Issue 245 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published October 2000 Copyright © Socialist Review

Arts

Review

   

Cultural currents

Disney and the Dome

The monument to the market examined by Mike Gonzalez
Lord Falconer in front of the monument to New Labour
Lord Falconer in front of the monument to New Labour

The Dome, it seems to me, belongs in the category of monuments to the vanity and arrogance of power. Like all monuments it tries to freeze a moment in time, to defy history--the raised foot of the Black Prince's horse about to gallop or Victoria waving a hand at an invisible crowd. The structure at Greenwich delivers a message of size and of scale. The cranes protruding from the roof suggest some continuous construction, with a second and third layer to be added like a giant cake to mark the decades or the centuries of the accumulation of power by the builders. There are hundreds of places like the Dome scattered around Britain. Follies, we call them, crazy, empty structures--the Duke of Hamilton's mausoleum for his dogs, the multiple Victorian mock medieval castles with no inner rooms or stairways, the bridges in the middle of fields.

The disturbing thing is that the self congratulation and the conviction that power belonged to some people as of right passed seamlessly from Thatcher via Heseltine to Mandelson and Blair. The other justifications are just hot air. They wanted to be commemorated, to be seen--especially from the air. For whoever takes over the Dome now that Nomura has pulled out, the government is anxious it is used as a theme park. And what is the theme? The Disney version of contemporary Britain.

I remember going round Epcot Centre--the 'futuristic' section of Florida's Disneyworld. It began with a kind of comic book history of the past that bore a fantastically strong resemblance to a Disney musical. The Mexican pavilion was about a Mexico recreated in Hollywood, full of singing servant girls with flowers in their hair and Ramon Novarro lookalikes leading their plastic horses by gently gurgling flow-controlled streams. The Vikings in the Norwegian pavilion passed gracefully down a slightly wet incline before fetching up at the sardine and cheese counter of the Norwegian Food Export Corp. And finally I climbed aboard a flying car and was rushed through 120 seconds of human history from some vaguely familiar cavemen to the final glorious vision of a futureworld, a kind of massive version of the Big Brother house.

So this was the march of history--it culminated in a world where every aspect of our individual and collective life was shaped by a corporation. In the Dome the body is brought to you courtesy of Boots, food is managed by McDonald's, travel is defined by British Airways, and thought (the Mind Zone) is under the overall trusteeship of British Aerospace. Water, air, our very genes are on long term loan at rock bottom interest rates from some multinational or another.

Inside the Dome at Futureworld, in the controlled environments and shopping malls, it only rains for 15 minutes in every hour, excitement and pleasure lasts 75 seconds (the length of an average Disney World ride, give or take hours in the queue), the sun shines with a stable temperature from nine to six, every day. This is what Blair is offering when he talks about 'opportunities'--a choice of goods to consume, of spectacles to watch, of corporations to support. The alternative, of course, is 'freedom'--in which the future is created, reshaped and forged in as yet unimagined ways. Not a 'reality experience', but reality itself.

Just along the river from the Dome is the Tate Modern--it's free and it's full of people. Is it sentimental of me to think that this anarchic gathering of products of the imagination, experiments with a world turned on its head, where telephones are shaped like lobsters and urinals lie back on the floor is a celebration of an alternative future where there won't be a corporation to be seen?


Music

A VOICE OF HOPE AND FREEDOM

Throughout the first half of the 1960s the John Coltrane quartet produced some of the most exciting and innovative jazz music ever.

McCoy Tyner left the Coltrane Quartet in 1965 to form his own band.

He continues to experiment with different styles of music. In the last ten years he has recorded three solo albums, and his band, the Latin Jazz All Stars, have made some of the best jazz dance music in years.

For the last few months McCoy has been touring Europe. He took time out to speak to Martin Smith about jazz and racism.

Tell me about the role Latin jazz plays in your music.

I love all kinds of music from all over the world. I believe there is a universality to all music. But if you listen to music from different parts of the world where blacks have been deposited you will hear similar rhythms. They have their own unique regional sound, but I believe there is a definite relationship between each one. For a long time now I have been playing Latin music. It's impossible not to, living in a city like New York, which is a great big cultural melting pot. I love the idea of different peoples from different cultures coming together. It keeps things fresh. It keeps things alive.

And at last some of the great Cuban musicians are getting their dues. I really like the Buena Vista Social Club. For 40 years their music has been hidden from the world. They are the real sound of Cuba. The music that is played there is a product of African, European and Southern American culture. It is the point where the three continents come together.

What about the role the blues plays in jazz?

The blues is rooted in African music, in slavery, but it's not just a sad music: within it there lies hope and freedom. The blues that jazz musicians created can be attributed to Africa. But it is Afro-American music. I put the stress on America because our music is connected to the black experience in the US. Within jazz there is gospel music, field hollers, you can hear the Duke [Duke Ellington], Bird [Charlie Parker] and all the other forefathers of jazz. You can hear the progression black people have made through the ages.

Because society thinks that black people are inferior, any black person who produces something beautiful and artistic challenges those prejudices. Therefore by definition jazz is opposed to all forms of racism and oppression.

How do you think the experience of racism has shaped jazz?

Because of the conditions black people faced--deprivation, racism and poverty--music was one of the few ways we could express ourselves. For example, Bird was a genius, but because of the situation at the time he was unable to utilise his talents. One night Bird got talking to two scientists about the dialectic of nature. For two hours he held his own. At the end of the discussion one of the scientists asked Bird what university did he go to? Bird just laughed--he never even finished school!

I have read that you saw Malcolm X speak?

I saw him in 1964 shortly before he was murdered. He was an important man. He said a lot of things that needed to be said. I wasn't the only jazz musician to see him. John Coltrane went to hear him speak. Malcolm was shaped by his experiences. Just like jazz, he was brought up in the ghetto. He came from a poor family, went to prison and was converted to Islam. He became a voice for the people. A lot of bad things have been said about Malcolm. I think the Spike Lee film and Alex Haley's biography helped show the other side of the man.

I'm not really political--music is my politics. But I have been involved in various community and self help projects. After I left Coltrane's band I was involved in a state-funded project in the Bronx and I helped teach piano to disadvantaged kids.

Tell me about the song you recorded with John Coltrane in 1963 entitled Alabama.

Martin Luther King was organising the civil rights movement in the south. John wrote the song in response to the Birmingham church bombings in which four young girls were killed. John patterned the lines of the music to mirror Martin Luther King's funeral speech. Elvin's drum rolls symbolised the growing civil rights movement. Playing with John was an amazing experience. I still play one of John's songs in most of my sets.

What impact do you think Ralph Nader, the Green Party candidate and consumer rights champion, will have in America?

I think it's great that Ralph Nader is standing. He is opposed by a lot of powerful people but I respect him. We need people like that. He has done an awful lot to help the people. It's great that Ralph can make statements and stand in elections. It is a big test for the system.

What other political events have affected you recently?

One thing that really shocked me was the murder of Amadou Diallo. He was an unarmed black man shot 41 times by the New York police. It horrified me to think that this could happen in New York. After all, it's not Texas or the Deep South! Mayor Giuliani protected those police officers. Those police officers believed they could act with impunity. It's wrong--very wrong. I'm not saying that Mayor Giuliani is all bad. I just can't think of anything that he has done that is good.

Who do you think is the greatest jazz musician of the 20th century?

Without doubt it has to be Duke Ellington. Unfortunately I never had the privilege to play with him. Even though I knew several members of his family, I could never get through his minders to meet him. John made an album with Duke Ellington. Knowing how much I liked him, John invited me along to the recording. Unfortunately my car broke down. So I never got to meet him. The Duke wrote so many of the great jazz standards--he was a prolific song writer. He was a giant in jazz.


Theatre

THE TRIUMPH OF HOPE OVER HUMILIATION

An Die Musik
by Pip Simmons
Tricycle Theatre, London and then on tour to Reading, Coventry, Cardiff and Swansea

An Die Musik

'At Buchenwald, Bergen-Belsen and Dachau there were orchestras of prisoners which played German military marches: music to stir the Nazi ideal, and, of course classical music, to remind him that he belonged to a cultured race that produced Mozart, Schubert, Bach, Beethoven and Wagner.'
These words appeared in the original programme notes for the anti-Nazi play An Die Musik when it was first performed in 1975. This was a period of Nazi activity in Britain and burgeoning anti-Nazi protest. There was also an increasing awareness of the true horror of the Holocaust. Nonetheless, when An Die Musik was first performed in Germany it was regarded as so shocking and disturbing that theatres refused to stage it. As the quote above implies, the drama rips apart the notion that there was some vast unbridgeable gulf between the perverse nightmare of the Nazis and the safe, comfortable, bourgeois world that regarded itself as the cradle of some of the greatest works of European culture.
In scene after scene a group of Jews are repeatedly humiliated by the lone figure of the Nazi camp guard who increasingly dominates the stage. As he struts before the audience his victims sink lower and lower into a mire of fear and degradation as their final extinction approaches. As the disgusting spectacle of humiliation plays itself out before the audience, the guard invites them to identify with the great works he forces his wretched victims to perform, and to share in his sneering contempt for their wretched plight. One victim has his prison pyjamas pulled to his ankles while the rest are forced to laugh at his nakedness and shame, before then being ordered to play 'An Ode to Joy' from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.
This is a play that aimed to confront and shock its audience with the horror of the final solution, in order 'to try and speak the unspeakable'. The play does succeed in this to powerful effect. The Romanian cast, from the Jewish Theatre of Bucharest, give moving performances, conveying a range of differing characterisation despite the grinding, dehumanising process to which they are subjected.
However, the production sometimes loses its purchase. This is partly due, paradoxically, to the unremitting degradation and ever greater self abasement the Jewish victims have forced upon them. Shock alone has perhaps become insufficient. Our anger seeks some spirit of defiance that cannot be wholly extinguished, otherwise we are left only with hopelessness and a sense of impotent distress. Their approach is reflected in their own work. Anne Frank's famous diary entry is read from the stage: '...in spite of everything I still believe that people are good at heart.... I can feel the suffering of millions and yet if I look up to the heavens I think it will all come right and this cruelty will end and that peace and tranquility will return.' Yet the reading is devoid of defiance and implies a naive and misplaced act of faith.
However, this is a powerful play that aims high and seeks to return to the victims of the Holocaust their humanity.
Rob Ferguson


WITHDRAWAL SYMPTONS

My Zinc Bed
by David Hare
Royal Court, London

Elsa: cured of addiction?
Elsa: cured of addiction?

A young man comes to interview a powerful and wealthy older businessman for a newspaper. But very quickly the format is reversed, as the older man probes the younger's alcoholism. Is attendance at AA meetings a way of controlling an incurable condition, or is it simply a different form of addiction, this time to the discipline of a cult? Was the older man's youthful Communism, with its ritual of meetings, itself a cult from whose dependency he has liberated himself? On the other hand, in his own words, 'If you don't believe that the rich spend their time on this earth effectively fucking over the poor, then I don't see how you make any sense of what goes on in this world.'
This is how David Hare's new play starts, setting up a disturbing set of relationships. Victor Quinn (played by Tom Wilkinson), possesses a dangerously seductive power as the ex-Communist turned computer tycoon. His mocking dismissal of AA unsettles Paul Peplow, the impoverished young poet, through whose memory of events we see the play unfold. What pushes Peplow (played by Steven Mackintosh) over the edge is the third person in the relationship, Quinn's much younger wife, Elsa (Julia Ormond), with whom Paul falls in love. Elsa too has been addicted. Victor has cured her, she claims. If so, Paul counters, was she ever truly addicted? Paul is caught between rejecting dependency on AA and desiring a fuller life that breaks with self control. Act one ends with him yielding to temptation.
Whether act two succeeds as well as act one is debatable. The problem is perhaps the overall conception of the play. Beyond the acute psychological tension between the three characters at the core of the drama, the play aims to 'describe the atmosphere of contemporary Britain'. Hare delivers, mostly through Victor's own cynical commentary on himself and his social position, an effective attack on the new hype surrounding the internet business world. Quinn's 'buying' of the young poet Paul, to put artistic gloss on his corporation, makes a telling point about the dependency of art on big business.
Act two has some magnificent sideswipes at the internet business--especially its market vulnerability--but tends to fold in on itself. All of us, the play seems to conclude, oscillate between the lifeless safety of the 'cult' and the destructive desire for life. The last words of the play have Paul say that he has to go to a meeting, a reference to his attendance at AA meetings but also a hint at Victor's own Communist past. The theme of addiction becomes almost metaphysical, a statement of some unalterable, hopeless 'human condition'. This lack of a way out deprives the play of its impetus, which may explain why Hare tries to compensate by resorting to some odd stagecraft, like having Quinn delivering key lines about control to the precise accompaniment of thunder and lightning.
That said, the play is worth seeing. The acting, on the whole, possesses an edgy nervousness and Tom Wilkinson is particularly effective as the cynical but magnetic tycoon.
Gareth Jenkins


BIG PICTURES

Exposure: Young Writers 2000
Royal Court, London 13 October-11 November

The Royal Court Young Writers' Programme has produced some impressive talents in its time. Exposure: Young Writers 2000, includes Holly Baxter Baine, a school student who lists Bertolt Brecht and Sarah Kane as her favourites. Her play Good Bye Roy explores a woman's poverty stricken childhood in India. There is also Emmanuelle De Nasciemento, a black teenager who has written about life on the streets of west London in Drag On. Then there is David Vickers, writer of B, Cs 'n' Es, a homeless man recruited to the programme in a workshop at a Centrepoint hostel.
Local, for example, is a reflection on the Iranian revolution. Based on the experience of author Arzhang Pezham, the action centres around the 21 year old Darius, discovering his father's revolutionary past and observing his transformation into squabbling businessman. Pezham seems inspired by the need for change but is unconvinced that revolution is a viable alternative. Local may turn out to have pessimistic conclusions but the new political mood in theatre is clearly evident in a writer who finds revolution a starting point for only his second major work.
There is far more optimism from a group of Bosnian refugees who have celebrated their ethnic diversity by uniting to create Naturalised. If you are looking for an analysis of the Balkan conflicts you will be disappointed. What the play does promise, however, is some powerful scenes drawn from the experience of war. It has also adopted a refreshing non-linear structure, allowing contrast between social division back home and unity in Britain. As one writer put it, 'In Bosnia he is one thing, me another. But here we are all just Bosnians.'
Crossing the Borders may also be interesting. It was co-written over the internet and discusses what role national boundaries should play. Like the whole Exposure season, it seeks to be original and challenging, and can't help touching on the big questions which confront us.
Ben Dickenson


Film

RESTRICTIVE PRACTICES

Ressources Humaines
Dir: Laurent Cantet

From the film's opening shot, a slow trawl across a grey, industrial landscape, Ressources Humaines promises to offer something unusual. As the film slowly develops into a searing drama of family relationships and working class resistance, that promise is fulfilled. To give authenticity to his script the director, Laurent Cantet, spent months working with unemployed factory workers--they helped write the film and they take all but one of the acting roles in it. The result is a great achievement exploring the dynamics of the class struggle so evident in contemporary French society.
The story centres on Franck, a bright eyed and bushy tailed management trainee. He returns from college to his home town to do work experience in the local factory--the factory where his father has worked without complaint for 30 years, and where his sister and all his old friends work. Franck is full of idealism. He believes he can find a way to implement the 35 hours a week working directive in a way that will benefit both workers and bosses. However, in some brilliant scenes, the film subtly makes us aware that such partnership is impossible. Franck is isolated. While the bosses patronise him, his old friends are alienated from him now that he is a manager. His parents demonstrate painful humility towards him and pride in his success.
The tensions implicit in this situation, both in the family and the workplace, begin to strain when Franck's attempts to improve working practices are manipulated to isolate the union. Then he discovers secret plans to make 12 workers redundant. All ideas of partnership between management and workforce are exploded as class lines are drawn and Franck, abandoning his career, takes the side of the workers in spectacular style. The aftermath is brilliantly recreated. From the arguments at the union meeting to the debates that occur when the activists occupy the factory there is the authentic flavour of class struggle, of ordinary workers fighting back. The occupation, however, does not offer a simple resolution to personal tensions. Franck's father, fearful for his son's career and unable to throw off years of servitude, does not immediately join the strike. Franck is forced to confront the shame he has felt at his working class origins in order to overcome it.
The film portrays working class life through a range of vividly drawn characters. Cantet's use of non-professional actors and his socialist themes invite a comparison with Ken Loach, and on the evidence of this film the comparison is justified. At the political heart of the film is the understanding that class antagonisms cannot be overcome, that moderation wins nothing and workers must fight, and that working class people have the right to be more than just human resources for the factory floor.
Judy Cox


FRED ASTAIRE MEETS POLICE BATON CHARGE

Billy Elliot
Dir: Stephen Daldry

It's 1984. Billy Elliott is the 11 year old son of a striking Durham miner. The dispute has been raging bitterly for nearly a year. Billy's father and grandfather were both boxers, but Billy's not very good at boxing. He discovers the ballet class next door to the gym where he trains.
The story intertwines the bitter fight between the miners and the Tories, and Billy's struggle with family and community to be accepted as a ballet dancer. Even the piano player in the ballet class thinks he looks like a 'right wanker'. The brutal scenes of police violence towards the miners are contrasted with Billy's attempts to escape from the looming defeat of the strike.
This is not a history of the miners' strike, but an attempt by screenwriter Lee Hall to capture the experience of a working class kid trying to escape from poverty and realise his creative potential. Hall grew up in Newcastle during the strike and remembers the sense of community and solidarity. The film contrasts the solidarity within the strike and the atomisation of individual mining families and individuals.
Local dance teacher Mrs Wilkinson (superbly played by Julie Walters) befriends Billy and, realising he has real talent, arranges an audition for him at London's Royal Ballet School.
As Billy's audition draws nearer the approaching defeat for the miners looms larger, and Billy's future becomes more important to his family. His father tries to scab in order to give Billy a better chance in life, but is persuaded by his other son--a young striking miner--to stay out. His father takes Billy to the audition in London, and on their return they are greeted with the news that the strike is over.
This is a film written with sympathy by someone who grew up in Thatcher's Britain. With the miners defeated and communities decimated, the alternative to poverty and unemployment was escape, and this film is escape with a capital E. A kind of Fred Astaire meets police baton charge. Nevertheless the realism of the picket lines, the behaviour of the police and the attempt by the characters to retain some dignity prevent the film from descending into complete fantasy.
If film is turning radical, this one portrays a slice of British working class history, albeit with the experience of defeat. I saw this film in a small cinema with a load of press hacks, most of whom applauded as the final credits rolled and were clearly moved by the plight of the striking miners and the attempt of one young boy to do better in life.
Karen O'Toole


Exhibition

ZONE OF ENGAGEMENT

Look Out
Wolverhampton Art Gallery, until November, then touring

Peter Kennards' The Financial Times at the Wolverhampton Art Gallery
Peter Kennards' The Financial Times at the Wolverhampton Art Gallery

A refreshing attempt to engage with issues of poverty, war, racism and commodification, Look Out features a range of styles by artists unafraid to experiment with varied media to aid expression. A good example of the complementary use of form and content is Mat Collishaw's Snowstorm, which is a projected video image of a rough sleeper lying inside a snowglobe. The homeless man is alone in his transparent prison, save for the shadowed forms that pass him by. The tiny screen, placed in the corner of the room, is easy to pass without noticing--a sharp comment on the guilt people feel about homelessness.
Another noteworthy piece is the collage by Richard Hamilton, Installation Study--War Games. It shows a television with Gulf War toy soldier visuals dripping with blood. While not exactly subtle, neither was the pro-war propaganda that it was railing against. Equally stark in its point, and strikingly executed, is Asylum Seeker, which displays the attack on refugees' identity by taking its subject out of focus, and suggests horrors witnessed with a red streak across the eyes. Jenny Matthews' Women and Conflict photo collection also seeks to challenge the effects of militarism. The photo of an eight year old girl, born without eyes because of Agent Orange residues left by the US attack on Cambodia, is especially provocative. While her anti-war message is well executed, however, it is unfortunate that all of Matthews' subjects are victims--with no room for women opposing their own oppression.
Not all the exhibits exclude the possibility of resistance, however. A popular device used is cultural jamming, where corporate slogans are taken up to promote a decidedly anti-corporate message, such as Peter Brawne's injunction to JUST DO IT underneath the Mail's coverage of the poll tax riots. Similarly the J18 attack on McDonald's is depicted with the slogan 'Making Life Taste Better'.
Though generally engaging, the exhibition may have benefited from more interactive works, such as that of Noel Douglas. His UR Scanner installation is a trolley full of brand name goods that can have their barcodes read by a mobile scanner. Douglas's scanner does not display a price, but information about the corporations that dominate our life. So, for example, Pepsi's support for Pinochet's coup in Chile is exposed. Douglas has succeeded in revealing the dialectical potential for change continually thrown up by capitalism--of the opportunities its own commodities provide for resistance because of the human agency they rely upon.
Though some pieces are obscure and others one-note, the majority strike a chord. Perhaps curator Peter Kennard's piece best summarises the tone of the display. Called The Financial Times, it features that esteemed organ being ripped apart by a pair of plaster arms. It is difficult to tell whether it is in desperation or anger. Either way, it is a vast improvement on the studied disinterest of the feted Young British Artists.
Andrew Stone


NOT ENOUGH PROTEST

Protest and Survive
The Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, until November

The exhibition contains works by over 40 artists and groups including, Gustav Metzger, Bank, the Hackney Flashers, Gilbert and George, Rob Pruitt, Tom of Finland, Cosey Fanni Tutti, and Richard Hamilton.
There is very little sense of celebration, solidarity or positive survival in this show. The little there is, like the photographs of protest/performance art by Öyvind Fahlstrom or Jacques Charlier, seems unconnected from the social upheavals/movements of the period that inspired them.
Remodelling Medical History by Jo Spence and Terry uses photography and text to document Jo Spence's battle against breast cancer and her research into alternative therapy. It manages to marry an intensely personal fight with a fight against the detrimental effects of the power politics and commercial greed of the market-led cancer industries.
On sale are copies of Wolfgang Tillman's guest-edited issue of the Big Issue. This includes a photograph of Sukhdev Reel as a tribute to all those who fight the battles against racial violence. Tillman's work has a political potency and directness precisely because it occupies a space that will reach thousands of people.
Unfortunately curators Matthew Higgs and Paul Noble's own belief, as stated in the exhibition catalogue, that 'protest has become a nostalgic idea and a purposeless act' works as a barrier to making necessary links with the waves of protest that have spread across the globe over the last year.
One of the few links to contemporary protests is the film Big Rattle in Seattle by Guerillavision. This film consists of a series of interviews asking members of the anti-WTO demonstration why they were taking part.
John Wild and Sally Labern


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