Issue 256 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published October 2001 Copyright © Socialist Review

Arts

Review

   

Cultural currents

By the Lincoln Memorial I sat down and wept

Mike Gonzalez sees the horror and tragedy behind memorials to war
Vietnamese prisoners: 'disposable beings'?
Vietnamese prisoners: 'disposable beings'?

I wrote the following in the late afternoon of Sunday 9 September in Washington. I couldn't know then the dimensions of the tragedy that was about to begin. As the horror of it all unfolded, this piece seemed less and less appropriate. But then Bush and his followers and allies began to beat the war drum, and to speak of wreaking barbaric revenge in the name of civilisation and against all others. And then, it seemed, what follows became relevant again.

Major Carl Bius from Nebraska died in July 1959. He was the first American killed in Vietnam. There were 58,000 more dead before US troops were finally expelled from Saigon in 1975. Their names are all recorded on a black marble memorial in a Washington park. On a sunny day you can see reflected in it the neat green lawns and the Lincoln Memorial beyond--as well as your own face, caught in perplexity.

There could be no contrast greater than the gulf between the two monuments. Lincoln sits in a massive marble throne gazing through the 36 Greek columns that represent the states of his Union across to the Washington Memorial's needle reflected in a long rectangular pool. Sitting on the steps with hundreds of others, it was Martin Luther King I could hear echoing in my head: 'I had a dream that one day all men would be created equal.' Possibly the greatest political speech of recent years was delivered from these same steps to the hundreds of thousands who had joined the great civil rights march on Washington.

In a chamber under the statue of Lincoln, phrases from his speeches are carved on black marble slabs, just like those of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The words that appear there answer the question that the wall cannot respond to--why did they die, those 58,000?

Lincoln said in 1865, 'My paramount objective is to save the Union--it is not to save or abolish slavery.'

The wall stands mutely, the ribbon of names the powerful evidence of the human costs--the wrecked lives not mentioned in the other monuments. Here all that is acknowledged is that they once lived. Why these young lives were cut short is not addressed. Rows of US flags stand sentinel on the field of monuments. It is all designed to suggest heroism, bravery, sacrifice expressed in a noble cause. These are the words that echo along the wall towards the wooden huts that still sell the insignia of war, the military badges and the fuselage stickers and the newspaper of the Vietnam vets.

But something is missing here. All these deaths and sacrifices are abstractions unless we know who the enemy was. And yet of the other side there is no sign--only the hints accidentally given in Lincoln's speeches, and Martin Luther King's words ringing in my ears. One hundred years after Lincoln's death King used his most famous words to raise the hope of freedom and equality as a dream still waiting to be fulfilled.

This wasn't a war against barbarism, or evil or empty space. It was fought by men and women against others, Vietnamese others, much like themselves. It was waged in the interests of the Union and ultimately in defence of a new form of slavery. It destroyed not 58,000, but hundreds of thousands of lives. It left the land unusable for 50 years. It created a generation of refugees. Presumably those deaths don't count because they were not lost in the name of 'western civilisation'.

If you stand beside the bronze statue of the US soldiers and follow the central figure's pointing arm you look across at the State Department. Along the Mall the imperial temples stand--the branches of the US state--and their forms and shapes echo and respond to the 'civilising purposes' implied in Lincoln's Grecian mausoleum. Death and power are interwoven.

The wall sits below ground level and does not disturb the view. But where are the Vietnamese flags? Where is the acknowledgment that this war was a catastrophe--a terrible misjudgment made by people who were willing to destroy their own people as well as the disposable beings beyond their own frontiers, and who chose not to hear King's ironic echoing of Lincoln?

These monuments commemorate destruction and death--but veil it in a monumental language that somehow asks us to see it all as constructive and purposeful. After war comes the temple, the statue, the Greek column, the tranquil pools and elegant lawns--as if it had all been for this, to create gardens of rest. Or we could read it all very differently--as a warning of what it really means when the machinery of war is mobilised by the Union of the powerful and in defence of slavery.


Film

DESTINED FOR THE TOP

George Washington
Dir: David Gordon Green

Dreaming of a beautiful future
Dreaming of a beautiful future

'Most films talk down to kids, but I wanted to pay homage to them.' This is what director David Gordon Green says about, George Washington. The film portrays the lives of a group of black and white children in a small town in North Carolina one summer.

The pace is slow, almost dreamily so, and not a lot happens. The narrator, a 10 year old girl called Nasia, dumps her boyfriend Buddy because he is immature, in favour of the pensive George Washington. To her, he is amazing and destined to be president of the US. Their boredom and frustration at having nowhere to go and no money unsurprisingly leads them into dangerous and sometimes petty criminal activities. This has tragic consequences.

However this is not a morality tale where bad deeds automatically bring punishment. None of the people who appear in the film are professional actors. They were found in schools, youth clubs and community centres around North Carolina. All the lines are delivered in the actors' own dialects and some scenes are improvised. These elements give the film a natural and uninhibited feel. What shines through most is the performances of the young actors and the long slow camera shots. This has a cumulatve effect, making you too share their boredom and idle musings. This is a beautifully poetic film about young people who have little real hope of rising above the poverty and misery around them. It is sympathetic without being sentimental. The children hang around rubbish dumps and play amongst dog excrement, but some of them still dream of beautiful futures.

Although the kids' characters dominate this film the adults have a minor but significant role. They also provide a fair bit of the comedy as they swap tales on their breaks. The relationship between one of the adults and the children is more like that between adults, as they discuss the emotional problems of friends and family. The film taps into the reservoir of frustration and unfulfilment that poor and black people suffer. The children are often shown to be more thoughtful and eloquent than the adults, and are inspiring to listen to and watch.

George Washington is a real antidote to Hollywood's usual coming of age clichés, and unlike some independent films, it does more than just try to be different.
Adenike Johnson


THE LAST CUT IS THE DEEPEST

The Man Who Wasn't There
Dir: Joel Coen

Unsure as to who is pulling the strings
Unsure as to who is pulling the strings

Santa Rosa, 1949, a Californian backwater where life seems idyllic in a suburban sort of way. Everyone resides in little wooden houses with a porch and a driveway and an 'electric icebox'. It is a world full of small businessmen and entrepreneurs, expanding franchises and a gradual proliferation of gadgets. Our guide through this world is Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton), a barber in a small family business. He is a man of few words, with a cigarette dangling constantly from his mouth, and his attempt to get out of his world sets off a deadly chain of deception, murder and retribution.

The Man Who Wasn't There follows the classic themes of the film noir genre--sex and death, lies and betrayal, and the feeling that there is something bigger than us pulling the strings. It is filmed entirely in black and white, with the barber narrating throughout like Sam Spade in a Dashiell Hammett novel.

The barber appears to be almost emotionless when we meet him. He knows his wife is having an affair with her boss at the haberdashery store, but he doesn't seem to mind--they've barely talked in years anyway. But when, one day, an entrepreneur with a hot new idea (dry cleaning!) but no money wanders into the barbershop, a plan starts to formulate in his mind.

The barber has clearly felt that he is 'not there' for many years. His job is steady, but there is no space for imagination--there are seven basic haircuts and where do you go from there? He feels he has his 'nose pressed against the exit sign but too scared to turn the knob'. When he does grasp what he sees as his first real opportunity to change everything, the ensuing destruction of the lives of those around him--and eventually his own--seems to leave him nonplussed rather than distressed or sorry. Yet still you don't blame him for the consequences of his actions. Chance or fate seems to control events.

The film--as with all Coen brothers productions--is brilliantly acted. Every character, no matter how briefly they appear, plays a vital role in the story, from the widow who believes her husband's death is down to a government plot involving alien abductions, to the dumb cops who come to inform the barber of each particular tragedy. Different from recent Coen brothers films, however, is the pace and tone of the film. While O Brother, Where Art Thou? and The Big Lebowski were fast and farcical, The Man Who Wasn't There really takes its time. It is also darker and more sombre, though the humour and stylisation are still very much there.

While the first half of the film sees the events played out, the second half is devoted to 'justice' being meted out. The barber hires a flash lawyer from the big city, who dazzles them with philosophical musings along the lines of trees falling in forests if no one's there, and how, if you were there, your presence would change the character of the event. The new theories, along with the new gadgets, make the barber feel even more separate from the world he is trying to escape. Even at the end, when final retribution is administered, the barber regrets none of his actions: the only thing he regrets is 'being a barber'.

I've yet to see a bad Coen brothers film and this one certainly confirms their talent. I think The Man Who Wasn't There represents a slight change of direction from their recent productions, and it's a welcome one.
Sally Campbell


CRACKING THE CODE OF WAR

Enigma
Dir: Michael Apted

Bletchley Park was the headquarters of the British code-breaking operation during the Second World War. It was here that brilliant mathematical boffins rubbed shoulders to crack Germany's Enigma code, enabling the military to anticipate German naval movements.

The success of the code breakers certainly depended on rare talent, but also, and crucially, on luck and old fashioned espionage. During the war British authorities succeeded in obtaining a continuing supply of the vital code books. This was the result of the failure of the German naval command to instruct their U-boat commanders on the priority of destroying the code books before scuttling their subs in the face of impending capture. Moreover, the Germans appear to have been so complacent about the security of the Enigma codes that they failed to carry out tests to see if the Allies were indeed monitoring their naval communications.

Did the success in cracking the Enigma code materially affect the outcome of the war? Hugh Sebag-Montefiore, in Enigma: The Battle for the Code, claims that it was responsible for the 'stunning decimation of the Italian fleet at Matapan in March 1941 and the sinking of the [pocket battleship] Scharnhorst in December 1943.' Even more importantly, it helped to defeat the U-boats in the Atlantic between October and November 1941. The foremost historian of naval intelligence, Sir Harry Hinsley, claimed that without the cracking of Enigma and the contribution it made to the comprehensive defeat of the U-boats by early 1944, the Allied invasion might have had to be put off until 1946 and the war therefore prolonged by two years. These, however, are fanciful hypotheses, ignoring the decisive defeat inflicted on Germany on the Eastern front. What is certainly true is that a very substantial number of Atlantic convoy ships were saved from destruction and, on the other hand, significant defeats were inflicted on the German navy as a result of the code breakers of Bletchley Park.

Michael Apted's new film, with a screenplay by Tom Stoppard, is based on some real events at Bletchley Park but contains quite a lot of nonsense too. It is essentially a melodrama with a lot of hokum thrown in. Apted is apparently uncritically patriotic and sentimental about the Second World War. The film evokes nostalgia for a certain kind of wartime atmosphere familiar from any number of British movies in the 1940s and 1950s. The characters are either lifeless or caricatures, or both. The drama of the film centres around the disappearance of the idyllically beautiful Claire (Saffron Burrows) in circumstances suggesting she may have played a part in betraying to the Germans the fact that the codes had been rumbled. This treachery is given as the explanation for the change in the codes which is threatening to deprive the Allies of the vital information which is enabling them to send their convoys around the U-boat packs. Tom (Dougray Scott), a boffin who's suffered a breakdown because of his infatuation with her, returns to Bletchley Park and unravels the mystery of her disappearance at the same time as recracking the German codes, ably assisted by Claire's friend, the dowdy Hester (Kate Winslet). Various eccentrics and incompetent upper class types wander in and out (including a walk-on role for Corin Redgrave, who deserved much better), and there is an unconvincing performance by Jeremy Northam as Wigram, an ever-grinning, cynical and sleazy lounge lizard MI5 man.

The treachery has in fact resulted from a Polish code breaker discovering with Claire's help that his brother has died at the hands of the Russians in the Katyn Forest massacre. His conclusion--my enemy's enemy is my friend. The ending of the film is particularly ludicrous, as boffin Tom turns into a James Bond figure, and then reverts to homely family man in the arms of Hester, having laid to rest his infatuation with the fickle Claire. Stoppard's militant Cold War anti-Communism may have contributed to making the Germans appear relatively humane compared with the offscreen butchers of Katyn. The film is sadly a wasted opportunity.
Rob Hoveman


Theatre

MORE THAN A DRESS REHEARSAL

Mother Clap's Molly House
by Mark Ravenhill
National Theatre, London

The key to gay liberation?
The key to gay liberation?

Leading young playwright Mark Ravenhill has been outed. The latest play by the author of Shopping and Fucking and Some Explicit Polaroids is, according to one critic, 'part Marxist'. A wonderfully audacious musical comedy, Mother Clap's Molly House does lend credibility to that shocking suggestion. Examining the origins of an 18th century London 'molly house' (or gay male brothel), the play ties the growth of safe havens from homophobic harassment to the development of modern capitalism.

Mother Clap, which is the less than flattering pseudonym taken by Mrs Tull, widow of a pox-ridden hirer of dresses to prostitutes, decides to transform her husband's shop into a molly house. Many of the gay men using the establishment will be up for wearing the frocks, she reckons, and money has no morality.

The play begins with a deliciously camp, brilliantly sarcastic eulogy to enterprise which sets the tone for the whole production. No matter how bawdy and hilarious the drama is, however, there is always the underlying tension between bigotry towards gay men and the desire to profit from them. Although this political analysis underpins the work, this is in no way a dry piece of polemical theatre. Almost everything about it, from the outrageous costumes to the great songs, is bold, brazen and fantastically entertaining.

At base, the first act, which is set almost entirely in the molly house, is an exceptional celebration of homosexuality. We have nothing to compare with a play which goes into the interval with a chorus of men in dresses defiantly singing, 'Shit on those who call this sodomy/We call it fabulous!' For all the ribald humour and simulated sex, the cross-dressing and sexual frankness are not mere cases of artistic licence on Ravenhill's part. The piece is partly based on Old Bailey court records of the time.

The real weakness comes in the second act. The story of the 18th century brothel overflows with modern resonances, both in terms of the continued need for safe havens from homophobia and the money being made in the pink economy. It is therefore quite unnecessary to create a second half which intercuts the historical tale with scenes from a contemporary gay sex party. The comments which the modern story makes regarding the failures of promiscuity and a growing gay scene to satisfy the emotional and even sexual needs of gay men are not especially substantial. They certainly don't justify the damage done to the play's structure by interweaving the two narratives.

At least one critic has seen sexism in the drama. Mother Clap's obsessive yearning for a child, a modern woman's agony after piercing her labia, and an 18th century prostitute's decision to live as a man after being 'ruined' by an unwanted pregnancy are all cited as evidence. However, I think Ravenhill is attempting to address the oppression of women rather than mocking them. For example, the contemporary scene in which the plight of the profusely bleeding body piercer is all but ignored by the guys at the orgy is partly a reflection on the dehumanising effect of pure hedonism, and partly a comment on the continued misogyny which exists among some gay men.

Superbly acted, intelligent and extremely entertaining, Mother Clap's Molly House is a flawed gem of the modern stage.
Mark Brown


PRISONER IN HER OWN HOME

Redundancy
by Leo Butler
Royal Court, London

Redundancy charts the growing crisis in the life of a young, poor woman from a council estate in Sheffield. The central character is Lucy, a teenager living alone in a dingy flat. While her druggie boyfriend Dave is away she has a fling with an old school friend, Darren. When she discovers she is pregnant, she convinces herself that Darren loves her and wants to stay with her. When he tries to persuade her to have an abortion, she stabs him and her life begins to slide out of control.

Anyone who tries to help her gets pulled into her misery. When she flips out completely, her sharp-tongued granny visits her. But when granny tries to get Lucy to pull herself together, Lucy assaults her, first sexually, kissing her, then beating her. Lucy's little sister ends up bitterly angry because she is dumped with the new baby Lucy cannot cope with. Lucy is gradually engulfed by mental instability and drugs. She is a prisoner of her own life.

The problem with this project is not that such depravity and desperation are a minority experience in the working class. Rather it is that the characters are never engaging enough for you to really care what happens to them. The dramatic moments, the stabbings, abandonments and desperate appeals, sit uneasily in a narrative in which not much happens to not very interesting people. One of the more interesting moments occurs at the end of the play when the ceiling of the flat rises, transforming the set into what resembles a prison cell--a statement on the life that Lucy faces.

Although this play has its heart in the right place, the writing is not sharp and developed enough to fully realise its own potential.
Judy Cox


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