Issue 244 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published September 2000 Copyright © Socialist Review
Five million people in Britain watch it every night. In Spain it left every other programme standing, and there are reputed to be around 400 dedicated websites in the US. Big Brother is compulsive--a friend tells me that her mate is working on a remote project in the Himalayas but gets to an internet cafe twice a week to catch up on the doings and undoings of the Big Brother house.
So why? What's fascinating about watching a group of ruthless self publicists stabbing each other in the back for a £70,000 prize? They're not interesting individuals--the world beyond the artificial lawn doesn't exist for any of them. They don't work or listen to music. Isolated from their own lives, they have no friends or family or memories or yearnings to share. They are rats in a maze, given tasks to do (riding an exercise bike an imaginary 1,100 miles, making a lousy whodunnit, memorising fatuous details about one another) and rewarded with food or videos.
But you can't imagine much of an audience for rats in a maze. Or maybe you can. I remembered all those animal programmes presented first by Desmond Morris and then by David Attenborough. They had the same breathless excitement in their voice--as if they were sharing some family secrets--as they watched scorpions attack each other or spiders trap flies. We watched as they acted out their instinctive behaviours and followed those irrepressible drives to death or self destruction. And here it was again--the same whispered intimacy, the same patterns traced for the spellbound spectator of the drama of the human zoo. That's what Morris called it.
Suddenly it began to connect. This range of television programmes meshed and interlocked. It began innocently enough with the earnestly sociological 'fly on the wall' documentaries like The Family, and much later Driving School and Hotel. At first the individual people were shielded--blacked out or their faces hidden behind a flying unfocused patch on the screen. Then came Jerry Springer and all the others. They gave us people at the extremes, the most damaged and pained, and hauled them onto a stage. The argument was that they were not paid, that they were free to come and go, that they were greedy for fame.
The truth was a lot more complex. When individuals feel isolated and vulnerable the promise to give them a voice carries an implicit threat. The offer is made with all sorts of blandishments. But there is also the strong suggestion that they have already been found and exposed. Their private life is already the topic of discussion for hundreds of people at television headquarters. The rabbit is out of the hat--and there is no possibility that once Oprah or Tricia or Ricky Lake or Donahue or Springer know your secrets they will ever be put back in the drawer. A neighbour, a friend, a colleague--or perhaps some hidden witness--already knows, has already denounced you.
It's not a matter of whether or not to speak, but of whether you defend or justify yourself to this baying horde of instant judges--the same people who now rove the streets of provincial cities like Portsmouth waiting to lynch someone. But what's that got to do with the innocent frolics of Hotel or Airport or The Cruise or You've Been Framed? I always thought that Jeremy Beadle deserved to lie down with Rasputin or Torquemada--that his cheerful Butlin's redcoat facade hid the twisted features of some relentless tormentor. Beside Springer he looks almost innocent--and beside the voice of Big Brother even more so.
There was a sense in which those early documentaries, like The Family, aimed to evoke sympathy or concern, as if the camera were part of a process of understanding. But that was decades ago. Now, on every corner, in every precinct, in most public buildings, schools or colleges cameras follow our movements. Those powerful and tragic pictures of Jamie Bulger being led away are regularly recalled to justify this massive and pervasive intrusion into our lives. Police Camera, Action! and all the other CCTV-based programmes entertain us with the pursuit of pickpockets along Oxford Street or the exposure of gangs of youngsters framed in the act of vandalism.
Is that so very far from Big Brother?
Somehow the pervasive and generalised intrusion into private life has now become legitimate--a game for others to play. We control nothing but can participate as legitimators, umpires without a rule book. We can vote for one person or another to be turfed out--but we cannot vote for them to put back into the world, to rediscover the complex, sometimes confused and often contradictory truth of ordinary lives. Here that richness is reduced to primal instinct, to the battle for survival, to competition and conflict. And as the commentator drones on week after week, it is all 'normalised'--the triumph of instinct over reason, thought, love.
We watch and become complicit. The idea that the millions watch out of interest or concern is a cynical self justification on the part of the television executives making fortunes out of setting each against each. We are waiting for an event--a death, sex, panic, collapse, failure. We are waiting for the lion to eat the Christian.
Big Brother is deeply sinister. Because the victims voluntarily enter the arena does not make it any less a game of life and death. In the name of entertainment more and more people accept day and night surveillance by powerful forces which no longer even show their faces, but hide behind masks and acronyms and nicknames and computer-distorted voices. And at the same time, this reinforces the notion that we share nothing, that we are all isolated atomised cells in a body that moves by instinct and without thought, that we are each other's natural enemies.
The house at Channel 4 feels more and more like Orwell's Room 101.
Colour of Paradise
Dir: Majid Majidi
At a recent meeting in London on the reform movement in Iran, an Iranian woman visiting Britain raised the question as to why the debate was focused on compulsory hejab (wearing the veil), which, as she said, 'is the last thing on women's minds'.
Colour of Paradise, the new film by Majid Majidi, underlines that remark. The excerpts of music that open the film shows the changes that have taken place in Iran in the past few years. Whereas once all music other than government propaganda songs was banned, we now see a teacher sorting through his students' tapes, and in a later scene encouraging a young boy to play 'something livelier' on his keyboard. However, the film is not about the changes that have taken place in Iran--rather it is about how little real change has taken place.
The film is set in the rural areas of northern Iran, and shows the poverty that people there still have to endure. The story is about the relationship between Mohammad, a blind boy from a small village, and his father. It is a story about poverty and the strains it places on family relationships. The film shows clearly the way children are seen as an economic asset, or in this case an economic burden. This is most apparent when Mohammad's grandmother complains about the way Mohammad is being treated by his father, who responds with, 'Who will take care of me in my old age?'
The knowledge that this film is set in an oil-rich country makes the story even more poignant. The film's slow moving and reflective nature allows the viewer to be completely drawn into the lives of the characters, and the scenes of lush landscapes beautifully filmed by Majidi make the story all the more powerful. At the start of the film Mohammad's father is late in collecting Mohammad from school, from which point we observe him trying to keep Mohammad out of the way so that he can remarry.
As the story unfolds and their relationship becomes increasingly strained, the young boy develops an interest in nature and tries to make sense of the world around him. Influenced by his teacher, who has told him that 'you cannot see god, he is everywhere, you can feel him in everything,' the young boy's search shows the relationship between poverty and the strong hold that religion has on the rural population.
The understated nature, the focus on everyday issues and the use of child actors which have become a trademark of recent Iranian films are also clearly visible in Majidi's film. Alongside other Iranian directors, Majidi has taken these aspects, originally developed as a way of getting around the censors, and made them the main feature of his films.
The use of child actors in particular shows the way in which the reform movement has failed even in its limited attempts to bring change. It is due to the banning by the Iranian authorities of any physical contact between adults of the opposite sex, apart from close family members, that directors have opted for children. In Colour of Paradise a scene where Mohammad runs his hand down his sister's face, and another where he holds her hand, could not have been performed by adult actors. Nevertheless Mohsen Ramazani, who plays the lead and is himself blind, puts in an excellent performance.
The choice of subject, particularly by a director such as Majidi, is an indication of the change in mood amongst the Iranian population. Although not overtly critical, this film and Majidi's previous film Children of Heaven certainly raise questions, and are a far cry from the government propaganda films he used to make. More significantly, it shows the potential there is to address wider issues once the censors have been removed.
Dir: Mike Figgis
Timecode is set in Los Angeles. It's about a few hours in the life of a film production company as its executives, employees and would-be employees decide the fate of a film project.
The action is shown on a quartered screen in which the lives of the four leading figures are shown developing and interacting with one another. Each shot is continuous. The effect is therefore both the reverse and, because of the quartered screen, the same as Eisenstein's film montage technique. The audience is drawn to one or other of the panels as the sound is raised on that part of the story but suppressed on the others. But at the same time it is impossible to ignore developments in the other panels.
Timecode is certainly a triumph in a technical sense. Nothing like this has ever been attempted before and, against the odds, the result is not an incomprehensible mess but a narrative whose grip on the audience rests in their desire to watch the interaction between the four panels develop.
There is an intensity to the experience of watching production company head Alex (Stellan Skarsgrd) break up with his partner Emma (Saffron Burrows) when they eventually meet in the same frame, after we have watched them converge from their separate panels. And the fact that all this takes place as Alex's lover and wannabe actress Rose (Salma Hayek) comes into the same building minutes earlier creates its own tension, as does the fact that we watch Rose's own lesbian lover, Lauren (Jeanne Tripplehorn), waiting in a limo just yards away outside the building.
But there are also some very definite weaknesses with Figgis's technique. The complexity of the filming seems to demand a compensatory simplicity of plot. In their separate panels the main characters simply can't interact with too many other people--the demands of coherence won't allow it. The main characters have to interact quickly, much more quickly than I thought they would, or again coherence and the audience's patience would suffer.
Similarly, the subject matter of the film is hardly as demanding as the technique. Hollywood's denizens are shown as vile, self obsessed, drug fixated, money-dominated philistines. But many other films, from Sunset Boulevard to The Player and LA Confidential, have made the same point.
And although the scene in Timecode where a film director explains a proposed film project--the very same project as Timecode--to doubtful company executives may be a nod in the direction of Brecht's alienation technique, it simply comes across as another piece of the very self referential Hollywoodese Timecode is supposed to be criticising. Besides which, when the audience is viewing a four-framed screen, it hardly needs the alienation technique to be reminded that it is watching a film.
In the end this is an interesting technique looking for adequate subject matter. It is interesting to speculate on how a conventional war film, say the opening of Saving Private Ryan, might look if we could share both the attackers' point of view, which we are supposed to share, and that of the defenders, which we are not. In Timecode most of the audience will have so little interest in the fate of the protagonists that the differing views of the same event lack a dramatic conflict.
In the end Timecode leaves you feeling challenged, but you are not sure to what purpose.
Dir: José Luis Cuerda
In 1936 General Francisco Franco led a military coup against the elected Republican government in Spain. His rising was enormously popular with the monarchy, the army and the church--the three pillars of old Spain.
The rising was stopped dead in most of the major cities as workers armed themselves, disarmed the regular troops and established 'anti-fascist committees'. Franco finally crushed the revolutionary working class.
There followed a bleak winter of 36 years, during which no one could seriously discuss the war. Then Franco died, parliamentary democracy was restored, and dozens of films have tried to reopen the questions about the war that were stifled for decades.
Butterfly's Tongue is one such film. It beautifully recreates the world of an asthmatic seven year old lad in a town in Galicia, north west Spain.The youngster enjoys the supreme advantage of being taught by the elderly schoolteacher Don Gregorio, an atheist and a committed Republican. Pretty unlikely, perhaps, in a rural province like Galicia (birthplace of Franco himself), from which the traditional route of escape has been emigration. Don Gregorio cracks open the hidebound beliefs of his students by demonstrating to them what happens in the material world.
Moncho, the young boy, follows his older brother and gets involved in a local town band. Again it is an opening to the forces for change. The band brings jazz rhythms into a society where culture is dominated by an unforgiving church. The film also dwells on Moncho's growing awareness of sex. The object of his interest is Aurora, a friendly seven year old of his own class and the sister of his best mate at school.
The whole scene of growing up in 1930s rural Spain is portrayed a bit like those television adverts for brown bread, where wearing clogs is a deeply satisfying experience. That helps to make the distant political events more striking when they arise.
'The Republicans are burning churches in Barcelona,' says one shocked parishioner to another, after listening to a Sunday sermon. And in the local bar, the radio intones speeches by the extreme right in parliament denouncing the Republic as 'anarchy'.
When the civil war breaks out it is Moncho's teacher, the live-wire from the band, and Aurora's family, who are amongst those carted off by the fascists--all of them fingered by the priest.
Don Gregorio, the old schoolteacher, had retired shortly before Franco's insurrection. In his retirement speech he declaimed, 'If just one generation can grow up free in Spain, we shall never look back.' That turns out to be the message of the film--if education, music, love and marriage could be removed from the control of the church, a brilliant future would open up.
There is hardly an inkling of a class society in Butterfly's Tongue. The film would have us believe that the struggle in Spain in 1936 was for a secular 'Blairist republic'. You could only pull this stroke if you picked on an area of Spain with no industrial working class, no hacienda and no national oppression. Galicia is the nearest you can get. Even then, the Galician language is treated as a joke in the film. Butterfly's Tongue adds nothing to a coherent understanding of the class struggle in Spain, then or now.
There has been much talk about the supposed death of radical theatre. Thankfully, however, these claims of political apathy were dealt a series of hefty blows at this year's Edinburgh Festival. The 'Seattle mood' of resistance and scepticism found its way onto the stage in many and varied forms.
Unsurprisingly, one of the most brilliant examples was from the US itself. The two part satire Americana Absurdum is an affront to 'compassionate conservatives' from New England to New Mexico. The plays intertwine a conflict between big and small business over the profits from the funeral industry and a corporate manslaughter case following a plane crash. As the all-American prom, a mass-murdering Vietnam War 'hero' and a slimy corporate lawyer are held up to ironic scrutiny, what emerges is a sharp, dark and creatively political comedy.
In a similar vein is Dutch writer/performer Jeroen Willems's extraordinary one-man play Voices. Based upon the writings of the Italian writer and film-maker Pasolini and speeches given by Cor Herkstroter, chair of the Shell corporation, it is splendidly set in the aftermath of a bourgeois dinner party. Willems plays five characters, four Pasolini creations who are like members of the capitalist class on truth drugs, and Herkstroter, who tries to restore a bit of PR gloss to the exposed system. A wonderfully clever, tremendously acted piece of radical theatre, Voices was a highlight of the Fringe.
Kay Adshead's play The Bogus Woman, excellently acted by Noma Dumezweni, is a moving and enraging exposé of the terrible human price of the British asylum system. An African political journalist who has been raped and whose family has been murdered arrives in Britain to seek asylum but hits a brick wall of suspicion, derision and, in the notorious Group 4 Campsfield detention centre, casual racial and sexual abuse. It was created from Adshead's broad research and discussions with people involved in the Campsfield uprising in 1999. The playwright describes her fictionalised case as more serious than some asylum cases, but less harrowing than others. So undeniably honest is the piece that even one right wing critic had to admit that it made him question the humanity of Home Office ministers.
Less obviously political, but nonetheless as superb in its questioning of the powerful as in its theatricality, is young playwright Zinnie Harris's Further than the Furthest Thing. An imaginative account of the evacuation of the remote mid-Atlantic island of Tristan da Cunha in the 1960s, it is a moving, subtle and beautifully structured epic of commercial and military interests in conflict with the human rights and culture of an isolated people. Full of complex moral dilemmas and political duplicity, it is a fine example of the dramatically accomplished and radically enquiring theatre which was much in evidence in Edinburgh.
Further than the Furthest Thing is at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, 6-23 September, and the National Theatre, London, 5-28 October
Design Museum, London
Until 15 Ocotober
'There can be enough energy and organised capability for all men to enjoy the whole earth. It seems perfectly clear--when there is enough to go around man will not fight any more than he now fights for air.' So said R Buckminster Fuller, addressing a lecture on 'The Year 2000--Profile of the Industrial Revolution' given at San Jose State College, California, in 1966.
Fuller--architect, designer, philosopher and artist--remains the enigma today that he was back in the middle of the last century, despite having received numerous honorary doctorates and having created work which has found its way into the permanent collections of museums around the world. Fuller saw the consistent commodification of the world's resources as a direct threat to the welfare of the planet. He identified that political and social change was required in order to overcome what he termed 'the crisis of ignorance' and pave the way for a world in which his designs could be utilised so all people could enjoy the abundance of the world's resources in a positive and environmentally friendly way.
Fuller provided a vast array of logical solutions to housing and transport, many of which are documented or on display in the form of models and prototypes at the Design Museum's exhibition of his work. His designs dealt directly with the public and social concerns of society, and very much anticipated the ensuing environmental problems of our time. Much, if not all of his work was perceived under the idea 'more for less' including the design for the Geodesic Dome, for which he is most famous. Fuller's dome designs were to provide some of the most lightweight, low cost, quality and durable solutions to public housing ever known, designed not with the idea of private property in mind but the idea of the communal, the reusable and the transportable. The slogan 'House 20 people in 20 minutes' was used to advertise the invention, and many were put to use as shelters for families in Africa due to the minimal transportation and construction costs.
He also showed that a wind generator fitted to every high voltage transmission tower in the US would generate three and a half times the country's total power output. It seems almost incredible that such findings have not been put into practice and that Fuller's ideas are still seen as those of an eccentric outsider. Yet much of his work is in direct conflict with the interests of the big construction and fuel industries which remain as uninterested in low maintenance, durable, low consumption design solutions today as they were in the 1950s, despite the more urgent need for such solutions. It is also no coincidence that what work of Fuller's that has been adapted for use has been used by the US military and large global corporations, and not for the well being of society. Fuller said himself that 'scientists are made to apply science in wartime, rather than look for fundamental information'.
It seems clear from Fuller's work and from the pieces displayed in this exhibition that he was looking towards a time free of the constraints of capitalism, where the desire for greed, profit and exploitative labour would not prevent the realisation of his ideas for low cost--both in terms of money and labour--environmentally friendly, low maintenance quality housing and transport for all. The exhibition does lack political content, considering the political relevance of many of his writings, but it does provide a brilliant insight into the glorious possibilities of what can be achieved within a society not bent on the desire for profit and greed.
Tate Britain, London
Until 24 September
Intelligence shows the work of 22 contemporary British artists. The title refers to artists as 'intelligence agents', the interpreters of information. It is a major exhibition concerning many visual themes. It also looks at social exclusion, addiction, relationship breakdown, loneliness and exploitation. The artists draw deep into society. There is no suggestion that the references to social conditions and protest are politicising a national exhibition, but these elements are there.
There are works which by scale and technique impress. Julian Opie's Virginia Housewife, Riehen Basel's Site Specific Installation and Vinka Shonibare's Vacation (a marvellous over-lifesized sculpture group of stitched astronauts having a family holiday) are visually delightful. Susan Hiller's work of hanging earpieces emitting stories of alien encounters could absorb for hours.
Contemporary art has used video for some time. The front page of the catalogue shows Monika 2000 by Hilary Lloyd. She endlessly makes a card house in which, on collapsing, the cards seem blamed. Tacita Dean's video Bubble House in the Cayman Islands evokes the sea, a forlorn, abandoned building, and the wreck of an alien spaceship (apparently the owner is now in prison). Mark Lewis has filmed himself speaking on a concourse with passers-by and those casually interested becoming the reality of a film. Gillian Wearing shows harrowing scenes of a drunk woman she befriended who died. Olade Ajiboye Bamgboye dissects his ended affair. Sarah Lucas's sculpture of burnt-out cars later finished with cigarettes makes direct references to lifestyle, status symbols and dependence.
Then there are works which have a direct resonance to history and politics. Douglas Gordon has covered the gallery walls with neat rows of names, evoking the Somme. Graham Gussin has empty concrete rooms filling with gas. The protests of visitors are displayed as part of the work by Bob and Roberta Smith, Jack Straw is Nicer than you Think and What the Fuck are they Doing About Education?
Jeremy Deller and Alan Kane devote one room to a folk archive, in which the banner against the Brixton bomb carried on May Day 1999 appears. One review has this room as 'an act of native resistance against our ever more standardised and consumerist culture'.
There is a video in this room, and it is worth waiting the 30 minutes to watch. In scenes from the Wray Scarecrow Festival in Lancashire is 'One Man and his Dob' (Blair and Dobson, with Dobson the most craven dog ever seen).
The video also includes scenes from the 'guerilla gardening' protest, J18, roadside wreaths, a Cardiff house which by its total decoration is now a protest against homelessness and racism, and an anti-Pinochet demonstration. The images of the Lewes Fire Festival are disturbing. Presumably law abiding townspeople burn images of the pope and Guy Fawkes, and parade the burning letters 'death or glory'. The parade is led by Roman soldiers. One video is nihilist, This is the Life, Football all Day. In the same archive are placards: 'RUC know your enemy' and 'Try and eat money'.
There is a direct comparison to the Dome which has been sanitised, and at great cost is a ghastly monument to New Labour. I prefer to trust the Young British Artists exhibiting at Tate Britain rather than the apparatchiks in the Millbank Tower next door.