but he is not a wholly pleasant one. And you are drawn to a certain sympathy for Archie Lee Meighan.
He is battling against forces that are snatching his past certainties away. When he sticks out his pigeon chest to Vacarro and proclaims, 'In this county where I was brought up I got position. I got position,' you can hear his agony.
This production is added to by a brilliant and very clever set design that switches you from theatre to movie. The performances are great. Of course, Tennessee Williams is somewhat dated. If someone wrote the play today it would seem very tame stuff. But put yourself in the 1950s, in a society with the storm clouds gathering and on the brink of massive upheavals, and you begin to feel that the past is not so much of a foreign country.
Timon of Athens
by William Shakespeare
Barbican Theatre, London
'In Timon of Athens', wrote Karl Marx, 'Shakespeare attributes to money two qualities. It is the visible deity, the transformation of all human and natural qualities into their opposite, the universal confusion and inversion of things; it brings incompatibles into fraternity. It is the universal whore, the universal pander between men and nations.'
Timon was Marx's favourite Shakespeare play, and that is hardly surprising. It's the story of a profligate prince, surrounded by a court of flatterers and parasites, who fritters his fortune away on gifts and pleasure. Bankrupt, his creditors close in on him, but he finds that his erstwhile friends reject all his pleas for help. Meanwhile the young general, Alcibiades, falls out with the Athenian senate and is banished. An embittered Timon leaves Athens and turns his back on humanity, a beggar in the wilderness.
Grubbing for roots outside the cave in which he dwells, he finds gold. Again he gives it away but this time in contempt--to Alcibiades so that he can pay the army he has raised against Athens; to the two prostitutes he has in tow; to some bandits. The Athenian senators he drives away in fury, along with the corrupt courtiers who come to ask for his help. Alcibiades enters Athens and is about to destroy the city when news comes to him of Timon's death.
The plot reveals the main problem with the play: it is very hard to make it convincing as a drama. There is no evidence that it was ever performed in Shakespeare's lifetime, and it seems to have been left unfinished.
Subsequently it was widely performed in modified versions, but in modern times it is one of the least frequently shown of all the plays. This is the first time in 50 years that it has been performed on a 'big' London stage.
This is a shame because, as Marx appreciated--perhaps from personal experience as much as his political insight--Timon of Athens is a huge indictment of the corrupting power of gold and contains some stunning poetry and imagery. It is also one of the few Shakespeare plays which is as much about ideas as about emotions. This is a play with a message and in this sense it feels very modern.
The modern feeling is strengthened by a staging which uses a live jazz set written by Duke Ellington for a 1963 Canadian production, and by the strong emphasis on the corruption and sexual ambiguity of Timon's court.
In this production the dancing girls who appear at a banquet in the first part of the play are Greek warriors, who twine themselves round Timon's male guests (the only women who appear in the play are prostitutes).
This isn't just a clever idea of the director--it reflects the reality of the court of James I which Shakespeare was targeting in the play. The court was dominated by wealthy young men, all seeking to buy the king's favour. Everything depended on favours and lavish gifts. As one historian of the period notes, 'Gift-giving was not just a spontaneous act of generosity, it was an integral part of the package of obligations and indebtedness which accompanied any transaction of services.' And sexual favours--given or bought--were also part of this courtly ritual.
Suddenly Marx's favourite Shakespeare play acquires a new and more searching force. It was written not just as indictment of the corrupting power of money, but as an attack on a ruling elite that was increasingly out of touch with reality. Timon is almost prophetic. The profligacy of the Stuarts proved to be their downfall--and it was parliament's refusal to bankroll Charles I which played a key part in the conflict that was to end with a revolutionary struggle just 35 years after this play was written.