Issue 253 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published June 2001 Copyright © Socialist Review

Arts

Review

   

Cultural currents

Walk on the wild side

The dark side of American life is revealed in the novels of James Elroy, says Mike Gonzalez
Kim Basinger in the film version of La Confidential
Kim Basinger in the film version of La Confidential

'Howard Hughes found a vein and mainlined cocaine. Pete watched on the sly--Hughes left the bedroom door ajar. The dope hit home. Big Howard went slack-faced. Room-service carts clattered outside...'(American Tabloid)

As soon as you read the first lines of a James Elroy novel, you're in a familiar place. It has to be America, but not the shining glass skyscrapers or the air-conditioned malls. Drive a couple of miles from the glittering city centre in your shabby purring 1950s Chevy--the streets are wider, the pavements broken. Wooden houses with a deck, but you can see the factory just beyond them and the empty spaces full of debris behind the fences. The pink Budweiser signs flash anaemically over McGinty's Bar and inside the guys lean silently and watch the game. No capuccinos here, no Friends whiling their time away on sofas. This is Five and Dime country, poor and angry. This is Elroy country.

Tarantino remade pulp fiction as a kind of circus, lots of blood and violence, but the murderers feel nothing and quote the Bible as they leave. His films were a kind of homage--but he heightened the colours and multiplied the bullets until there wasn't a shred of reality left. Elroy took the literature of murder back to its dark days in Raymond Chandler and Dashiel Hammett, the masters of fiction noir. Their investigators (Marlowe and the Continental Op) didn't wear badges or uniforms; they worked for no one and they never trusted a cop. You never knew whose side they were on.

The sun never reached their darkest corners--the garbage-laden alleys, the seamy clubs that daylight never entered, the clapped out warehouse buildings on the wrong side of the tracks. The place they lived in was a kind of no man's land, the underbelly where the American Dream melded into nightmares, or the blurred haze of a hangover vision. A moral desert where the bright-eyed cheerleaders of a safe, white, honourable America never ventured; where crime defined only the petty thefts of second-rate failures. The deep-rooted corruption of the vice squad detectives on the take, or the politicians buying their careers, or the fiery preachers with a half share in a brothel was given a different label, an alibi.

In this morally sullied universe no one escapes the taint. The fiction unmasks and exposes relentlessly. The short, breathless clipped sentences that so immediately identify the genre offer no hiding place, no ambiguities, no qualification. They are like bullets--hitting the target square, in a blinding flash, and leaving it ragged and exposed. It's a blunt instrument and it takes no prisoners.

But through the 1950s and 60s it had gone a little soft. Some of the most successful detective story writers of the 50s--like Mickey Spillane--were anti-Communists, McCarthyites, who kept the language but changed the moral universe.

James Elroy travelled back. My Dark Places is a masterpiece, a black fiction whose protagonist is Elroy himself, torn and morally broken by the murder of his own mother when he was ten. His journey took him to hell and back--through drugs and alcohol and neo-fascism and self-abuse. LA Confidential is much better known, but as a film--the complex, sophisticated novel deserves much greater recognition than it has had. The 'Confidential' of the title is the name of a magazine famous in the American 1950s--as much for its cascades of puns and wordplays as for its relentless persecution of the private lives of the rich and famous. It had no politics, only the campaigning zeal of the chase. But it left the shining white face of the US of A covered in shit with its weekly reports from the shadows. In his detective novels Elroy pursued that kind of truth. No one was spared, and the moral lines between the criminal and the cop, the priest and the pimp, the politician and the procurers, disappeared.

In recent months Elroy has toured to publicise his latest novel, The Cold Six Thousand, sequel to the brilliant American Tabloid. The writer says he has given up writing detective fiction--these are historical novels. Their characters are well known to everyone--the Kennedys, Marilyn Monroe, J Edgar Hoover, Jack Ruby and so on. There was a famous television show in black and white days called Dragnet. It always opened with a reassurance. 'These are true stories. Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent.' But since, as Elroy says, here no one is innocent and they're all dead, the names are their own.

The style is the same, though. The clipped, brutal language of the hard boiled genre shines a steady and unforgiving light. Now it is the real America--but it is as corrupt, as brutal, as repressed and alienated a place as the fictional Tinseltown of the original pulp fiction. Only now we recognise the faces in this parade of grotesques and downs and spinners of lies. Fiction becomes history--but the story stays oddly the same. There's another volume to come in this series that will take us to the moral swamp of Vietnam. And beyond that, Elroy won't lack material, as long as the Clintons are still travelling the backstreets of America.


Film

UNDER THE INFLUENCE

Jean-Luc Godard
1 June-31 July, National Film Theatre, London

A scene from Masculin-Feminin
A scene from Masculin-Feminin

The National Film Theatre is devoting much of its summer programme to a comprehensive showing of film and television work by the French director Jean-Luc Godard. This is a wonderful opportunity to see on the big screen some of the 20th century's best and most influential cinema.

Godard's most prolific period of work runs from the late 1950s through to the mid-1970s. He was a product of a postwar Paris cine-culture which, deprived of domestic production, lapped up all that Hollywood had to offer. First at Gazette du Cinema then at Cahiers du Cinema Godard, along with fellow future directors such as François Truffaut, Jacques Rivette and Eric Rohmer, wrote seriously about popular directors like John Ford, Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock.

The auteur theory of film, insisting on the primacy of a director's vision in the film-making process, was born at this time, and remains a critical norm today despite the contradictory evidence of cinema as an industrial process involving capital investment, a large highly skilled workforce and mass markets.

A Bout de Snuffle in 1959 was his landmark feature film debut, following a series of short experiments. Stars Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg breezed through a vivacious tale of love, violence and betrayal. 'All you need to make a film is a girl and a gun' is a typical Godardian aphorism (of which there are plenty) of this early period. But it broke lots of rules in the telling. Passers-by stare into the camera in street scenes, and don't stare when the hero lies dying. This was a key inspiration, together with Truffaut's Jules et Jim(1962), in Warren Beatty's Bonnie and Clyde project, eventually directed by Arthur Penn and released in 1967.

The 1960s work now provides a fascinating insight into the social and political importance of that decade. Questions of sexuality, race, authority, imperialism and war intrude on his love of Hollywood. Le Petit Soldat (1960) is both a love story and a right wing consideration of the war in Algeria. Les Carabiniers(1963) features a Mayakovsky-quoting girl. Le Mépris (1963) is a very simple story about making a film version of Homer's Odyssey, but manages to expose its key actors, Brigitte Bardot and Jack Palance, as very much more complex performers than their respective 'bimbo' and 'heavy' screen types previously suggested.

Une Femme Mariée (1964), Masculin-Feminin(1965) and Deux ou Trois Chosen que Je Sais d'Elle (1966) are vastly different films which clearly share a focus on heterosexuality. Gay themes are notably absent from Godard's work.

Under the explicit influence of a French-Maoist interpretation of Marxism, Godard's work became less joyful and more confrontational. He insisted that any revolution needed to overthrow language as much as the state. Whilst Godard was fumbling in a political dead end, I would argue that the films were no less exciting artistically.

La Chinoise(1967), Weekend, Le Gai Savoir and One Plus One (1968) and the 1969 works like British Sounds--co-produced by Ken Loach's Kestrel Productions for London Weekend Television--Pravda and Vent d'Est abandon any pretence at cinematic illusion and narrative norms. They are agitational about the modes and conventions of cinema in the way that all key modernist art asks questions of itself, though their enthusiasts mistakenly seemed to believe that film-making was itself a method of revolution.

By the 1970s Godard had teamed up with Jean-Pierre Gorin and worked as 'The Dziga Vertov Group' in collective homage to the Russian radical documentarist of the 1920s. Vladimir et Rosa (1971) takes its inspiration from Lenin and Luxemburg. Godard repeated his casting coup with Le Mépris using established stars Yves Montand and Jane Fonda in Tout va Bien (1972), a somewhat comic tale of a factory occupation.

With rare exceptions Godard's output has been both less significant and less prolific since then. Nevertheless his legacy, together with that of his fellow New Wave directors, is diverse throughout world cinema, and probably most cherished by the 1970s generation--Nicholson, Beatty, Scorsese, Coppola, Altman, Cimino, Ashby, Shrader, Rafelson--which produced the golden age of American cinema documented in Peter Biskind's essential survey, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls.

The Tate Modern is holding a 'Forever Godard' conference to coincide with this retrospective.

Anyone interested in movies and politics, their confluence and importance, should enjoy making the effort to catch some of this event.
Nick Grant


GI BLUES

Tigerland
Dir: Joel Schumacher

In Tigerland the rot sets in
In Tigerland the rot sets in

In 1971 the US was losing the war in Vietnam. The anti-war movement at home was growing, military losses were mounting and the soldiers were in revolt. In Vietnam itself officers were 'fragged'--killed with grenades--and soldiers deserted in record numbers.

In Tigerland the spectre of the conflict that awaits looms over a group of soldiers finishing their infantry training in Louisiana, the last week of which is spent at a wilderness used for jungle simulation. At first sight here are all the basic ingredients of the Vietnam movie: the savage sergeant, the psychotic soldier looking forward to war, and the exclusive focus on the war from the point of view of Americans. But Tigerland is different--because by 1971 the US army was falling apart, and the film has that decay at its heart. The film is explicitly opposed to the war--even if only from the position that it was a pointless waste of human life, rather than an opposition to imperialism.

Roland Bozz is a Texan construction worker who has been drafted and who kicks against the army machine in every way he can. His small acts of protest and rebellion against the officers earn him the respect of many others in his platoon, while he desperately seeks a way out of going to the war. Tigerland, written by Ross Klavan, who fought in Vietnam, tells the story of one man's war against the system.

Tigerland illustrates well the rot that has set in the army. The officers can resort to violence, but they still cannot maintain discipline. Or as the platoon captain puts it, 'When did "my country right or wrong" become "fuck this shit"?'

Tigerland clearly highlights the class nature of the war. Bozz's platoon is going to Vietnam, probably to die, at a time when everyone knows the war is being lost. And they have no choice. They are young working class fodder for the army. Officers ignore obvious hardship cases knowing that the soldiers will not be aware of army regulations.

There are no battle scenes, no spectacular deaths. Instead Tigerland is thoughtful and very moving in its depiction of teenagers facing possible annhiliation. It is a powerful film that Schumacher has shot as a documentary--using natural light and handheld cameras--with an unknown cast, all of which enhances the strength of the story.

There are weaknesses in the film. It doesn't escape cliche and references just about every other Vietnam movie going. The rebellious central character has been seen before, from M.A.S.H to Full Metal Jacket, and there is little sense of the wider struggle against the war in the US and internationally.

But, although this isn't the film of soldiers' revolt that still needs making, it deserves an audience. It looks wonderful, the performances are extremely good, and it goes some way to showing the depth of decay and disillusion that infected the world's most powerful army, and the extent to which rebellion is what keeps people human in the face of military barbarism.
Megan Trudell


HOMOSEXUAL TRUTHS

Before night falls
Dir: Julian Schnabel

Before Night Falls

This film is based on the autobiographical novel of the same name by gay Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas. It is worth going to see, but the controversy it has generated outweighs the film itself. For it is about the way Arenas's hopes in the wake of the 1959 revolution, which brought Fidel Castro to power, are progressively ground to dust as he is persecuted by the regime and finally forced into exile in 1980. He committed suicide in New York in 1990--poverty stricken and dying from Aids.

Schnabel did not set out to make an overtly political film. And, indeed, it makes no rigorous attempt to explore the issues it touches on. But Cuba (still under US blockade) and homosexuality are, of course, political. And the history of homosexuality in Cuba is especially political.

Arenas, like most Cubans, welcomed Castro's overthrow of the pro-US Batista regime. The film shows him (superbly played by Javier Bardem) leaving his village at the age of 15 or 16 to try to join Castro's tiny band of guerrillas as it headed to the capital, Havana. Arenas's writing is sometimes surreal and similar to what is now known as magical realism. Schnabel is a painter. His film reflects both his and Arenas's styles--poetic and highly visual.

That helps convey the optimistic atmosphere in Havana in the early 1960s. We see an unofficial sexual revolution running in tandem with Castro's attempt to build an independent nation state. Arenas, the country bumpkin, meets intellectuals and a variety of men. His writing ability secures him a job at the national library. He writes his first novel, Singing from the Well, at the age of 20. It was the only one of his many books to be published in Cuba.

A number of scenes show how sex between men which aped conventional heterosexuality was the flip side of Latin machismo. One, an encounter between a unit of soldiers and Arenas and his friends, demonstrates what the regime would later deny--gay sex was widespread.

But the Cuban Revolution was never about a socialist transformation of society, created by the working class and breaking down all the forms of oppression sustained by capitalism. Class divisions remained and the film hints at them. Castro sought to build up Cuban industry and looked to Russia as a model. One consequence was a clampdown on 'amoral behaviour' in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and restrictions on artistic freedom.

The film shows the crackdown. A famous writer is forced to denounce his work. Gays and intellectuals are sent to labour camps. Arenas is arrested in 1973 and eventually sent to the notorious El Morro prison. Johnny Depp plays two characters here--a transvestite prisoner who smuggles out Arenas's writings, and a prison officer who cannot hide his sexual attraction to Arenas even as he demands he acts like a 'man'.

The hypocrisy of the official morality and the ambivalence of people's actual sexuality are plain. It is even clearer in Arenas's book, where he names senior figures in the regime who sought out sex with men while condemning homosexuality publicly. Such hypocrisy and repression of homosexuality are of course not unique to Cuba. The US and Britain both sent gays for psychiatric treatment in the 1950s and 1960s. Latin America today is steeped in dual standards over sexuality. But Arenas's revelations, and those of many other gay and straight intellectuals, created an unnecessary crisis for much of the western left. They wrongly identified Cuba as a socialist state. So they either ignored the regime's record on gays or, worse, condemned homosexuality as anti-socialist. Either way those grotesque arguments helped push much of the gay liberation movement away from socialist ideas in the early 1970s.

Most defenders of `socialist Cuba' today talk of the `mistakes' of the early 19705. But the regime's response to Aids in the 19805 was to lock people up in `secure sanatoria'. Official attitudes did relax in the 19905. Tomas Gutierrez Aleas's Cuban film Strawberry and Chocolate in 1994 showed a bigoted member of the young Communists learning to become tolerant of the central gay character. But the change is limited. Cuba held a concert for world Aids day last year. The only people in the audience were people with Aids and gays. An appeal for tolerance is not the same as a vision of sexual liberation. In saying this aren't we, and this film, giving comfort to the US state, which wants to reassert its control over Cuba and which ensured it was the only state in the Americas not invited to the recent Summit of the Americas in Quebec? I don't think so. It is difficult to see how George W Bush and the right wing rabble of Cuban exiles in Miami could champion a man who claimed to have slept with 5,000 men. The continuing oppression of gays is a major indictment of US society and of capitalism. Prettifying Cuba's record does not help to oppose U S aggression. And it damages the fight for socialism.
Kevin Ovenden


A LISTENING FILM

Code Unknown
Dir: Michael Hanake

Contemporary Paris. Actress Anne rehearses for a new film, and attends the funeral of a neighbour's child. She lives with photographer Georges, just returned from an assignment in Kosovo. His teenage brother, Jean, still lives and works with their farmer father but longs to stay in Paris.

Amadou teaches deaf kids, defends illegal immigrant Maria while she begs on the street, gets arrested and beaten, and falls in love. His parents show the varied stresses of migrant life in a busy capital. Maria is deported home to Romania, spends time with her family, then is smuggled back into France. This covers the key characters and events, though not in order of appearance. Besides, the plot is only half the story with this movie.

As the modernist chant goes, 'It ain't what you do, but the way that you do it!', and writer/director Michael Hanake has made this work with such devastating simplicity that it is difficult to convey in words the full power of the images, sounds, music, acting and drama. But I'll try.

There are Brechtian echoes in the black screen between each shot. Recalling the 1960s New Wave, the film comprises long tracking shots, or static framings--a far cry from the camera pyrotechnics and strobe-fast editing of multiplex blockbusters.

This not only focuses our attention on the high quality of acting, especially in close-up, but also forces us to listen to what is happening when events move off screen. Probably more so if you're not a French speaker.

And this is a great film about listening. Quite deliberately so, as one recurring visual and aural motif is the struggle of deaf kids to communicate. Another is the ability of variously preoccupied individuals to find ways of talking to each other, while steering clear of the postmodernist cliche about the impossibility of communal discourse.

Almost every scene baffles you at first, leaving you questioning what on earth is happening. Eventually, when meaning emerges, there are some of the most powerful images I've seen of deportation, parental grief and street confrontation.

If you liked the formal risks that John Sayles's Limbo, Mike Figgis's Timecode or Christopher Nolan's brilliant Memento took with our sense of time, space and memory, you will want to see this.

But this doesn't mean that Code Unknown is a mere act of virtuosity. The aforementioned trio and Ken Loach apart, this film has a heart which beats louder than the bulk of English-speaking cinema. For example, it is neither sentimental nor moralistic about the plight of economic migrants--yet Code Unknown allows their stories a large portion of screen time.

It definitely will not make Ann Widdecombe's top ten movies of the year!
Nick Grant


IT'S ABOUT ALL OF US

Injustice
Dir: Ken Fero

Injustice is the latest film by Ken Fero. All his films have been about the response by people to situations in which they find themselves, and how they respond. Injustice is about deaths in custody, but its real theme is the way in which families and friends have responded to these deaths. The film is an illustration of how under the most harrowing circumstances people are able to fight back and build a movement of resistance to state violence against their community.

Injustice opens with the death in custody of John Wulrro, which took place over 30 years ago. The film then takes you into the reality of what has happened to the family of Joy Gardner, and the way in which both the police and the immigration service were prepared to use the utmost violence to carry out the racist immigration policy of the government of the day, ending in the death of Joy on her living room floor in front of her child.

Brenda Douglas talks very tearfully of the way in which her family was deprived of the right to give their brother Brian a proper burial, and ended up having to fight to have Brian's brain returned for burial. Ken Fero also takes us to Hackney, where Shishi Lapite, a black man with a young family,was arrested and killed in police custody.

The fight for justice does not end at the door of the police station. The film takes us into the long battles the families have at inquests, judicial reviews and in the courts. It begins to emerge that there is one law for the authorities and another for those who come up against them.

Throughout the film all the families show a strength and dignity that can only inspire anyone who wants to fight for change in a system that metes out the harshest violence to their communities. It is a film about communities that want to fight. In Brenda Douglas's words, 'I don't care if it is court justice or street justice--we want justice.' This film is about protest and fighting back.

Be prepared for the emotional impact of this film, but if it is to have any real impact then also be prepared to join a movement that will stand shoulder to shoulder with these people in their fight for a better world.

Ken Fero has made an excellent film documentary which is a great weapon to be used to promote a fightback and shows us that ordinary people can make a difference. One of the scenes in the film reminded me of Ken Loach's film Land and Freedom. A shop steward stands up in a meeting and in a very gutsy speech tell us, 'It is about all of us, not just Harry Stanley. We need to fight back.'
Terry Stewart


YOUR NUMBER'S UP

Series 7: The Contenders
Dir: Daniel Minahan

Serial Killer
Serial Killer

Welcome to the world of The Contenders. It's a smash US television show, following in the footsteps of Big Brother and the plethora of fly on the wall gameshows that have become compulsive viewing for modern audiences, and with incredibly simple rules.

Six contestants are picked at random by national lottery. If your number comes up you have to play. You are given a gun and must kill the other five before they kill you--great family entertainment.

No, this is nothing like Running Man--there is not an Arnie in sight. Instead enter six ordinary people, from Connie (50-plus, accident and emergency nurse and strict Catholic) to Tony (redundant asbestos worker, married with three kids and a drug problem) to Jeff (terminal cancer patient, pacifist, artist), with an all-American 18 year old girl and an old conspiracy theorist thrown in for good measure. And of course there's Dawn, reigning champion, two series and ten kills under her belt, and nine months pregnant. Only five people stand in the way of her freedom and her unborn child's life.

It would have been easy to make this film in a way that showed human nature as nasty, competitive and murderous. But that's not what comes out. You like the characters--they're ordinary people forced into a situation where they are meant to kill. You see them dealing with unemployment, drug abuse, cancer, teenage angst, birth and death.

They're not 'good' people--they're just real. They are not action heroes, and because of this the issue of violence is even more fascinating. The producers of The Contenders need you to care about the contestants and yet accept their deaths happening in front of your eyes.

The real enemy comes out very clearly as the production company. There are loads of subtexts there to expose the makers of The Contenders, whether it be the voiceover that tells us Tony accidentally stabbed himself in the back when trying to escape, or the editing that veils what has actually happened, or tries to adapt the things we are watching into a more palatable or cheesy package. There are things unsaid and half-said about the sinister behaviour of the company behind the programme--and remember, it is backed by the government.

The film works on many levels. The use of humour is superb. The Contenders is an excellent black comedy--it's interesting and poignant at a time when multinationals have so much control over our lives. It raises questions around how far television companies are prepared to go to create entertainment, and the role of the audience within that. Really its success lies in its believability. The film is totally convincing in its production.

Actually, because of the way it has been put together, acted and directed, it will probably gain cult status, worshipped by film students. It's also interesting that the makers have gone with alternative advertising techniques, as I've noticed thousands of target stickers appearing around London with a symbol of a runner with a gun and a website address. It follows in the path of what could be an emerging genre of films like The Blair Witch Project where the audience becomes complicit in the creation of the film's reality.

Actually, I rate this film higher than that. I'm not claiming it will appeal to everyone, but the questions it raises and the cleverness of its presentation mean that it deserves a wider audience than a cult film tag would allow it. Suck on that, Hollywood.
Amy Jowett


Theatre

LIFE AND DEATH

Marriage Play and Finding the Sun
by Edward Albee
Cottesloe Theatre, London

This double bill of one-act plays by the well known American playwright Edward Albee--displays his usual skill in penetrating the everyday relationships between people, burrowing his way deeper and deeper, and expressing the contradictions and frustrations inherent in the relationships. His pathways into the inner feelings of his subjects never lead to easy solutions to their problems.

He says: 'All my plays are about people missing the boat, closing down too young, coming to the end of their lives with regret at things not done as opposed to things done. I find that most people spend too much time living as if they're never going to die. They skid through their lives. Sleep through them sometimes. Anyway there are only two things to write about--life and death.' And these two plays, like his other ones, most notably Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? bear all the marks of this approach.

Marriage Play begins with the husband coming back from work and announcing to his wife, 'I'm leaving you.' From then on the drama of their 30-year relationship of love, antagonism and frustration unfolds tempestuously. It is something everyone can relate to to a greater or lesser extent, and this truth to life with its emotional ups and downs makes a great impact on the audience.

The second play, Finding the Sun, involves four couples arriving on a sunny beach, and the revelations of their backgrounds and the effect on their current circumstances are more complex. Two of the married couples are haunted by the two men having been gay lovers in the past, a fact which pervades their current relationships with their wives. A third couple are a mother and her 16 year old son, yet innocent of much of the knowledge of the world, the fourth an ageing husband and wife. The interplay of all four couples is penetrating, often very poignant, and leads to a climax of unresolved frustration and fear.

Both plays are lightened by frequent bursts of humour, which Albee insists must be a tool of playwrights.This revival of two of Albee's plays is well worth seeing.
Chanie Rosenberg


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