Issue 249 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published February 2001 Copyright © Socialist Review

Arts

Review

   

Cultural currents

Visionary constructions

Mike Gonzalez examines the relationship between artistic innovation and the struggle for a better world
Soft lines and humane pubic spaces from Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer
Soft lines and humane pubic spaces from Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer

Tate Modern is launching an exhibition called 'Century City' that frames nine cities through the 20th century from Paris in 1908 to Bombay in 2001 at key 'flashpoints'--moments of artistic experiment and innovation, of new visions and new utopias.

Over a decade ago there was a magnificent exhibition at the Pompidou Centre in Paris. 'Paris-Moscou 1900-1930' found a creative and exhilarating connection between the extraordinary artistic adventure of early 20th century Paris and the social revolution that began in Russia in October 1917. The link between the two might not now be immediately obvious. But there was in Cubism and the artistic avant garde of the day a shared sense of change, of drama. The 'bourgeois optimism' that Engels talked about 20 years earlier gave way to the sense that nothing was stable or fixed, that even in the instant of time of a Cubist painting there could be transformation and movement.

The Futurists, who emerged in Italy, celebrated the city and its promise of a restless, volatile future. True, it ended in Marinetti's fascist paranoia, but for all its contradictions it was a celebration of a modern imagination. Eleven or so years after the birth of Cubism, the imaginary worlds suggested in these fluid visions became, it seemed, a material possibility.

Moscow after 1917 was at the centre of new possibilities--nothing was impossible after the October Revolution. The Constructivists and the other avant garde artists imagined a world full of sweeping curves and reconstructed spaces, where new materials could create anything--from Pevsner's new radio station to Tatlin's tubular chairs. No aspect of material life escaped the visionaries--even though the material conditions in which the revolution was struggling to survive did not allow their realisation. Nevertheless, art now applied itself to life with an incredible optimistic vigour.

This new vision inspired artists well beyond the confines of Russia. And when the period of hope ended with Stalin's accession to power, the artists who left Russia carried the ideas to Germany, to France, to Brazil. In Germany they found a society which had seen a revolution defeated in 1919, but which still relentlessly explored the imaginary possibilities of a different world even as the forces of fascism were gathering. It is odd that Berlin is not among these flashpoint cities, an arena for the arguments and confrontations in an atmosphere of crisis (the Weimar Republic) which were the origin of Brecht's theatre, Expressionist art (Dix and Grosz, for example) and the dialectical collages of John Heartfield.

Lagos in the 1950s and 1960s was the crucible for exciting new musical movements (highlife) and a modern urban culture. Yet the most political and challenging developments were probably occurring in Ibadan, where Achebe and Wole Soyinka were producing a new literature of challenge and protest. Soyinka's subsequent experience of censorship and persecution is evidence enough of how near he got to the heart of things. Tokyo too, after 1968, was for a few years a place of mass protests and anti-authoritarian politics that produced their own anarchic and sometimes nihilistic expressions of creative disorder.

The later examples are of a different order. New York from 1968 to 1974, and London and Bombay in the 1990s certainly were witness to cultural explosions--but those explosions were not, I think, challenges or acts of defiance. This was a London of club culture and an industry of leisure--the Ministry of Sound, after all, was never intended to be a rehearsal for a new and democratic order! It was more an escape from the one that existed. And the explosion of a new universe of cultural commodities in Bombay in the 1990s left the homeless and the hungry on the streets, and created roped-off areas where they were prevented from interrupting the moving stream of anxious shoppers.

So what is it that Tate Modern is trying to say with its 'Century City'? That the 20th century produced an extraordinary diversity of artistic objects and expressions of creative energy? That we can speak of a 20th century art, synthesised into a body of innovation and experiment disengaged from the circumstances out of which it arose? If so, then we might perhaps respond with a different question. What worlds were envisaged in these movements born in the crowded heartlands of the new cities? In Rio de Janeiro and Brasilia the Brazilian modernist architects were building a different way of life. They inaugurated the new city of Brasilia in 1960--eight years later the country was cast into a 16-year military dictatorship of extreme repression. Did this invalidate their work? I think it did not because it contained a promise of transformation. Without that charge, innovation may be no more than a trick to make us believe that all that we can do is change the surface of things. But the experience of Paris, Moscow, Vienna, and the absent crucibles of Berlin to 1933 and Paris 1968, suggest that the death of revolutionary modernism may have been much exaggerated.


Film

A FUTILE WAR

Traffic
Dir: Steven Soderbergh

Michael Douglas as the 'Drugs Tsar' in Traffic
Michael Douglas as the 'Drugs Tsar' in Traffic

Steven Soderbergh's new film about the war on drugs is being hailed as a classic of campaigning Hollywood cinema. The film certainly looks good. It uses the methods of the most radical recent cinema--shaky hand-held cameras, intercutting different film stocks and film speeds. It is made up of a series of unconnected stories that turn out to be jigsaw pieces in a disturbing picture that links business corruption, violence and addiction.
The film communicates a deep unease not just about trafficking but the war on drugs itself. Michael Douglas plays a new 'Drugs Tsar' who finds the job increasingly frustrating. A series of establishment insiders tell him that the war is unwinnable, then he discovers the ruling class in Mexico is so mired in the trade that he can find no allies there for the good fight. To cap it all his daughter turns out to be a drug addict. This is more than a PR problem for Douglas's character--it makes him question his whole purpose. As he says, 'How can we fight a war on drugs if we have to fight our own families?'
So far, so good. The fact that seemingly respectable American business people are exposed as traffickers, the images of tens of thousands of cars a day pouring over the border from Mexico, reinforce the sense that the war on drugs is futile. The moral certainties of the anti-drugs crusaders start to crumble as we are confronted with spiralling figures for youth drug use and the poverty of the barrios in Mexico. Unfortunately there are other moral platitudes waiting in the wings.
Traffic has the feel of a dramatic exposé but misses out the most shocking facts. There is, for example, no suggestion of drug taking amongst the Washington elite or by US police. The American establishment comes out as incompetent and naive but essentially well meaning. US officials appear to be surprised by the involvement of Mexican government figures in the drugs trade rather than complicit in it. This is fantasy land. It is an open secret, for example, that the US-backed counter-insurgency in Colombia is funded by drugs money. A series of high up US military staff in South America have been implicated in drug running. The US colonel in charge of 'counter-narcotics' training in Colombia is expected to plead guilty to trafficking in a current case.
The film doesn't even touch on the wider issues raised by the reality of the war on drugs. It is US-led liberalisation of commodity markets that has forced millions of peasants in Latin America into growing coca by pushing down corn prices in the first place. While it spends a fortune on military 'anti-drugs' operations in Latin America, the US refuses to spend serious money funding replacement crops. At home the government is cutting domestic drug treatment schemes despite all the evidence showing these schemes are many times more effective than 'source country control' or domestic law enforcement. All this suggests that for the US government the war on drugs is more about social control than stopping the traffickers.
It's a shame that Traffic pulls its punches. It has some powerful moments--the scenes of corruption and violence in the Mexican military are horrific and convincing, and the film-makers try to use ghetto scenes in America to suggest the depths of the problems back home. Some of the performances are unforgettable-- Benicio Del Toro's portrayal of a Mexican cop trying to do the right thing in a world of blood and betrayal is riveting.
If only the film took the same risks he does. Probably the full story on the drugs trade in the US is too explosive for Hollywood. It was OK to let Oliver Stone speculate about the shooting of JFK 30 years on, and a few directors could question aspects of the Vietnam War 15 years after the event. But really blowing the lid on the drugs trade in the US would expose double standards in the highest places, systematic police corruption and racism, and a brutal imperialist foreign policy that's happening now.
Chris Nineham


IN THE HOT-HOUSE OF REVOLUTION

La Commune
Dir: Peter Watkins

La Commune is an extraordinary film in many ways, mainly because it is probably the most extensive and fully explored representation of a revolution in recent cinema history.
It's a profound, intellectually engaging film about the social forces at play in the Paris Commune, a vivid retelling of how and why ordinary people, in Marx's words, had been 'storming heaven' to set up the first workers' democracy.
La Commune tells the story of why the Paris Commune was established in 1871. After the humiliating defeat of Louis Bonaparte's forces by Bismarck's Prussian army, the reins of power were taken up by the reactionary Republican government. The Parisian masses were held in siege conditions as Bismarck pressed for punitive reparations. Thiers, the new head of government, betrayed the masses and launched an assault on the insurrection.
La Haine

Asian Dub Foundation meet the French anti-racist film La Haine on 31 March, one of the highlights of the Only Connect festival coming up at London's Barbican Centre.
When La Haine was released in the 1990s, it was thought so controversial that a French government minister suggested the entire cabinet attended a screening. The film exposes the racism at the heart of French society, and the despair many felt that there was little future. In this screening at the Barbican the film will be accompanied by live music from Asian Dub Foundation. Accompanying them will be guest DJs and artists from the North African hip-hop scene.
This is a unique event which should not be missed, so book now.

In Part One we see, through the vantage point of radical Commune television and a laughably reactionary bourgeois television channel, the key turning points of the revolution, how the city came under control of the people, armed and determined to change their lives for the better. We are then treated to a wide ranging series of interviews that presents the hopes, fears and aspirations for all the social classes in Paris--from bourgeois ladies to school children. La Commune conveys the excitement of revolution with remarkable vividness and authenticity.
Part Two is even more engaging, with its heated debates concerning the democratic effectiveness of the National Committee and the Commune, the political role of women, the pitfalls of workers' co-operatives, racism in France today and the Commune's relevance. The story ends with the horrific massacre of 30,000 Communards.
Peter Watkins, the radical British director renowned for his brilliant anti-nuclear movie The War Game (1966), still banned by the British censors, has defied the establishment again with this broadside against media manipulation and sham democracy, amongst other issues. He also presents a formidable challenge to the audience, as the film is over five hours long. Arguably it compels the audience to suspend the usual soundbite approach to ideas, requiring us to explore complex political arguments from a variety of positions.
La Commune is heavily influenced by the ideas of the German socialist dramatist Bertolt Brecht, with a 1960s twist--focusing on an ensemble cast rather than an individual tale, actors move in and out of character, and inter-titles provide wry, biting commentary. Shot in black and white, the sole location is a studio transformed into the claustrophobic hot-house atmosphere of revolution. Some 220 local people were recruited to perform roles in the film. One of the most exciting and original aspects of this project is to hear ordinary people heatedly debate ideas thrown up by the film and the prospects for fundamental social change. The whirlwind of revolution is so tangible in this film that actors and audience alike are caught in its vortex.
In a recent interview in Le Monde Diplomatique, Watkins said that the aim of the film is to debate alternative forms of democracy and ultimately to encourage revolutionary struggle, which is indispensable at this dawn of the new millennium.
We are experiencing a renaissance in radical film-making similar to 1930s France. La Commune is to the anti-capitalist movement what Jean Renoir's La Marseillaise, partially funded by the French Communist Party, was to the mood behind the French Popular Front--a plea for solidarity, a point of inspiration, a veritable call to arms.
Stephen Philip


Theatre

APOCALYPSE NOW

Katherine Tozer and Kevin McKidd in Far Away
Katherine Tozer and Kevin McKidd in Far Away

Far Away
by Caryl Churchill
Albery Theatre, London

Far Away starts off with a child, Joan, climbing out of her bedroom window at night and witnessing a frightful and bloody battering of unknown people, including children, by her uncle. Her aunt, to whom she relates the incident, offers an explanation that the uncle was helping a group of people escape, and that he battered a traitor and his child to save the others. We are not let into the truth or otherwise of the aunt's explanation, who the people were escaping from, or why--but are left guessing.
This is a strange and baffling play whose short 45-minute duration makes oblique references to seemingly apocalyptic problems and developments, but offers no answers or solutions. The audience is instead left to interpret them in any way it can construe them. That is surely the reason why this play has inspired so much discussion, with opinions ranging from 'wonderful' to 'almost totally incomprehensible'.
We move on to a grown-up Joan working in bad and oppressive conditions in a hat factory making fantastic hats, not for public sale, but for an army of prisoners, chained together and going to their execution. Why she is doing this, we are not privileged to know.
Things descend further in the third act, which depicts a slide of the entire planet into a nationalistic war--in fact, into barbarism. The pessimism is pronounced, the issues raised perplexing. I cannot honestly pronounce on the goodness, badness, or indeed value, of the play. It is for you, the audience, to see it and judge for yourself.
One thing, however, can be said with certainty. The production, by Stephen Daldry (who directed the hit film Billy Elliott), is beautiful--simple, subdued and very fitting for each very different scene.
Chanie Rosenberg


THE CAFE CULTURE

Greek
by Steven Berkoff
Riverside Studios, Hammersmith

Steven Berkoff's modern version of the Oedipus story, Greek, was staged in Hammersmith last month. It tells the story of Eddy, stuck in a horrible home with a family he can't stand in London's East End. Matters are not helped by the fact that when Eddy was a child his mum and dad were told by a fairground fortune teller that Eddy would kill his father and sleep with his mother.
On hearing the same premonition years later from the fortune teller's son, they kick Eddy out of the family home. Eddy leaves, and finds himself in a greasy spoon cafe where he gets into a fight with the owner, who he kills. He falls in love with the owner's wife, a woman who lost her son in a tragic accident on the Thames many years earlier. But it slowly dawns on both Eddy and the audience the true nature of the relationship between him and his lover.
The acting, by the Confederate Theatre Company, was lively, loud and physical, and rarely paused for breath. The spectacle of Eddie killing the cafe owner in a battle of words, his battle with the man-hating Sphinx, the final revelation with Eddy, his lover and his adoptive parents--all of them had an incredible drama, tension and energy which made you sit up and take notice. The problem for me was that there was barely any break in the action, very little light and shade, and at its worst it turned into a lot of people shouting in bad cockney accents.
The play shows Eddy's family and his East End community as disgusting, racist, drunken, sexually repressed and full of loathing for anything different. While doubtless there are some families like this, Berkoff and the actors seem to want to generalise Eddy's family to the whole of British working class life. The problem is that it won't wash--there is no vast undercurrent of hateful xenophobia lurking in the council estates and pubs of this country, and, though I realise there is an element of dramatic caricature here, the actors seemed to positively revel in showing these characters as dreadful, one-dimensional proles.
At the end, Eddy decides not to follow the route of Oedipus and tear out his eyes. Instead he resolves to love his mother, and stops her from killing herself, stopping the conclusion of the play turning out like the Greek tragedy on which it is based, and giving us a 'happy ending', of sorts.
Phil Whaite


Time to Fly, Witches by Goya
Time to Fly, Witches by Goya

Exhibition

FLIGHTS OF FANTASY

Goya: Drawings From his Private Albums
Hayward Gallery, London

Francisco Goya's vision of humanity remains as relevent today as ever. His artistic career spanned the period of the Spanish Peninsular War and the ensuing repression. This exhibition draws on little known drawings from his private albums which were split up after his death. For the first time 100 of these drawings have been selected for an exhibition at the Hayward Gallery, on the South Bank, London, beginning 22 February.


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