Issue 251 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published April 2001 Copyright © Socialist Review

Arts

Review

   

Cultural currents

The camera never lies?

Two photographers with very different subjects assessed by Mike Gonzalez
Occupation of the Giacometi plantation, Paranà, by Sebatião Salgado
Occupation of the Giacometi plantation, Paranà, by Sebatião Salgado

There is a universe between David Bailey, the fashion and celebrity photographer of the 1960s, and the Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado. Salgado's extraordinary and moving pictures of workers in mines and fields, of refugees in the Sahel, of the burning oil wells of Kuwait after the Gulf War, have circulated the world. But the odd thing was that I saw collections of both these photographers' work in art galleries--Salgado's in Glasgow's Kelvingrove, and Bailey's 'Birth of the Cool' exhibition at the Dean Gallery in Edinburgh.

Did this mean that they had both become art? That Bailey's pictures of gaping celebrities and fashion models in unexpected places had taken on some deeper meaning? That he said something about life? Or did it mean, as one ferocious reviewer suggested, that Sebastião Salgado's pictures of the pain and injustice of a modern world had somehow lost their power and become mere decoration? Beautiful photos certainly--but little more than that?

The mud-encrusted miners crawl out of some infernal pit in their hundreds--they carry what they have clawed out of the ground on their shoulders as they climb up to the rim of the hill where armed guards look down on them. It is an unforgettable image of enslavement and exploitation. It could seem timeless or, for the western viewer at least, to belong to the past--except that Salgado's picture has a caption and a date: 'Gold Miners, Sierra Pelada, Brazil, 1986'. When the great hunger struck the Horn of Africa in 1984, Salgado photographed the fleeing refugees and those who were dying of hunger while working with Médecins sans Frontières. Again they are given a time and place--'Sahel, 1984'. Although they produce in the viewer a kind of horror, Salgado's work doesn't allow revulsion or rejection--it denies you the right to turn away because there is something else, something you sense is there, but at first you do not see. As the skeletal man and the child lie together, wrapped in rags, a hand reaches out to the child. The woman with her child walking across some kind of endless desert looks back at you.

What angers some people is that these are beautiful pictures--as if that is an offence against their subjects and a way of making misery aesthetically pleasing. Salgado's own answer to the criticism is to say, 'I wanted to respect the people as much as I could, to work to get the best composition and the most beautiful light... If you can show a situation this way--get the beauty and the nobility along with the despair--then you can show someone in America or France that these people are not different.' The bizarre thing is to look at David Bailey's images of Jean Shrimpton and the Rolling Stones, and a set of other self confessed 'beautiful' people in carefully composed pictures, and to realise how little dignity or humanity they possess. These figures, sometimes set in playful semi-surreal landscapes but more often against white backgrounds, are flattened and neutralised. The only prints that had any drama in them were Bailey's early, and rarely seen, pictures of people in East End pubs.

In one of his photographs a beautifully dressed blonde model sits among rows of Masai women--this was the age of Third World chic, after all, when Vogue photographed its models in the desert or the jungle. The Bedu or the Masai were no more than decoration--all eyes were on a pale model in the latest Courreges chainmail dress. But should photos appear in galleries at all? Where should we see a photograph? The important thing about a photograph is that it seems familiar, easy to read, a mirror on the world. The camera is within everyone's reach and understanding--the qualities of paint are still mysterious. Salgado places his photographs wherever they can be seen by people, ordinary people, who can be persuaded to see themselves in others, to see their own world in places (real or metaphorical) they had been told were strange to them. His refugees, his workers, look back at the spectator and ask to be acknowledged in a mutual gesture of recognition. This kind of photograph, in John Berger's words, 'exists in a continuum. All its references are external to itself.' In that sense Salgado belongs to a tradition of photojournalism that once, when Life, Paris Match and Picture Post existed, would be seen as part of a developing story, as 'news' and narrative. But that was before Murdoch and Hello! magazine, when the photojournalists were sacked to make way for the paparazzi. Don McCullin, who left us with the most powerful stories from Vietnam, was sacked from the Sunday Times as soon as Murdoch took over. David Bailey, I suspect, would have been offered a bigger salary!

Bailey's photographs, like the celebrity snaps that cover the pages of our newspapers and magazines, look through us rather than at us. They have no history, no existence beyond the moment. Perhaps they do belong on a whitewashed gallery wall. Salgado's images, on the other hand, belong to a world that is moving and changing--because they are always moments in a much larger story.


Film

THE CULTURE OF RACISM

Bamboozled
Dir: Spike Lee

Malcolm X

This quote from Malcolm X gives the flavour and the title of the new Spike Lee film, Bamboozled. I confess I'm still reeling from the impact of this uncompromising attack on the racism of American network television. In America only art movie houses have shown Bamboozled because it caused such controversy.

The story is about Harvard-educated Pierre Delacroix, who works as the only black comedy writer at a television station with falling ratings. He is asked to produce a black sitcom which confirms rather than challenges racist America. As a solution to his career frustrations Delacroix agrees to plunge into the depths of racist filth. He dreams up ManTan: the New Millennium Minstrel Show.

Delacroix's only research is to watch 1950s videos of Amos and Andy and change the names. Amos and Andy was America's highest ever rated radio show that transferred to television, with actors blacking up to play the singing and dancing childlike slaves. But the added punch is that this time Delacroix can make it even more offensive by calling one of the characters 'Sleep and Eat', the sidekick to the star, tap-dancing ManTan. The backdrop is a plantation, and the black street performers nervously undertake these abhorrent roles. As they are unemployed and homeless there seems no other alternative. They grimace and cry while looking at their reflections in make-up mirrors, mixing up the horrid burnt cork and alcohol concoction they paint on their faces. They also have to paint on grotesque red lips. The men shrivel at their own gruesome creations.

The show becomes a huge success despite demonstrations by Al Sharpton to shut it down. Politically this film is rich with all the debate raging in black America on the question of what being black means. There are characters to represent different groups within the black population. Mos Def plays a nationalist rapper leader of a militant separatist group which includes a woman and a white man. He rails against the vile excesses of Puff Daddy, who worships the lavish spending millionaires. He talks revolution and urges urban violence against the Uncle Toms in ManTan. Jada Pinkett plays Sloan Hopkins. She is the only woman character, and she seems caught in the contradiction of how to stay black and have aspirations. Sloan grumbles to her boss, Delacroix, about the show's flagrant racism but still helps it to be made. Sadly she is reduced to being a sexual object and bears the hallmarks of Spike Lee's worrying portrayal of women.

This film is harsh, violent, shocking and disturbing. Perhaps the most nauseating aspect of it was the constant repetition of the word 'nigger'. The effort to reclaim racist language misfires and undermines the challenging mood of the piece. This is Spike Lee's intention. You will not get a cosy cinematic experience--you will get an immensely powerful indictment of racist ideology. The soundtrack is characteristically chosen. It is shot mainly using handheld camaras, which adds to the immediacy of the film. You will also get the rallying poetry of James Baldwin to implore you to fight the fight against racism. What Spike omits to say is that racism is a bloodsucking, murderous vampire born from slavery which was justified to create capitalism. Throughout US history white people have joined black people to oppose it. But then Malcolm X didn't have the opportunity to put words into pictures like these.
Adeola Johnson


BOXING CLEVER?

Girlfight
Dir: Karyn Kusama

Anything men can do...
Anything men can do...

'Shot--for a pair of shoes'. Thus runs the imaginary headline Diana and fellow boxer Adrian joke could describe their future if they don't get out of the Brooklyn projects. For Adrian, it seems to be a simple question of 'go pro--get out of the ghetto', but for Diana (newcomer Michelle Rodriguez) things are a bit less straightforward. Diana is a sullen, moody teenager who skulks along the corridors of her high school, unsmiling and starting fights at the slightest provocation. She is full of rage--at her father, who she blames for her mother's suicide and whose highest expectation of her is that she might one day be a receptionist; at the school authorities, whose response to her problems is to say, 'One more fight and you're out'. At the constant barrage of images of 'womanhood' all around her which seem to tell her she's wrong to look, dress and act the way she does.

Then one day she stumbles across the grubby, but somehow welcoming, world of boxing. She feels at home in the Brooklyn gym where she trains in secret, sparring with featherweights and learning to control her anger and her strength. As time passes we see her change--she walks confidently, is less tense and brooding, and she even smiles and jokes with the people around her, and begins a tentative relationship with Adrian--another kid from the projects.

Girlfight is a low-key independent film, made by first time director Karyn Kusama. It is never over-dramatic and there are no big knockout scenes--when Diana wins it is because she is disciplined and fights a clean fight. The fight scenes are accompanied by classical Spanish guitar music, merging into trippy industrial noise when they get rough. The film follows Diana attempting to grow up and discover what she's capable of and being confronted with obstacles at every turn. Her father is constantly putting Diana down. He pays for her younger brother to go to boxing lessons, but he won't give her an allowance, saying she'd 'only spend it on make-up and stuff'. She is bombarded with conflicting messages wherever she looks. Nothing seems to fit with her experience of life. Even Adrian, with whom she feels she has a connection, lets her down when he initially refuses to fight her on an equal basis because it might damage his record to have fought a 'girl'.

At first it is tempting to look for the similarities with Billy Elliot--working class kid takes up unconventional life choice and triumphs against the odds--but the two films are very different. Girlfight is less overtly political and less uplifting, but it is very down to earth and moving, as well as very funny at times. The fact that Rodriguez had not acted before, let alone boxed, means that her performance is very real. For Diana, boxing is not just about escaping the ghetto. She needs to feel she can gain some kind of control over her life. When Adrian says boxing is like war, she replies, 'Maybe life's just a war, period.'

There is a problem with the premise of Girlfight. This is a film about boxing. The idea that beating the crap out of others is a way out of the ghetto has long been a cliche for working class boys. This film shows a girl beating them at their own game. The director is a boxing fan and sees it as some kind of spiritual journey--as does Diana in the film. Here the hold of post-feminism is still fairly tight.

Girlfight gives a picture of adolescence I fully recognised. It also deals with young women beginning to challenge their oppression. Diana, when confronted with images on television you hoped had gone out with the 1950s, refuses to accept that this is all life has to offer women in the 21st century. She takes on the sexism and confronts Adrian about his idea of what a girlfriend should be. She's no action hero or postfeminist icon, but a young woman fighting against the stereotypes and low expectations that ordinary women are faced with.
Sally Campbell


Theatre

WHEN GREED IS GOOD

The Good Woman of Setzuan
by Bertolt Brecht
Cottesloe Theatre, London and touring

One of the three gods in The Good Woman of Setzuan
One of the three gods in The Good Woman of Setzuan

Is a person able to be both virtuous and rich? This is the question posed by Brecht's play The Good Woman of Setzuan. However, this is no morality tale for the individual, for the play is not about eternal truths but about how things truly are. Brecht argued that 'the present day world can only be described to present day people if it is described as capable of transformation'.

Central to this is the audience's participation in the play both physically, and hopefully in seeing the world and their own lives in a new light. In the pre-show the actors get the audience on stage, debate and hear an argument on acting styles between a ventriloquist's dummy of the 'method acting' style and a 'Brechtian' actor. Each scene first needs a member of the audience to get on an exercise bike on stage to power up the lights, to cheers from the audience.

Three gods come to town looking for virtuous people and find only one, a prostitute, Shan Te. She asks them, 'How can I be good when everything is so expensive?' To help her the gods give her wealth--a winning scratch card.

Shan Te buys a shop, and tries to use her new prosperity to do good by giving rice to the poor and homes to the homeless. She even buys water from the water seller even though it has been raining for months. But she is also used and ripped off by those she trusts most. Even so, Shan Te tries not to blame the poor but instead their poverty.

In a defining scene Shen Te, poverty-stricken and pregnant by her treacherous lover, talks to her unborn child. She describes how beautiful the natural world is and how plentiful the fruit are. She imagines seeing the child playfully picking a plum from a tree. But even in her dream reality cannot be escaped, for the tree belongs to a rich man and they must flee from a prowling policeman.

Despairing, she asks the heavens how she can be good when the world only rewards greed. She decides to look after her child and invents a male alter ego, her cousin Shui Ta. He is a ruthless businessman who gets the homeless arrested for stealing and exploits his workers in his tobacco factory.

Shui Ta is hated by the poor. This hatred fuels their belief that Shan Te is being held prisoner by him. The unrest forces the authorities to arrest Shui Ta and try him. Can you be a good individual in a bad world? The question is left unresolved by the play, and it is left to the audience to have their say and draw their own conclusions. The poor could get together and...well, you shout it out!
Pete Gee


HELL IS OTHER PEOPLE

No Way Out
by Jean-Paul Sartre
Cochrane Theatre, London

Sartre is perhaps the most famous and influential French thinker of the 20th century. A committed socialist, he was also a novelist, philosopher and dramatist. He was taken prisoner in 1940, and then joined the French Resistance movement. He was a vehement opponent of Western imperialism in Indochina, supported the Algerian anti-colonial movement, and played an active part in the 1968 rebellion. Many of his works explore his main philosophical idea--existentialism. This play, called Huis Clos (No Way Out), also does, but, unlike many of his other works and despite the title, it gives socialists hope. It is the most performed of his plays.

The play has three main characters, Garcin, Ines and Estelle, all of which are well acted. They are unknown to each other, but nevertheless find themselves dead and sharing a place in hell. The play opens as Garcin, a 'man of letters' and the editor of a pacifist newspaper, ponders the reasons why he is there. Hell is not as he expected--there are no implements of torture, no fire and brimstone. It is a sterile hell shown in the set, with three benches, no windows or mirrors, and ceaseless artificial light. It is 'life without a break', where his 'eyes are open forever'.

Garcin tries to persuade us that he was a hero. He refused to fight in the war and was shot. However, he is really a coward and the tormentor of his wife, who admired him but whom he mistreated by forcing her to accept his mistress into their home. He wants salvation, believing that he was essentially honourable but let down by his weakness.

Ines, the next arrival, is a lesbian (rather stereotypically portrayed by Sartre). She is guilty of murdering her cousin for being with the woman Ines loved.

Estelle, who completes the trio, is young, vain and affluent, with the affectation of high society life. She is guilty of killing the child of her lover, a poor man who takes his own life as a result, because she cannot risk losing her social status.

It is the dialogue and dramatic tension between the characters that drives this play (the play was written in response to requests that each actor had the same number of lines and shared equally in the dramatic action). Each character tries to force another to look at them as they want to be seen--as unfortunate victims of circumstance. So Estelle wants Garcin's attention, who demands respect in return. Ines desires Estelle because she reminds her of her lost lover, while Estelle uses Ines as a mirror to reflect her vanity. All would be well if it wasn't for the presence of a third character dispelling their illusions.

There are no implements of torture because each is the other's torturer--'hell', famously, 'is other people'. Even when the doors open they cannot leave as they are dependent on what Sartre calls each other's 'mutual bad faith'.

These ideas seem pretty despairing of human interaction. However, Sartre is not suggesting we are all manipulative, and the core of his philosophy can be seen in a positive light. His idea of existentialism is the idea that because there is no god there can be no ultimate reason for life. Human beings, unlike the rest of the physical world, have no inner essence but must make choices. 'That man is condemned to be free' has moral implications for what we do. In life we can remake ourselves by our acts, but in death we are judged solely by what we have done. For Garcin, Innes and Estelle there is no redemption. For Garcin there is no salvation. He is a coward. Sartre is clearly showing his contempt for those who refused to join the Resistance movement against fascism, and is imploring us to act morally upon the world in order to change it. It is what we do that counts. Not a bad philosophy for the 21st century, and one which is well explored and presented in this production.
Alasdair Paterson


THE SCIENCE OF WAR

Woman in the Moon
by Julia Pascal
Arcola Theatre, London

Rocket man
Rocket man

Poor old Hackney has something to celebrate--the opening of a new theatre. It is unpretentiously in an old warehouse, which still looks like one, so it is easily missed.

However, this early production of Women in the Moon is far from unpretentious. The play centres around the life and ambitions of Wernher von Braun, the obsessive rocket builder whom Hitler used to build the V1 and V2 rockets unleashed on England in 1944, which killed 2,700 people and injured many more. When Germany's defeat became apparent, the 33 year old von Braun and 500 of his key people sought out the US to surrender to because, as one of them explained, 'We despise the French, we are mortally afraid of the Soviets, we don't believe the British can afford us, so that leaves the Americans.'

Von Braun was enthusiastically received by the establishment in America, being especially admired by Walt Disney, with whom he worked. He went on, despite his Nazi background, to construct Apollo 11, which landed men on the moon in July 1969.

The hiding place for the construction of the V1 and V2 rockets during the latter part of the war was a place called Camp Dora in Germany. Some 30,000 slave labourers, prisoners from the different nations attacked by Hitler, were forced to work under unspeakably terrible conditions, which von Braun knew but did nothing about. It is this aspect of the rocket story that is highlighted side by side with von Braun's development, and from which we get the childhood observations of Ruth Posner (who plays Dora) on the situation in Germany at the time. She is a real life survivor of a German wartime prison camp. The play may be summed up by the remark of von Braun to Dora, 'What is your religion? The Holocaust. Mine's rockets.' Humanity or science (of war)?

The theatre is very small, which closely and delightfully involves the audience with the actors and the play. It seats only about 40 people, and the stage props are correspondingly simple. The acting, however, is excellent, particularly of Thomas Huber, as Wernher von Braun, and Ruth Posner. The play is serious, thought provoking and holds the attention throughout various scenes and various acting modes, which includes songs. 'You could almost call it a cabaret,' Ruth Posner remarked.

If this new theatre maintains this calibre of production, it bids fair to becoming as well known as the Hackney Empire, and Hackney quite a centre of the arts, flying in the face of its deprivation and poverty.
Chanie Rosenberg


FAMOUS FIVE

Henry V
by William Shakespeare<
Barbican Theatre, London

The story of Henry Plantagenet--the dissolute young heir to the throne who eventually grows up to be a good king and wins the David and Goliath battle against France at Agincourt--is one of the most famous in Shakespeare. The play Henry V is centrally concerned with the French war and Henry's role as the leader who unites the whole nation behind him. Its most famous interpretation is the Laurence Olivier film, issued at the end of the Second World War. The film reflected the nationalism of the play but in a way which very much fitted with its time--England as a bastion of liberty against continental tyranny. Henry's most patriotic speeches struck a chord in a country which had both suffered the privations of war but which had never been invaded, and so could preserve the illusion that everyone was 'in it together'.

Henry in battle mode

Edward Hall's production of Henry V for the Royal Shakespeare Company has a very different take on nationalism. Henry's soldiers would be much more at home shooting plastic bullets in Northern Ireland than fighting the Nazis. They chant 'Engerland' like football crowds heading for an international. They form an ominous presence throughout the play and are a rabble only united by their firm but fair king.

The production has tremendous visual style although its pace flagged in the second half. It is extremely well acted, especially by William Houston as Henry. But its connection of the nationalism of the play with that of the football terraces is a single blunt instrument which obscures rather than enhances our view of the play. In the same way as the recent film of Hamlet, its concern to provide a complete contemporary analogy makes it harder to understand what Shakespeare was actually saying. The notion of a ruthless, rabid nationalism doesn't really fit the picture of England in 1599 when England was still not part of a 'united kingdom', and where the dominant powers were still France and Spain. Nor does it fit with the play itself, where Henry warns against rape and pillage of the French and has his erstwhile drinking companion Bardolph hanged for looting.

Every staging of a 'classic' play is of course influenced by contemporary ideas and events. One of the most interesting contrasts is between the Henry of Olivier's interpretation--a postwar era of tremendous hope and expectation, of opportunity for all--and this latest version set against a background of Labour attacks on refugees and asylum seekers, calls for more law and order, and curbs on civil liberties. Perhaps every Labour government gets the Henry V it deserves.
Lindsey German


BOB THE BOMBER

Spirit
by Improbable Theatre
Royal Court, London

This is a play about conflict--and it takes place on two levels. Firstly, the three performers tell us the story of a small village in a country that is at war. In the village are three bakers; they are brothers. The eldest, Ted, is called up to fight, but the youngest, Bob, goes in his place. We are then taken through the bombing of another village as Bob pilots a plane that destroys all the buildings and its inhabitants.

The other level of conflict is within the theatre company itself. Throughout, the play shifts from telling the story of the war to telling the story of the internal conflict which nearly ripped Improbable Theatre apart during the making of the play.

The continuity between the two stories is helped by an excellent set. This is a large wooden roof that slopes down to the front of the audience. Within it there are a myriad of little doors and portholes from which the actors constantly reappear, at each turn telling a different aspect of the story. So the set transforms from being the three bakers in bed who then disappear and slowly through the slats appears a pop up skyscraper city which is then bombed to oblivion by Bob. We are told about the lives of the people who worked in the city, and who are being killed--a brutal reminder of the human cost of war.

The possibility is there that the play could become disjointed. At times I was hoping that there was going to be more on the futility of war. Yet what keeps it going are the excellent performances and the vibrant and energetic enthusiasm the actors have for what they are doing.

There are some wonderful moments such as when they use a number of rag puppets which, Mortal Kombat style, engage in brutal fighting. Then when Bob is shot down in his plane and is forced to bail out he is manipulated, puppet-like, by the other two in a shoot out with the enemy. When this happens the gun is pointed at the audience as though we are somehow to blame. The company's ability to connect with the audience and engage us in what they are saying is a great strength.

Unfortunately there is only a short run of this production at the Royal Court. The Improbable Theatre company constantly changes what it produces so look out for what they do in future--this is innovative and exciting stuff.
Peter Morgan


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