Issue 243 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published July/August 2000 Copyright © Socialist Review
Two recent films have returned to a favourite Hollywood theme--the little man or woman against the corporation. On the face of it, Erin Brockovich and The Insider are much the same kind of film--a small and powerless cog in the corporate wheel has a crisis of conscience, decides to take on big business and wins in the process. The conclusion implicit in these films, it might appear, is that justice will always emerge victorious and that American democracy can always be persuaded, eventually, to speak for the 'ordinary person'.
Erin Brockovich, an unemployed single mother, more or less forces a large local law firm to take her on as a clerk. Its president, played by Albert Finney, is living proof that lawyers keep the heavy end of the catering business alive single-handed. Julia Roberts' Erin is closely modelled on the real woman--she's feisty, brash and wears very short skirts. Despite the major disadvantages of being a woman and poor, she peeks into a case file and becomes obsessed with a group of families suffering high levels of cancer because they use the chemically contaminated water emissions of a nearby chemical plant. Her insistence and Finney's weary liberalism finally combine to win a massive out of court settlement.
Up to this point there's little difference, in the story at least, from The Insider, whose scientist hero is stricken by conscience and decides to blow the whistle on the tobacco corporations. What he has to reveal is that those tobacco giants deliberately raised the deadly nicotine content in cigarettes to create dependency and addiction. Again the outcome was positive and Philip Morris was only the first of the major corporations to pay out billions in compensation.
What makes the two films different is their ending. Finney's last gesture in the film is to deliver $2 million to Erin--a bonus for her work. After the film's release the 300 or so families she had helped expressed anger and dissatisfaction at Erin's new millionaire status. That throwaway line early in the film--'We'll do it for nothing, just 40 percent of any settlement'--suddenly took on a new significance. That's around $140 million! That suddenly changes the meaning of the moral crusade--not that it began as a project for making money, nor that Erin had any kind of ulterior motive all along. The point for me was that the system both rewarded the lawyers, and gave them an honoured place at the high table. They had vindicated the American way of life, proven its capacity to judge itself and make correct moral decisions.
Not so The Insider. It belongs to another current altogether--its realism leaves a morally vindicated but personally and financially broken man behind. The ending is dark and unresolved. Yes, the corporations lost a battle, but you know their forces still have plenty of friends in Washington, and that they would diversify and find other ways to make a billion or two. (And we know that smoking in the Third World, and among the young worldwide, is rising again.)
The two films seemed to belong to two different film traditions. On the one hand there were the witty and brilliant social comedies of Frank Capra, made in the 1930s, like Mr Smith Goes to Washington and particularly Mr Deedes Goes to Town (1936) where Gary Cooper plays a small town innocent who inherits a bank and takes on the powerful financial interests as a representative of America's 'little people'--and wins. Capra's work was imbued with the populist optimism of the New Deal.
The Insider speaks from a different tradition --the 'hard-boiled' world of Chandler and Hammett whose heroes (or anti-heroes), Philip Marlowe or The Continental Op, were marginal and isolated figures who knew how the cards were stacked. They took on and exposed the rich, the bankers, the corrupt city lawmen and the bent judges but they had no illusions that America would wake into a bright, new moral morning. On the contrary, Marlowe always ended the novels in a grey misty dawn in a hostile urban landscape, with a hangover and a taste of stale tobacco in his mouth. There was a kind of deep moral impulse driving them forward but they had no anticipation of reward, or that the world would change, or that America would ever be true to its public declarations.
You can't help feeling, as scandal follows scandal in Washington, that Erin Brockovich has now joined the pantheon of Myths of the American Way, and probably now stands proudly side by side with Forest Gump, while The Insider was abandoned as his champions moved on to find Another Good Story.
The Holocaust Exhibition
Imperial War Museum, London
In an attempt to explain and understand the Holocaust this new exhibition does far more than record the horrors of the concentration camps. Using hundreds of photographs, eyewitness accounts and exhibits it takes us from the end of the First World War through the rise of the Nazis, the barbarity of the Holocaust, and ends with the liberation of the concentration camps.
The exhibition shows how the Nazis justified their 'dream' of a pure German state using pseudo-scientific ideas that showed Jews to be 'subhuman'. We see Nazi propaganda films that 'show' the Jews to be 'parasitic' on German culture and society, posters and leaflets that talk about a pure 'Aryan race'.
Anyone who didn't fit the Nazis' ideal was ruthlessly eliminated. The mentally ill, homosexuals and Gypsies were eradicated in turn. Some of the exhibits are extremely hard hitting--the dissection table from a Nazi centre for the mentally ill, or the photographs of children torn from their families, for example--this brings home the brutality of the regime. Some 170,000 died as victims of the Nazis' 'euthanasia' programmes, including 5,000 children.
The second part of the exhibition deals with the Second World War and the Holocaust. It shows how the Nazis attempted to liquidate the Jews firstly from Germany, but then, as they conquered countries across Europe, they initiated the 'Final Solution'. At first, special armed groups were used to systematically round up Jews and shoot them but later, as it became clear that many of those ordered to shoot couldn't continue and as more and more Jews were rounded up from occupied Europe, a mechanised system of slaughter was introduced--the death camps.
At one point in the exhibition you are confronted by a 13 metre long model of Auschwitz-Birkenau, depicting the selection of 2,000 Hungarian Jews. We are taken through each step of the process from the arrival, where the Nazi guards still pretended that the Jews were coming to a work camp, to the selection of those fit for work and the rejection of those unable to work--children, pregnant women, the old and infirm--who were taken to be gassed. Above the model are piles of shoes and other possessions of the victims of the gas chambers. Some 16 Holocaust survivors have contributed their thoughts and memories to the exhibition.
The exhibition also tells the stories of the revolts in different concentration camps. It depicts the Warsaw Ghetto uprising in 1943 when, using stolen weapons, Jews fought back in an attempt to stop the deportation of thousands more to the death camps. Some 30,000 Jewish partisans fought the Nazi occupiers in Eastern Europe.
Those who believe that Britain and the rest of the world did all they could to prevent the Holocaust, or help those who were victims, will be shocked by the sections of the exhibit dealing with the governments who wouldn't bomb the railway lines to Auschwitz, or who ignored the impassioned pleas of those who escaped the Nazis.
For too long in Britain there has been the lack of a permanent exhibition dealing with the Holocaust. This display is a powerful rectification of that, and will help educate and arm us all in the struggle against racism and fascism.
May 2000-April 2001
The growth of Abstract Expressionism in America this century has a contradictory history. On the one hand modernists were denounced on the floor of Congress in the years after the Second World War by Republicans like George Dondero, who declared that all modern art was 'Communistic'. They were convinced that 'abstractionism aims to destroy by the creation of brainstorms', and asserted that in some cases abstract paintings were really secret maps pointing to strategic United States fortifications. 'Modern art is actually a means of espionage,' claimed another opponent in a frenzy of Cold War paranoia. 'If you know how to read them, modern paintings will disclose the weak spots in US fortifications.' On the other hand, artists like de Kooning, Jackson Pollock and Rothko found themselves championed by the CIA (in the form of the Congress for Cultural Freedom) and at the forefront of a vast programme of cultural propaganda whose mission it was to win people away from Communism and prove that America was the centre of the world--politically, industrially and culturally.
The current exhibition at the Tate Liverpool is also full of contradictions. Based on the work of artists who were attempting to break away from the orthodoxy that Abstract Expressionism had become by the 1960s (and including work by Josef Albers, Morris Louis, Robert Motherwell and David Smith), the publicity for the show claims that the work, made during a period of 'optimism and technological change' mirrors the present day. And when you walk into the exhibition you are at first hit by a sense of confidence, energy, vitality and of movement. Large canvases and steel sculptures, and bright, exuberant, intense colours dominate the space. Two of Morris Louis's paintings are a riot of rainbow trickles speeding across white canvas. Richard Serra's 2-2-1: To Dickie and Tina, though made from metal, seems to be in flux. David Smith's sculpture Cube XIX is a series of stainless steel blocks balanced precariously against each other but reaching skywards like a rocket about to take off in the race to dominate space. But after a while you are hit by a more questioning, more uncertain, more doubting mood. One corner is dominated by Robert Motherwell's huge Open No 121 (Bolton Landing Elegy) in shades of black. The bands of bright clear colour in Louis's paintings can't quite reach each other, can't quite connect, and the centre of Alpha-Phi is a white void. VAV is a block in dark shades of brick red behind which are glimpses of brighter colours trying to creep round the edges. And David Smith's sculptures might be steel rockets reaching for the sky, but they are also harsh, industrial and urban--on one hand a reminder of his time working as a riveter on an assembly line, on the other, piles of fallen skyscrapers leaning against each other.
There was clearly a lot for artists of 1960s America to be doubtful about and, whilst the Tate may want us to look back on the era with the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia, and may want us to look at the work as a series of formal experiments which 'avoid narrative or expression', at least some of the paintings and sculptures raise questions about the world both then and now. They are haunted by the shadows of the Vietnam War, the struggles for civil rights, and a questioning of American values and dominance. Undoubtedly the 1960s saw great technological changes in America, but much of it was devoted to advancements in armaments and the space race, and driven by the desire to prove themselves superior to the Communist Bloc.
One question, however, remains. Why has the Tate Liverpool chosen to mount this exhibition now and to promote it as a set of pictures which speak to our optimism? Would it be as paranoid as those who thought Jackson Pollock was disclosing US secrets in his paintings to suggest the Tate wants to promote Blair's Britain as a place full of optimism? The pictures, though, tell a different story.
National Gallery, London
14 June-17 September
At first glance you'd be forgiven for thinking the Young British Artists were having their latest exhibition. The sleek, brightly coloured awnings advertising the 'Encounters: New Art from Old' exhibition contrast highly with the textured wallpaper and ornamental surroundings of the National Gallery.
The works on display, though, are not by the infamous Young British Artists--who, incidentally, were asked to contribute but declined--but from 24 contemporary masters from Britain, Europe and North America. These include Richard Hamiton, David Hockney, Anthony Caro, RB Kitaj and many others, such as Louise Bourgeois, the artist responsible for the colossal towers currently on show at the new Tate Modern. Although these contemporary artists are very much a part of the art establishment, you can't help feeling that the National Gallery has been exceptionally brave to open its prestigious collection to contemporary interpretation. So why have they done this?
They would have you believe that this is a straightforward attempt to show how new art comes from old, how the contemporary masters borrow elements from the old masters--the evolution of art, if you like. Is this a serious attempt to acknowledge the importance that contemporary art has in society by embarrassing these artists into its interiors? Or is the National Gallery feeling left out of the hustle and bustle of the contemporary London art scene, and perhaps sees this as an attempt to cash in on the popularity and success of modern art in the capital at present? Nevertheless, 'Encounters' provides a unique chance to view some of the most celebrated modern artists and gives you a rare insight into the way in which they have been inspired by the works in the gallery's collection.
Some have responded by simply painting versions of their chosen works, such as Howard Hodgkins's version of Seurat's Bathers at Asniéres. Others, more interestingly, have responded with interpretations of works relating to the techniques involved in the execution of the originals, such as in David Hockney's portraits of the gallery's warders, after the techniques and compositional elements involved in Ingres's Monsieur de Norvins. It also includes those who have been inspired by the subject matter of works in the collection such as Stubbs's Whistlejacket, which Jeff Wall has responded to by showing a large format transparency image of a rather lonely looking working donkey from Blackpool named Champion in his work A Donkey in Blackpool. Cy Twombly's works, Three Studies From the Temeraire, is a boldly executed monochromatic tryptych based on Turner's Temeraire. It looks fresh and exciting enough in the drab interior of the National Gallery, but you can't help noticing the sense of frustration and almost disillusionment the paintings evoke. This observation is echoed in Frank Auerbach's work Park Village East and RB Kitaj's critical dig at the injustices and ironies of the art market in The Billionaire in Vincent's Chair (which was painted by the penniless Van Gogh and later sold for a record price at auction).
All these elements and more make this an important exhibition that will inevitably raise the level of critical analysis and intellectual debate over contemporary art.
In a recent film for BBC's Newsnight Michael Billington, the longstanding theatre critic for the Guardian, bemoaned the lack of politics on the British stage. He argued that the current fashion for plays of personal experience and lifestyle has had a damaging effect on the theatre. There was a good deal of truth in what he said.
However, there are still a fair number of dramatists producing work which has interesting things to say, and powerful and innovative ways of saying them. Given the sheer scale of the event, it should come as no surprise that many of these people bring their work to the Edinburgh Festival.
The pick of the (official) international festival's small theatre programme looks likely to be the Abbey Theatre's production of Ramon del Valle-Inclan's Barbaric Comedies. This English language adaptation by leading Irish writer Frank McGuinness brings the Spanish tale of the tumultuous conflicts within a wealthy family to the Scottish stage. Director Calixto Bieito's last Edinburgh production, in 1998, was met with considerable acclaim, and this latest play looks to be no different.
The Edinburgh Fringe's theatre programme is so huge that selecting shows from it can seem like a daunting task. However, there are a number of plays which come recommended by the companies' past records.
Although much of the best of the Fringe drama will be found at the Assembly Rooms and the Traverse Theatre, there are a number of accomplished companies playing in the city's smaller venues. One of these is the young American ensemble the Riot Group, who perform their latest piece, The Zero Yard, at the Garage venue. The programme notes promise us a play in which 'four prisoners battle for supremacy in a psychological cage'. Having had the pleasure of seeing their award-winning play, Wreck the Airline Barrier, last year, I can vouch for the company's brilliant combination of theatrical and political radicalism.
If you are looking for classic theatre with modern resonances then look no further than Theatre Babel's production of Euripides' Medea at the Assembly Rooms. Adapted by Scotland's outstanding playwright Liz Lochhead, with the title role performed by the excellent Maureen Beattie, this is a modern version which captivated audiences at its premiere performances in Glasgow earlier in the year. Both the contemporary Scots language and the superb reflections on the politics of gender and nationalism make it a great piece of theatre.
Also at the Assembly Rooms is Steven Berkoff's Messiah, a radical retelling of the Christ story, which is likely to outrage Scotland's religious pro Section 28 lobby as much as it entertains theatre lovers. In addition, the venue offers another chance to see (for one performance only) Pip Utton's powerful one-man play Adolf, a justifiably acclaimed exploration of Hitler's Nazism, and contemporary xenophobia and fascism.
The Traverse can always be relied upon to offer a strong Fringe programme. This year's plays include the extremely relevant The Bogus Woman: The Red Room, a piece by playwright Kay Adshead about an African journalist seeking asylum. The popular Scottish company NVA's one-woman play The Gimmick, about a woman growing up in Harlem in the 1960s and 1970s, also looks interesting.
These are just a few of the possible highlights in Edinburgh this year. Many great plays (and even more poor ones) will be performed by virtually unknown companies in a wide variety of weird and wonderful venues. However, if you don't have the time, or the money, to play Russian roulette with the festival programmes the above tips will hopefully be helpful for socialist theatre-goers.
International Festival information: Phone 0131 473 2000.
Edinburgh Fringe information: Phone 0131 226 5138.
The City(La Ciudad)
Dir: David Riker
This film attempts to shed light on the lives of the Latin American immigrant community in New York in the mid-1990s. The City took five years to make between 1992 and 1997. The results are excellent.
It tells the story of four subjects of a photography studio used by the local community. Jose--the day labourer--who has to clean bricks for 15 cents a time. The puppeteer and his daughter, who are forced to live on a wasteland, and make a living from a Punch and Judy show. There are also Francisco and Maria, who, feeling lost in the big city, attempt to find companionship.
The fourth story is about Ana, a seamstress. This is the strongest as it shows how, faced with the illness of her daughter, she is forced to confront her boss. She needs $400 to pay for her daughter's treatment but has not been paid for weeks. Ana sells dresses around shops but is quickly rebuked and humiliated. In desperation she stops working and, despite fear of the boss, the rest of her workmates join her.
The City shows the situation of ordinary people who, far away from friends and family, try to build relationships and solidarity with each other. They constantly question why they left home in the first place, but are soon reminded by letters from home telling of the poverty of their families.
It is not a sentimental film. It shows how hard the lives of the people involved are. It also shows how they are denied basic rights that everyone should have, and how they attempt to forget their lives. The day labourers play scratchcards on a street corner hoping for a quick escape from their lives.
Ana is played by Silvia Gomez. She and the other members of the cast are Latin American immigrants the director made contact with while distributing 40,000 leaflets advertising his project. It is their performances that add to the quality of the film.
The City exposes the underbelly of the US long boom, the base of cheap labour and disgusting working conditions. Its release coincided with the fact that Spanish-speaking American workers form the fastest growing section of US trade unions and are fighting back. It is a faultless film that must be seen.
by Jean-Claude Grumberg
Tricycle Theatre, London
In an old Jewish joke, two deserters from the Tsarist army are lined up in front of the firing squad. 'Any last requests?' demands the officer. 'Yes,' says one. 'Could I have a blindfold?' 'Tsk,' says his friend. 'Don't make trouble.'
This play has something of the same sense of humour. It's 1930 in the Polish city of Vilno and a group of amateur Jewish actors are rehearsing a play about the Dreyfus affair, the famous case of the French Jewish captain who was falsely accused and condemned to permanent exile for betraying military secrets to the Germans, only to be exonerated 11 years later after a tremendous campaign led by the novelist Emile Zola. The rehearsals are not going well. The actors are wooden and the director is in despair because the cast don't seem to understand how, in a society where the Jews felt safe, a wave of anti-Semitism could split the country in two. Young Michael, playing Dreyfus, is only interested in making love to Myriam, who is playing his wife, a fact that does not please Arnold, playing Zola, who feels that his daughter could do better than a penniless cobbler.
This is a very funny play, which owes a lot to a new translation by Jack Rosenthal, who's given us London's Burning and over 100 episodes of Coronation Street, as well as plays such as The Knowledge. But it's a comedy with a political edge, and this is well brought out by the director, Nicholas Kent, who was responsible for The Colour of Justice, the play about the Stephen Lawrence inquiry.
Getting the balance right with a political comedy is not easy. This production plays up the humour, and one of the actors made the comment after the performance that he felt the play would be improved if it made the point that the characters were all destined for extermination.
Yet the play has more complexity than this. The Dreyfus case was historically significant not just because it split French society, but because it was used by the founder of Zionism, Theodore Herzl, as proof that Jews could never be part of society and needed their own state. Resistance to anti-Semitism was pointless--it was best to accept it as inevitable.
So in turn we see the different ways in which the Jews adapted, or did not adapt, to Polish society. Some assimilated totally and, like Dreyfus himself, discovered that this was no guarantee against racist persecution. Some were resigned to persecution, with their 'suitcases always packed', as one character remarks. Some looked to workers' organisation and the Soviet Union, as with the young man who writes back from Warsaw to relate how he's joined the Communist Party. And a few looked to Zionism--there is a nice comic scene where a Zionist speaker arrives to address a meeting and the actors break off their rehearsal to advise him on how he should address his audience.
The play doesn't pronounce judgement over these alternatives, but it does show that resistance is not useless, as when the racists who invade the rehearsal room are put to flight by a fake Dreyfus wearing a fake uniform and brandishing a fake sword. All the more poignant when you consider the historical fact that the city of Vilno (now part of Lithuania) was the scene of one of the most heroic attempts to resist the Nazis by the socialist and Zionist left, and of its most grotesque betrayal by right wing Zionists who collaborated with their persecutors.
by David Edgar
National Theater, London
Albert Speer was Hitler's architect and, from 1942 to the end of the Second World War, the armaments minister of the Third Reich. His defence at the Nuremberg war crimes trials, which the Allies held after the war, was not the now cliched line, 'I was only following orders.' Speer gave orders and was at the heart of Hitler's regime. Rather, he argued that the extreme division between competing units of the Nazi state meant that he simply did not know about the systematic murder of 6 million Jews and millions of others in eastern Europe.
In this new play by David Edgar, Speer repeats on several occasions the refrain, 'I could have known. I should have known. But I did not know.' Speer's defence was successful. He did not hang at Nuremberg--he was sentenced to 20 years in Spandau prison instead. Edgar's play, which is based on Gita Sereny's award winning biography, Albert Speer: His Battle with the Truth, turns on the issue of Speer's personal culpability for the crimes of the Third Reich. What emerges is not only the destruction of Speer's defence, but also insights into how the Nazi regime operated.
Speer joined the Nazi Party before Hitler seized power in January 1933. There are conflicting accounts of the precise date in the play--one example of the evasion which we learn is characteristic of Speer's reminiscences. His architecture professor extols the simplicity of German rural buildings against the modernism of the cities. Such conservative reaction was typical of German intellectual life at the time. So too was the way Speer joined the Nazis. A student friend invited him to a rally where he was seduced by the vision of a strong nationalist movement, with an iron leader, which could lead Germany out of the ruin of the Great Depression.
Speer has no great ideological attachment to the party. His advancement within it resembles the rise of any ambitious young middle class professional within a self serving bureaucracy. He renovates the offices of the Nazi propaganda chief, Goebbels. From there he oversees the refurbishment of Hitler's Chancellory and the design of a major Nazi rally in Nuremberg. There is a frightening normality about Speer's rise. And central to it all is Hitler--brilliantly played by Roger Allam. For Speer, he is an eccentric benefactor. We are seeing all this through Speer's eyes. But even here there are indications of the murderous anti-Semitism that was at the centre of Hitler's world view.
The play turns on the exchanges between Speer and a pastor in Spandau prison. The pastor offers to act as a confessor to help Speer come to terms with what he has done. This device could have gone terribly wrong and allowed the story to become a trite tale of redemption. What we see instead is a systematic attempt by Speer to rewrite his own role in the Nazi regime.
He visits the obscene slave labour camp at Dora, but insists he did not know of the policy of extermination. He hears comments about atrocities on a tour of the Eastern Front and lets them pass him by. He suspects that his predecessor as armaments minister was probably murdered by Hitler in 1942; he represses the thought. He publishes his memoirs after his release from prison. They are a sell out success. But various historians begin to challenge his account. One confronts him at a public lecture and shows that he was almost certainly at a meeting where SS chief Himmler outlined the programme of liquidating the Jews of Europe.
Speer's response is telling. He says, 'I have satisfied myself that I did not know.' His twisting of the truth says something about the psychology of the technocrats in the Nazi state who, though not directly part of implementing the programme of mass murder, knew about it.
In the final act of the play Speer's careful defence breaks down. He can no longer lie even to himself. He is forced to admit that he had to have known because he 'turned away'.
The last few scenes of the play are uneven. The script and direction hold together far less well than the earlier sections. This weakness stems from the play's strength. It is focused on Speer's psychology--in Gita Sereny's words, 'his battle with the truth'. There is a danger that we are drawn to identify with him as he wrestles with what he has done. By and large the play avoids that but at points you feel uncomfortably close to Speer's traumas.
That may be the price of seriously looking at how someone from the 'cultured, civilised' German middle classes could suspend moral judgment and become a willing accessory to extermination. But ultimately Speer was not simply swept up by the Nazi movement. He had power and he had choices. He chose to pursue his career within a murderous tyranny and to hide behind its bureaucratic division of labour.
Mrs Steinberg and the Byker Boys
by Michael Wilcox
Gate Theatre, London
The Red Flag charity shop run by the staunch Communist Mrs Steinberg (Miriam Karlin) stumbles along supporting its 'socialist' causes until Matty (Paul Nicholls--Joe from Eastenders to most of us), the youth trainee turns up. In Mrs Steinberg's absence he transforms the shop into 'New Red Flag'--a fiercely competitive web-wise business flogging rarities to the highest bidder.
Apart from the obvious sideswipes at New Labour and privatisation, there is a satirical comment on the state capitalist regimes of Eastern Europe and the capitalist economies which replaced them which is critical of both. Mrs Steinberg states that she's 'a little less Stalinist than she used to be, and perhaps those 10,000 pencils to Cuba were a mistake'.
Underneath the humour is an attempt to explore questions concerning the family and sexuality. The two young trainees' homosexual relationship, refreshingly, is physically portrayed rather than just alluded to, and is counterposed against the two older women's lascivious discussions about 'stupendous shags'. The violence of the system is reflected by the way in which Matty is beaten by his father for his homosexuality, and how Matty, as he becomes more caught up in the competition of the system, turns his anger on those around him when challenged.
It's a warm and funny play which only occasionally resorts to stereotypes, with strong performances by both Nicholls and Karlin. If you've ever used 1917 as your cashcard pin number or tried to buy a rare record in a charity shop, go and see it.