Issue 248 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published January 2001 Copyright © Socialist Review

Arts

Review

   

Cultural currents

Closed for business

After Xmas and the January sales are you as sick and tired of shopping malls as Mike Gonzalez
More and more local shops have closed to be replaced by out of town shopping centres
More and more local shops have closed to be replaced by out of town shopping centres

There is a small and very expensive children's clothes shop near my house. It has a security guard dressed in black staring gloomily through the glass door at the street. The local sweetshop and newsagent has one too. Neither, I think, carry a gun. But they look as though they could lay hold of one quickly--it is probably hidden under that suspiciously hump backed pile of Hello magazines.

I don't imagine that they are really worried about the theft of Kit Kats or woollen hats. It's the street they fear--afraid that someone might dive into the shop chased by others intent on violence. It's a plot line endlessly repeated in late night television films. (Come to think of it, the villain often wears a woolly hat!) Politicians seeking the law-and-order vote reinforce the sense that the streets are dangerous and full of menacing floaters masquerading as Big Issue sellers, or what Jack Straw still describes as 'squeegee merchants'.

In the 19th century the middle class saw it as an achievement that they could wander down dry streets and claim the time and space that once belonged only to the aristocracy-the only class with time to spend. But that was before the city centres disgorged their populations into the inner or outer suburbs, before the shops moved away leaving only the off licences, the Blockbusters and the heavily barred cheap clothes stores to occupy the space, and before the young professionals moved back into heavily guarded former warehouses with underground garages and built-in health centres.

The shoppers were moved into the great malls imported from the US. Inside they tried to recreate the streets and that easy strolling past the theatrical displays of goods that used to be possible in the city. They called each corridor of shops by a street name, set fountains and benches at various points around the building, and introduced artifical trees and plants. The architects scattered brightly coloured umbrellas, tables and chairs around the place, to create an impression of pavement cafes. They left odd little carts with striped awnings standing randomly around the place, as if some peasant had just paused there on his way to market to sell his vegetables. Of course now they're selling earrings or sunglasses or imitation Venetian glass sculptures.

But this is not just a system of streets under glass. These thoroughfares have gates and video cameras at either end--the openness and the sense of public space is just artifice. In the evening the gates are locked, though the cameras keep watching. Mike Davis once compared the architecture of the American malls to Bentham's panoptikons, the prisons designed so that every prisoner was visible from a central point. There is no corner from which you cannot be seen. The shop doorways are not closed but open to this roofed and guarded 'street', brightly lit and raucous with music, tempting in the passing crowd.

There is an enormous difference between the street of shop windows and the shopping mall. In the old city streets the shops were separate from a public space that could be used for wandering, for talking, for listening to music, for safely observing without an obligation to consume. The shopping mall, for all its paraphernalia of an outside world, has removed the public space--instead there is a paved area for purchasing food or drink (a 'court' they usually call it) or a pathway to another store.

Street and shop are no longer clearly divided. The openness too is false; these secure places are not concerned about public safety but about the safety of the goods on display. The videos are not vigilant of our social encounters for fear of accident or loss, but following the hands or eyes of the consumers--who are all of us--in case we remove the Nikes.

Walter Benjamin, the German cultural historian who died tragically in 1940, described this change in his wonderful essay 'Paris, capital of the 19th century'. The new arcades of the French capital were not so different from the shopping centres of today. In both, what Benjamin called the 'phantasmagoria', the displays of goods, the images of plenty, the blinding colours and lights of a kind of theatre of objects, induce a curious kind of pressure. You can stroll or move on but there is nowhere to really stop, to take the air, to think or talk for a brief rest from the business of buying perched on an uncomfortable stool with Costa coffee in a polystyrene cup. And it's hard not to feel that you are being watched--not protectively, but measured to ensure that you are performing as required. Outside, the streets are hostile places to hurry through on the way from shop to home but the inner streets are corridors between trade counters, and you have to hurry there because they close at six or seven.

No one escapes Xmas, or the sales. All you can do is make a list, get in and out as fast as you can, and block out 'Jingle Bells' with Beethoven's Eighth Symphony plus Megabass on your Discman. And look forward to a decent world that has rebuilt the public spaces, taken back the parks and squares--and put the doors back on the shops.


Interview

THE FUTURE IN THE PAST

Only a third of the film's cast had acting experience
Only a third of the film's cast had acting experience

In 1871 the working people of Paris took over their city and started to run it for themselves. The Paris Commune confirmed Marx's belief that workers democracy would provide the basis for a completely new society. Peter Watkins, director of the banned War Game, has made a new film about the Commune. Chris Nineham spoke to his son and assistant director of the film, Patrick Watkins.

Do the events of the Paris Commune of 1871 have significance for what's happening in France today?
Yes, absolutely. From the start my father wanted to link the issues that arise from the Commune with questions that are coming up in France today, such as women's rights, democracy, the rights of foreigners, and also more generally the question of do you make the conscious effort to move society forward, or do you accept things as they are? There is a growing minority of people in France today who are seriously considering the possibility of counter-power. The link between the past and the present is a thread that goes through my father's films. We cannot consider the future without a knowledge of our past.

Do the achievements of the Commune provide a way forward for the movement today?
There are certain aspects which are very relevant to France today. The Commune only existed for two months, so they didn't have time to see the fruits of all the reforms they made. But foreigners not only had the right to participate, they were even elected. One delegate to the Commune was Hungarian. That contrasts with today when many immigrants do not even have the right to vote.
Another aspect is women's rights. Women had access to vocational training and education. They formed a Women's Union which was not just about helping the wounded, but met regularly and actively challenged male chauvinism at all levels of society.
The main issue though is representation. Democracy in the Commune was based on recallable delegates. If you felt let down by your representative, you could get a recall vote and get them revoked. This was direct democracy, a bit like what happened in the Spanish Civil War. This is very important. Today people feel that politicians do not represent them. In France there is a gulf opening up between official politics and politics of the street.

The acting in the film is so powerful. Were the cast professionals or leftists?
Only a third of the cast had previous acting experience. We wanted the experienced actors to be a minority. We wanted to involve the children of 1871 today--people linked by oppression and exclusion to those involved in the Commune. So I tried to get in touch with the sans papiers, the homeless people and people in the projects in the suburbs to do auditions. Others came forward because they felt related to the history. Some came from Communist or anarchist families, others had family links to the Commune.
What was interesting was that this diverse group ended up gelling around the kind of debates that always come out in revolutionary situations. The majority were not political, but the film was made chronologically and people created their own characters. The strength of the performances comes from the fact that everyone lived the events of the Commune for three weeks and ended up discussing their experiences. This is one of the most optimistic aspects of the filming--if you allow ordinary people who don't necessarily see themselves as political the opening, people have things to say.

What kind of an audience has the film had?
It's been shown on RTE, French art TV, between 10pm and 3am. It's been shown at a lot of festivals but it has no theatrical distribution. We are promoting it via what we call a third way, going through associations, particularly the left cultural association Robon Pour La Commune. We have had showings organised by militant groups, teachers' unions in schools, and colleges and independent cinemas.

Has the radicalisation in France had a big impact on cultural life?
I think so. Some radical films have been censored on television, and then associations have shown them all round France and they have become independent hits. Also there are a lot of radical musical and theatrical events. A number of groups put on music from the revolutionary repertoire and get massive audiences. Obviously it's not mainstream, but there is definitely space opening up for radical voices.

Why do you think the British establishment has been so hostile to your father's films?
It goes back to War Game. He was part of a group that had been recruited to open up the BBC in the mid-1960s and explore new ways of communicating and making films. The group included Ken Loach, Ken Russell and Lindsay Anderson. He'd done Culloden, which was a big success, and was given carte blanche to make War Game. When they saw the final cut, civil servants decided it was just not possible to show it. Recently released papers show it was the government that banned the film, despite the BBC's supposed independence and their pleas at the time that the film was too horrific and that it didn't work artistically. That started the whole thing for my father, and the fact that he left the country sealed his fate. He is like a non-person, and is not regarded as an English film-maker.

Does your film take a consciously Marxist approach to the Commune?
We do not take a Marxist approach in general, although there are clearly some aspects of the film's concerns which overlap with Marxism. What the film does do is take the point of view of the Communards, but they were divided themselves--there were Blanquists, there was the International Workers' Association and many other organisations. These divisions were amongst the problems the Commune faced and they relate to some of the problems we have in the movement today.

Are you optimistic about the future in France?
I am. In comparison to what's been happening in the last 15 years, things have moved on massively. The level of mobilisation has changed. Recently I was at a meeting about globalisation in a small caf and it was absolutely packed. Those things you see more and more. Young people, especially, are getting more organised. People who are mobilising now are mainly not from the old political backgrounds and this is throwing the whole left into turmoil--the left is opening up. The social movements who gave most of the energy in Seattle and Prague need to keep the momentum and make alliances that have to be worldwide. There are indications that that's happening. Yes, I'm optimistic, but there is plenty that needs to be done for this mobilisation to become a really effective counter-power.
The Commune is showing on Sunday 21 January, 2pm-8pm, Edward Lewis Lecture Theatre, UCL, Cleveland St, London W1. £7/5. All proceeds to Socialist Worker Appeal.


Film

THE WARRING BROTHERS

Hamlet
Dir: Michael Almereyda

Hamlet

Anti-capitalism hits both Shakespeare and Hollywood simultaneously in Michael Almereyda's new film. The famous play has now been transposed to modern day New York. It centres around a power struggle to see who runs the Denmark Corporation. The old boss has died and been replaced by his brother, who then marries the dead man's widow. As the new boss and his wife announce their celebrations they seem to have got away with it.
Got away with it? Indeed, for in the background, hanging out, is the old boss's son, Hamlet. He has lately been of troubled mind. His fears and suspicions are confirmed when the ghost of his father tells him his death was no accident--he has been murdered by his brother.

From this moment on Hamlet follows only one path--revenge. For this is the story of those who sit at the top. They are the kings, queens and princes of the capitalist order. Their coaches are stretch limos that glide through the night time city. Their palaces are luxurious apartments high up in the sky. It is the world of big business where everything looks so flash, but underneath it is ugly and decaying. Marx wrote that the people who run the world are a band of warring brothers, and here is the war. Their greed and ambition has turned them against each other. All the themes of the play are manifested through a social class who seem to have everything yet are themselves subject to the nature of the system over which they rule--and they rule with violence. When Hamlet shoots one of the new boss's loyal supporters the corporation moves in and deals with the body, no questions asked.
Hamlet is surrounded by the latest gadgets like minicams and laptop computers. These objects don't liberate him--they become the prison house of his descent into insanity, recording every torturous stage.
Maybe Ethan Hawke, who plays Hamlet, starts off looking like he is in Oasis, but once it gets going (with the aid of a great soundtrack) you are sucked into the crisis, then tragedy, that comes upon the family. Even the Shakespearean language they use, which sounds detached and dry at first, seems to suit the way these capitalists relate to each other.
This film illustrates very well how Shakespeare can be updated and made relevant to our times. Hamlet is about people who have real motives, passion, real class interests-even if they have to destroy the dynasty to follow them. This is a most interesting and engrossing movie.
Nigel Davey


Theatre

BRIGHT LIGHT ON THE HORIZON

Reclaim the future
by Banner Theatre Company

I sat in a hall in Blackheath recently to watch what I thought was going to be a performance about young people across the world struggling to find their own identity in the face of globalisation. Instead what I got was a vibrant, exciting piece of anti-capitalist theatre by a group of 20 young people aged 15 to 25 about the need to smash the system that breeds war, poverty and environmental destruction.
Set for the most part in the imaginary Kingdom of King Givalot, this play takes us through the rise of capitalism and the resulting impoverishment of working people. It also shows us the beginning of the fight against the system that puts profit before people. We move from the King of Givalot, who by the end of the play is in his death throes because of overconsumption, to present day sweatshops in El Salvador.
One of the most incredible scenes sees the celebration of the end of Stalinism and the fall of the Berlin Wall, only to be followed by bitter disappointment at the consequence--the spread of corporatism and continued suffering under capitalism. We see a young East German rejecting the identities on offer--a youth without work turning to drugs and alcohol, a lone anarchist being beaten by police, a businessman firing workers, and a low paid worker fighting to survive. Suddenly the video screen on stage is filled with footage from the protest in Prague against the IMF/World Bank summit. The narrator tells us how brilliant these protests were in uniting people against profit and greed.
Back in the kingdom these protests become an inspiration. We witness a debate between workers about whether to compromise and trust management and the state, or whether to fight now for better conditions, jobs and wages. A group of workers discuss how best to unite people in the community. They decide to produce leaflets, to hold mass meetings and to protest. The message of Reclaim the Future is that there is an alternative to greed and profit.
Unfortunately, this seems to have been a one-off performance in London, but there is clearly an audience for this type of theatre. We have a world to win, and if this performance is any indication of the mood amongst young people across the world, the future looks bright.
Viv Smith


HEMMED IN

The Wexford Trilogy
by Billy Roche
Tricycle Theatre, London

Pool room despair
Pool room despair

During the last few years Ireland and all things Irish have become somewhat fashionable. Look at Riverdance, or trendy Irish pubs. Don't go to see Billy Roche's Wexford Trilogy expecting more of the same. These three plays are a realistic chunk of working class life, all set in the same small town in the Irish Republic. The common theme is what happens to them and those they love when they are driven to break the rules.
In A Handful of Stars, which is set in a rundown snooker hall, Jimmy Brady rages against these small town conventions. He is appalled by the vision of his future he sees in one of the older locals, the loudmouthed Conway. Jimmy struts around the snooker hall and says in a determined way, 'Nobody is going to wrap me up in a neat parcel.' Unlike his friend Tony who yearns for acceptance, Jimmy in his despair and rage hurts those who love him until eventually they reject him. In the following hours of destruction, and as Jimmy awaits his fate, you have a sense of loss of what might have been.
Billy Roche's use of language is brilliant. At times it gushes and spills all over the place, full of laughter and joy. At other times, as when Jimmy remembers his parents kissing, it leaves you close to tears.
The second play in the trilogy, Poor Beast in the Rain, also concerns a small town rebel, Danger Doyle. But this one has escaped the local town and runs away to London with a married woman. She leaves behind her daughter Eileen. Ten years on they return, but the pain and heartache are still fresh.
Eileen has not seen her mother in all that time--she cannot leave her father, while her mother, sinking into despair in lonely rented rooms, is unable to face returning to the local town. The hard-bitten Molly, the spurned girlfriend of Danger, is full of yearning for her lost love, unable to go forward or back. The oppressive, restrictive mores of the small town mean that everyone pays a price, but the price women have to pay is far higher.
The central character in the final play, Belfry, is far from a rebel. Artie O'Leary is the sacristan of the parish church; he used to be an altar boy there, his whole life has been spent in it's shadow. When not working, he cares for his bedridden mother and is a father figure to Dominic, the 'simple' altar boy. Into this 'small life' bursts Angela, and Artie finds love for the first time.
These plays are a joy. Billy Roche portrays working class characters using language that sings of the factory or local pub. The realistic sets, and the depth and intensity of the acting also help make seeing The Wexford Trilogy at the Tricycle Theatre a very moving and enjoyable experience.
Kelly Mac Dermott


Return to
Contents page: Return to Socialist Review Index Home page