Issue 254 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published July 2001 Copyright © Socialist Review

Arts

Review

   

Cultural currents

Watch, vote, control

Reality television reinforces the idea that we have no control over our lives. But is it the new religion, asks Mike Gonzalez
Tempers flare in the Big Brother house
Tempers flare in the Big Brother house

The politicians pontificate about the unwillingness of youth to use their vote. Meanwhile, more young people voted in the Big Brother poll than in the general election! The Channel 4 adverts on hoardings around Britain urge the 4 million or so Big Brother addicts, 'Watch, vote, control.' Perhaps there's something in that. The promise of having some control over things can tempt the public into action, whereas neither Blair nor Hague offered any hope to anyone that they could have some influence over how things fared in their life.

Of course, the Big Brother poll is a sham. It's hard to imagine anything as managed and pre-scripted as the so called reality television series that are occupying more and more prime time on every channel--and not only there. The gameshow format is also the subject of a film--Series 7: The Contenders--though it's not a particularly new idea. Remember Rollerball, Death Race 2000, and The Running Man? The difference is that those 1970s and 1980s films were still presented as futuristic horror movies, paranoid imaginings. What is distinctive about the new crop of programmes is that they are filmed as documentaries. Their landscapes are recognisable and familiar, their characters resolutely realistic. Of course, nobody yet has been asked to kill their fellow contestants, as they do in Series 7. But participants are being pushed to denounce, expose, criticise, punish and humiliate each other.

Big Brother 2 is much edgier and more prurient than the first series, which still passed itself off as a kind of pop anthropology. This time it's Hello! magazine with moving pictures. The websites are full of speculation about the contestants' intimate habits, coy hints at sex to come, and endless speculation about the way each one sees the others. It's an endless hall of mirrors, with everyone watching everyone watching us watching them. One night the team were playing ghosts and one contestant rushed into the sealed room where they can communicate with Big Brother to make sure that there were people watching--that they wouldn't ever be left alone!

But in a way Big Brother already seems a little old fashioned. It has given way to Survivor, America's response to Big Brother, and one step nearer to the death race formula. Here the group is divided into two competing tribes--and the tasks are a step or two beyond first aid on rubber dolls. Here the prizes are extra food, chocolate and so on, and one 'tribe' has to watch while the other group wolf down their riches. Sharing, of course, is absolutely forbidden.

The really disturbing feature of all these shows is the way that they ask us to see human beings--the behaviour they lead us to see as normal. In Big Brother group solidarity may briefly exist, but the weekly vote ensures that all human encounters will be ambiguous and uncertain, all smiles are Janus faced, and all friendships and love affairs shortlived. So in the end, like the frightened girl listening to tales of horror, only Big Brother can be relied on. On Survivor's tropical island, survival skills are individual and competitive--collaboration, waiting for the slowest, is weakness, and it carries a terrible price.

Reality television is not about the real world, for all its scientific trappings and pretence to objectivity. What it does offer is an image, a vision, of how human societies work. Beyond the gameshow format, with its promise of wealth for the single survivor of these games on the edge of the void, are all the other reinforcing elements, the framing pieces for the jigsaw. Airports and driving schools and theatres and hospitals merge into an endless blur of accidents, emergencies and general mayhem--chaos kept at bay for the moment, but always about to return. Makeover shows, change your life contests, stars for a day--they all promise change, but change brought by some invisible and finally unnameable force beyond our control.

Everything goes back to Big Brother, and we are asked to be grateful for that all seeing eye, as if it were our only protector. The endless preoccupation with the details of our (and everyone else's) private life becomes the alternative to following the changing patterns of our social existence. All that we can hope to control is the trivia of everyday living. The rest is down to the Great Producer beyond the one-way mirror.

I don't think it would be an exaggeration to describe this as a new religion, because like all the old ones it encourages us to surrender our own powers to someone above or beyond us, and to see ourselves as weak and flawed--yearning for fame and frightened of the dark. The alternative, of course, is to do what the hero does at the end of Peter Weir's fine film The Truman Show--tear down the walls of their reality and rediscover our own.


Theatre

SELF-DESTRUCTION

Howard Katz
by Patrick Marber
National Theatre, London

Howard Katz
Howard Katz
Patrick Marber is best known as the creator of inspired television comedy, above all the monstrous figure of Alan Partridge. This is the third of his three plays, all set in London, all on the theme of self destructiveness, and all described by the author as comedies.

Howard Katz is a 50 year old Jewish showbiz agent who launches himself into a downward spiral in which he loses wife, child and job, teeters on the brink of suicide and eventually reaches out for self redemption in the middle of a storm: 'I want to live. Teach me how to live.'

This doesn't sound exactly like the recipe for a bundle of laughs, but at its best Howard Katz has the same absurdity and shrewd observation as Marber's work for television. One of the funnier scenes has television folk discussing their plans for a new late night chat show and earnestly debating whether it should be called Pulse or The Pulse. The interplay between Katz and his father and brother captures the London Jewish atmosphere effortlessly. 'Who do you think you are, Topol?' says his brother, when Katz threatens to lurch into sentimentality.

These scenes are greatly helped by some fine acting from the supporting cast, particularly Trevor Peacock as the old man (he also appears in a cameo role as the owner of the worst hotel in the world). And it is in the dialogue scenes with his father and his wife where we find the best clues to the bleakness of Katz's existence: 'You never believed anything, so you don't know who you are.'

The problem is, however, that this is rather thin material to explain Katz's meteoric descent into degradation and despair. Have his clients always been second rate? Has he always had a tendency to insult them? Is this the first time he's played Russian roulette with his wife? It's not clear whether he's simply going through a mid-life crisis--so what?--or if the allusions to King Lear towards the end of the play are intended to point to some deeper crisis. Ron Cook in the title role seems to grapple with this but doesn't resolve it, so the play becomes a brilliantly written account of a journey from one unconvincing state of mind to another unconvincing state of mind. In the end Katz seems to find faith in his memories of the birth of his son, but this self discovery lacks the necessary conviction and intensity of feeling.

Patrick Marber is not the first playwright to launch a central character on an inexplicable path to perdition, and the allure of flirting with self destruction is a powerful theme. You sense he is trying to break out of the world of Alan Partridge and confront much wider issues, as Arthur Miller did in Death of a Salesman. But to do this you need to take bigger risks than Marber so far appears ready to do.
David Shonfield


TRANSFORMING DRAMA

The Far Side of the Moon
by Robert Lepage
National Theatre, London, 6-21 July

Vulnerable as a fish out of water
Vulnerable as a fish out of water

Robert Lepage, Quebecois dramatist and actor, is one of the most exciting voices in modern theatre. With plays such as Elsinore, his one-man version of Hamlet, and Geometry of Miracles, which considered architecture and mathematics, his has long been a drama of transformation. Complex ideas become wonderfully straightforward, simple techniques create spectacular images and, above all, the actor constantly alters, and is altered by, her or his environment.

Lepage describes his theatre as being 'political, but not directly political'. Certainly, he rarely tackles the most obviously political subjects, but few dramatists portray so sharply the contradictory relationship between human beings and their society, between apparent powerlessness and the capacity to effect many forms of change.

His latest play, The Far Side of the Moon, is as breathtakingly inventive, humorous and humanistic as any of his past work. Telling the twin stories of the Soviet/US space race and the attempts by two estranged Quebec City brothers to come to terms with the recent death of their mother, the piece works Lepage's typical trick of interweaving the historically grand with everyday human experience.

It is part of the dramatist's immense talent that both narratives take on equal significance. The tremendous vanity of the superpowers' space programmes is reflected in the lives of his characters. The poetry of everyday life shows up in the romanticism of the Russian space team, who named a moon crater after Cyrano de Bergerac. The key element drawing the two stories together, however, is vulnerability. The physical vulnerability of the cosmonaut in space is a mirror for the emotional vulnerabilities of Philippe, a PhD student with a fascination for space travel, and his younger brother André, a rather narcissistic weatherman. Academically able, but desperately lacking in self confidence, Philippe's attempts to gain a platform for his cosmology falter. Meanwhile, the practical necessities of their bereavement force him and his brash sibling to confront their poor relations and their mutual past.

Cosmology student and television broadcaster may not be typical occupations, but these are very ordinary characters, with very ordinary concerns. We can all associate with the petty arguments and communication breakdowns between the pair. Our laughter at Philippe's cock-up at a Moscow university or André's absurd posing in a gym is part of the comedy of recognition.

By making his drama so accessible Lepage renders his moments of physical transformation all the more impressive. A man waiting in an airport lounge becomes, by simple means of mirrors and movement, a cosmonaut weightless in space. A lecture hall is almost imperceptibly converted into the interior of an airplane.

The technology used to achieve many of these effects may seem incredibly sophisticated, but it is, particularly by the standards of contemporary cinema, extremely basic. Indeed, Lepage himself believes that it is the very simplicity and transparency of his theatre, in contrast with the sleight of hand of many big budget movie special effects, which explain the success of his plays. The Far Side of the Moon, therefore, is as much about the possibilities of theatre itself as about its stated subjects. Just as the superpowers tussled for control of outer space, and as the brothers conflict over control of their mother's memory, so Lepage, as playwright, director and actor of the piece, struggles to extend the boundaries of theatre. This is no mere human drama, nor is it simply a visual spectacle, but an extraordinary combination of the two.
Mark Brown


Film

BRECHT'S LAST SUMMER

Caption
Brecht

The Farewell is a new film about the life of Bertolt Brecht. Noel Halifax spoke to director Jan Schütte about his life and work.

Why a film about Brecht? What interested you in him?

Well, why not? In fact, the film had a long history. It started as a four-part series for the BBC. Later German and French television were interested, and then just German television. It was at this point that I joined the project. It had by then evolved into a three-part biopic. There were to be three days taken from the life of Brecht--three moments of his life. The first was to be the day before the opening of the Threepenny Opera in Weimar Germany, the second was to be one day in 1941 when he was trapped in Los Angeles and very depressed, and most tragically, the last was one day just before he died in 1956 in East Germany. In the end it became just the last due to funding problems. I think that Brecht is a most tragic figure whose life follows and almost sums up German history in the 20th century. All the events that made and remade Germany are seen in the life of Brecht.

What first struck me about the film was how 'un-Brechtian' it was. It was so naturalistic and the politics of the time are presented in a very indirect way, always off stage, and Brecht is shown as a tragic poet.

I think much of the 'Brechtian' style associated with Brecht was made for a market purpose to sell Brecht as a new thing to the audience, as it were. I don't think it is very interesting to do Brecht in this way.

Did the events in the film really happen?

They did and they didn't. All the events and the characters are as you see them, but they didn't all happen in one day as they do in the film. It is fiction, not a documentary.

Isn't Brecht in the film shown to be like Galileo in Brecht's own play as a man faced with extremely limited choices. But unlike Brecht's own play the film doesn't show Brecht as having any political opinions.

I hadn't seen it before, but yes. Brecht was in a very Brechtian situation, in that he had got himself into a cul de sac by his past decisions. Rather like Lear, he had closed down all his options. By the time of his death he had become very cynical and dreamt of leaving East Germany. In the time the film is set he had to live with his decision to live and work in East Germany. He had become a tragic figure. Wolfgang Harich in the film is all that Brecht had been in the past--hopeful, political and naive about the future.

Who was Wolfgang Harich?

He was a very charismatic and dynamic young philosopher. He had been encouraged, indeed asked, by Moscow to put forward a more liberal policy for East Germany, a socialism with a human face and more independent from the Soviet Union. This all took place in the short period called the 'thaw', the time before the Hungarian uprising when it seemed that a less severe form of Communism was possible in the East. In real life he was arrested, but not at the time as it is in the film. All that came to an end with Budapest. Brecht had become cynical and distant from East Germany after 1953, after the uprising in Berlin.

This forms the backdrop to the film, but little of this is explained.

Yes, but I didn't want it to become a historical piece. I wanted to make a film which someone who knows nothing about the time and place could enjoy, so that anyone seeing the film with no knowledge whatsoever could understand. It is about the tragic life of a great poet who has to live with all the decisions he has made in his life, the decisions to work in and accept East Germany, and to live with all his decisions concerning his love life. I didn't want to make a film where the viewer would become mesmerised by the period. It is set in the 1950s but not about the 1950s. I see Brecht as a great tragic poet.

Brecht moved to East Germany after the war, and for the first time in his life became part of the establishment. You could say he was bought off by East Germany, though of course he associated it with anti-Nazi Germany and the west as being compromised. Many of the same officials and judges who had functioned under the Nazis remained in post in the west.

Yes, that's true, and I think he was really bought off by East Germany and in the end he didn't like it. He had never joined the Communist Party and always wanted to be independent. After the war he had initially wanted to work in Munich, but that didn't happen and then the East Germans made him an offer he couldn't refuse. The film is about the consequence of that.

The arguments inside the Communist Party after the 1953 uprising in Berlin were very bitter and dogmatic. Brecht had always liked to position himself as both anti-establishment and yet part of the establishment, and he found out he couldn't do this in East Germany. It is the same with his love life--he would never commit himself to one person but had a series of relationships, as I show in the film.

The film concerns itself a lot with the love life of Brecht. The one character who talks politics is Harich. Brecht never replies to any of the points made by him, neither do any of the women.

Brecht's wife, Helene Weigel, was in the Communist Party, which as I said Brecht never was, and she ran the show after Brecht died. At one time all the current and past loves of Brecht lived together--he lived with his past, his past decisions and his past mistakes.

Brecht died before the Hungary uprising in 1956. That had a dramatic effect on the left. How do you think he would have responded to it? After all, a left alternative was formed amongst intellectuals as a consequence of Hungary.

It would have been very interesting to see what he would have done if he had lived longer. There were events in Yugoslavia, and as you say, an alternative on the left to the Communist Party came to be formed.

What response has there been to the film?

In Germany it has created a debate about the period and about East Germany. I am from the west. Many of the reviewers have been less keen on the film itself, and much more for the period and the time. When we have shown it across Europe, I have been very pleased that it has been enjoyed and understood by young people with no knowledge of the politics or the time within which it is set.


Exhibition

Ingres to Matisse: Masterpieces of French Painting

Ingres to Matisse: Masterpieces of French Painting

Including work by 19th and early 20th century painters. This exhibition covers Cézanne, Gauguin and Van Gogh. Covering the period of the development of modernism, it will show how these painters laid the foundations for the individual approaches of Picasso and Matisse.
Royal Academy, Piccadilly. From 30 June to 23 September


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