Issue 261 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published March 2002 Copyright © Socialist Review

Arts

Review

   

Cultural currents

Into the heart of darkness

The global 'civilisers' have left a bloody legacy in Africa, as Mike Gonzalez shows

Congolese soldiers kill Lumumba supporters in the 1960s
Congolese soldiers kill Lumumba supporters in the 1960s

It seems appropriate that Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now should be reissued. Its central figure, Kurtz, the crazed officer who reverts to a state of barbarism deep in the rainforest, might be taken to symbolise the same 'evil forces' that Blair and Bush denounce in their daily meetings with the press. Kurtz first appeared in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, but his role was complex. On the one hand, he represented those forces of primitive violence that lay just beyond the frontiers of the 'civilised world', the very same shadowy 'others' with which the current leaders of the free world threaten the badly behaved children of their day. On the other hand, he stood for an inner moral weakness at the very heart of the empire which could corrupt and undermine it from within, the contradiction of a project that claimed moral superiority and used bestial methods to achieve it .

Where, then, was the heart of darkness--at the core of ourselves, or out there in the unfamiliar landscapes of Central Africa, the North West Frontier or the South Asian rainforest? Listening to Donald Rumsfeld's bloodthirsty threats against the world beyond the border, it is hard not to see in him yet another incarnation of Kurtz and, behind him, of all the other 'civilising' agents that imperialism has sent into the unmapped places.

If there were any doubt of the terrible human costs of this integrative mission, glance at any page of Mike Davis's powerful account of Victorian expansion, Late Victorian Holocausts, to see how 'Europe itself was being barbarised by its complicity in secret tropical holocausts'. The 'great hungers' of a century ago were no more acts of nature than Rwanda, the forgotten genocide of the 1990s, was a tribal war left over from some earlier age. It was a very modern cataclysm, in which the dying Hutus and Tutsis completed the task of mass murder on behalf of the same global 'civilisers' whose attention is turning now to the north of the African continent.

Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible tells the story of a mother and four daughters transported to Congo by their missionary father, Nathan Price. He is in every sense a stereotypical representative of that Christian evangelism that really deserves the name of 'fundamentalist'. He booms and rants at the occupants of Kilanga, the village where they set themselves up, railing at every living practice as ignorance and barbarism. His wife and children, equally oppressed by his tyrannical bigotry, look for places where they can survive--the domestic or childhood spaces still innocent of complicity with this representative of imperial ideology. For about the first third of the novel these five lives remain attached to an American-ness represented by the photograph of Eisenhower pinned to the kitchen wall. In the father's case, it is the pursuit of power and control that defines being American--the overwhelming conviction of rightness and a willingness to use terror (real or ideological) to underline it.

But it is 1960, and the movement for the independence of Congo is growing under the leadership of Patrice Lumumba. In the second part of the novel his victory in the presidential elections sets in train a series of violent upheavals that bring his murder and the rise to power of the tyrant Mobutu, and throw these young women into the stream of history. Their individual lives become subject to forces that they can barely name--and they come dramatically to the realisation that the cheerful, avuncular figure on the kitchen wall is a man willing to destroy a whole society, to impose a new barbarism in the name of civilisation.

The novel has been described as 'postcolonial'. It retells the history of the liberation struggle in Congo from within, and describes how tough it proves to be to sustain a hope of freedom when the predictable assaults of nature combine with the savagery of imperial geopolitics. But is that recognition of the misrepresentation of the African past enough to earn the label postcolonial?

There is a danger in much of the postcolonial debate of slipping into a paradox--of acknowledging 'otherness' and difference as a way of drawing a line under the lineage of imperialism. As the rhetoric of 'heart of darkness' returns, should we respond simply by affirming the 'rights' of the nations of that continent to autonomy? Or should we, like Orleanna Price in the novel, accept our own complicity in the imperial vision?

None of these seem very satisfactory. Perhaps the future expression of opposition to the devastations of empire should begin by seeing that 'postcolonialism' has to be more than an ideological space filled by a language of rights and cultural respect. It has to be a different world, more culturally complex but at the same time more diverse in its centres of power. It isn't a matter, in other words, of shedding light into the 'heart of darkness', but of rooting out its sources in the neon-lit heartlands of empire.


Exhibition

WHEN THE RYTHM IS RIGHT

Paul Klee: The Nature of Creation
Hayward Gallery, London


Paul Kele's 'ein kinderspiel', 1939
Paul Kele's ein kinderspiel, 1939

It is a joy to step in from a grey London to the warm North African colours and playful lines of Swiss artist Paul Klee. Klee (1879-1940) spent most of his adult life in Germany, where his career culminated in 1921 when he became master of arts at the famous Bauhaus school. From the beginning, the Bauhaus was an institution based on radical views of art and its role in society. Klee left shortly before the Nazis closed it down.

Over the previous two decades Klee had immersed himself in the major question of the day for artists--what was their role in a world where religion and other traditional institutions were undergoing such rapid change, a process which reached its horrific climax in the First World War?

Klee's quest led him into explorations of Cubism, Expressionism and a host of other movements. It also took him to Paris, and to Tunisia--a 17-day visit that was to have an enormous influence on his understanding of colour and tonality. Mainly self taught, Klee devoted much of his work to exploring the components that make up a painting and, through that, the process of creativity.

Building on his lectures at the Bauhaus, Klee became one of the few great artists to write down his thoughts in an accessible manner. As a result he is often referred to as a philosopher of art, giving the impression of being dry and detached from the world around him. This is far from the truth. He took an active interest in the tumultuous events in Europe at the time. In 1919, during the short life of the Bavarian Communist uprising, Klee announced his readiness to join the Action Committee of Revolutionary Artists. And Klee's wonderful sense of humour, his love of nature and the world around him, and his humanism shine out in a myriad of different ways from all his works.

The Hayward exhibition brings together works mainly from Klee's period at the Bauhaus--one of his most productive periods in a career that saw the production of almost 10,000 works. They show Klee returning again and again to exploring how the three main components of a work of art--lines, forms and colour--can be brought together to produce an interpretation of nature.

He insisted to his students that an artist does not produce the visible but makes visible what is there. He argued that the world is not some fixed set of elements to be transposed onto a canvas, but that it 'once looked different and, in the future, will look different again'--that it is a process in itself.

The works also bring out Klee's stress on rhythm--he was an accomplished musician-in the creation of a work of art. It shows Klee's love of materials and the way he would use several different methods in a single work to produce the effect he was striving for.

In this sense Klee was an artist's artist, forever showing what can happen if different elements and methods are combined in a way which exploits each for its particular effect. I have two criticisms of the exhibition. First, it does not show how Klee's art influenced so much of the work that flowed from the Bauhaus, particularly in the fields of textiles and stained glass. Second, the curators' organisation of the works according to themes can be difficult to follow. But don't let this stop you visiting what is nonetheless an exhibition of a great virtuoso.
Alan Gibson


Film

BEYOND THE BATTLEFIELD

Officer's Ward
Dir: Franšois Dupeyron


Officer's Ward implicitly deplores the horrors of war, and yet it does so not through battlefields or continuous barbarism, but through a personal tale with a universal message of struggle and reclamation.

Amidst nationalistic hysteria, Adrien is awaiting his passage to the frontlines of the First World War. He questions the chauvinism and drive to war, but Adrien feels duty bound and compelled to fight. On arrival his life in the battlefields is mercifully short, but the price he pays is extremely high, as a shell explodes in close proximity and brings an end to his part in the war. From here the film changes direction and pace as it submerges you in Adrien's descent into crisis.

He is taken to the officers' ward of a hospital in Paris where his recovery begins and the full extent of his injury is revealed to him. Shrapnel has ripped through the middle of his face, splitting it open from the top of his nose through to his jaw. We are spared the graphic visuals but are confronted, as if through Adrien's eyes, with the horrific consequences--being fed through a tube, struggling to breathe and incapable of speech. In many respects, though, much worse still awaits him.

From here the film deals with Adrien's struggle to come to terms with his deformity, along with others in the ward. It becomes clear to him that the society he thought he was fighting for would now cast judgement based on his appearance. Mirrors are banned in the ward and visiting friends weep at seeing the patients, such is the impact of their mutilated faces. Suicide is common in the ward as personal trauma is deepened by the flow of dismembered bodies flooding through the door. Here lies a distinction made in the film between the ward, where three men and one woman in similar circumstances unite and rediscover their humour and humanity, and the outside, where inhumane war continues to be waged, supplying endless victims for the beds. The sharp contrast between the group's personal struggle and the backdrop of war cannot help but portray war as inhumane and futile, but this film is still about more than that.

Discharged and back on the outside again, Adrien experiences a moment of crystallisation that exposes the heart of the film and completes his recovery. Exposed, as he plays a game of peek a boo with a young child, are the constructs of norms and deviancies, acceptability and unacceptability in society. But some, he discovers, are prepared to question this received wisdom and look beyond presentation, as some were prepared to question the war at the height of its popularity.
Kevin Best


A LOT LURKS BELOW THE SURFACE

The Shipping News
Dir: Lasse Hallstr÷m


The stark scenery of Newfoundland is beautifully captured
The stark scenery of Newfoundland is beautifully captured

E Annie Proulx won a lot of fans with her novel The Shipping News. It is impossible to recreate the complexity of the novel in a two-hour film, but director Lasse Hallstr÷m has gone some way to capture the atmosphere of the book.

The central character, Quoyle (Kevin Spacey), is a print worker in Poughkeepsie, New York State. Life is not going well for Quoyle. He loves his wife but she just finds him irritating, so she spends most of her time with her lovers. Quoyle's parents commit suicide (his father leaves their suicide note on Quoyle's answering machine). Then his wife dies in a car crash. Quoyle and his daughter Bunny are left with little to stick around for. Quoyle's long-lost aunt Agnis (Judi Dench) arrives on his doorstep and persuades them to follow her to make a new life in Killick-Claw, Newfoundland--as she says, it's the place 'where our people come from'.

Quoyle is an everyman figure, battered and beaten down by life, and lacking in confidence. Confused and swept along by events, Quoyle ends up with his daughter and aunt in their ancestors' home. The house is a battered shell, abandoned for 40 years and anchored to the clifftop with rusting steel cables. The three move in and start to make it their home. The centre of the story is how they start to rebuild their lives.

When he was a child, as a harsh lesson Quoyle's father pushed him into a lake to see if he would swim. There is repeated imagery of him struggling up through the water to find air--he describes himself as 'not a water person'. He goes looking for work with the local newspaper, the Gammy Bird, and to his shock lands a job as a reporter. He is forced to confront his fear of water and face the memory of his wife's death, since his job is to write about car crashes and the shipping news. But the job gives him some dignity and control over his working life, and gradually he starts to gain confidence.

The story uncovers incest, violence, drowning and piracy. This darker undercurrent pulls away from any nostalgic sentimentality for the fishing community of Killick-Claw. The Newfoundland scenery is stark, wind-battered and breathtaking--the whole thing is beautifully shot. It is a funny film in places. The newspaper office scenes provide much of the humour, showing the petty rivalry between the paper's editor (Peter Postlethwaite), Quoyle and their boss who 'runs' the paper from the distance of his fishing boat.

There is a lot that is good about this film, but in the end it doesn't quite do justice to Proulx's novel. A lot is lost in the translation to celluloid, and it fails to match the book's poetic individuality. Despite this it is an enjoyable film.
Martin Halliday


MURDER AND MYSTERY

From Hell
Dir: Albert and Allen Hughes


Police inspector Abberline(Johnny Depp) investigates another murder
Police inspector Abberline(Johnny Depp) investigates another murder

The Jack the Ripper story repeatedly attracts the interest of modern artists. Is it the dark and frightening background of Victorian London, or the supposed connections of the murderer to the Freemasons and to the eldest son of Queen Victoria, the Duke of Clarence? Whatever, this is no ordinary murder story, but a symbol of a class riven city and an imperial order in deep crisis.

The murder of several London prostitutes in a short space of time, all in the back alleys and courts of a small area of the East End of London, caused an outcry. The women had their throats cut, and were hideously and ritually disembowelled or mutilated, thus setting the murders apart from the everyday violence of East End life.

The life of prostitutes at this level of society was usually nasty, brutish and short. They were harassed by landlords and local protection racket gangs, and often contracted syphilis. Despite the radiant looks and glossy hair of Heather Graham, who plays the prostitute Mary Kelly in the film, most of her contemporaries--as indeed the film shows-aged quickly and were far from glamorous.

From Hell is a powerful film. It accepts the view that the murders were committed as part of a conspiracy hatched by Freemasons to cover up Prince Eddie's secret marriage (in a Catholic church) to a young prostitute who bears his child. I first heard this story in the 1970s, and it has grown more plausible as documentary evidence has emerged. Even if you find the total theory too much to swallow, it looks certain that the murders were committed by someone with a very detailed knowledge of anatomy who was educated and connected to Freemasonry.

Johnny Depp as the working class, opium addicted police inspector Abberline is constantly up against upper class prejudice and collusion. The film is based on the graphic novel of the same name and the sets have a slightly one dimensional feel, portraying a very 'arty' view of 19th century London.

The newly emerging popular press are much in evidence, crowding round the bodies, photographing Abberline at the scene of the crime, and causing an outcry at police failure to catch the killer. The Ripper murders were a major public scandal. They took place in an East eEnd where, that same year, the Bryant & May match girls went on strike just two miles down the road. Metropolitan Police commissioner Sir Charles Warren presided over the death of a demonstrator at the hands of police in 1887 in Trafalgar Square. Rich London was fearful of socialism, of unrest in its poorest quarters. The film portrays this unease and sense of social decay, and the hatred of foreigners--especially the immigrant Jews who were so much a part of the East End. It shows, through the brutal treatment of some of the poorest women, why this area exploded in the greatest upsurge of class anger--in the shape of the movement for the New Unions--for half a century.
Lindsey German


A VERY PUBLIC REBELLION

If...
Dir: Lindsay Anderson


1968 was the big year of revolt, its epicentre the student-led insurrection in Paris. But the spirit of resistance in the field of culture and the arts had begun earlier. In the late 1950s French New Wave cinema had rejected the well made studio film and taken to the streets to celebrate freedom. The spin-off here was the emergence of a number of film directors such as Lindsay Anderson. He made If... in 1968, the very year in which the spirit of revolt became a material force.

The film is set in a public school whose archaic rules and customs are designed to foster team spirit and the ethos of obedience. There is lots of chapel attendance, hymn singing and games. But even in this backward world resistance stirs. Three of the older boys exist in a state of permanent rebellion against the petty rules. They stick photos on the study walls of Che Guevara, Mao Zedong and of nameless black rebels. Mick (played by Malcolm McDowell) is their leader. Matters come to a head when he is beaten by the head boy for his 'attitude'. Using a forgotten stack of arms they find under the school stage, Mick and the other rebels lead a guerrilla attack on the bigwigs assembled for founders' day.

The film mixes realism and fantasy. So, after Mick and the rebels have shot and bayoneted the school chaplain during a cadet corps exercise, the headmaster produces the chaplain from a gigantic drawer in his study and demands an apology from the boys. Fantasy is also present in the scene where Mick and a friend steal a motorbike and drive to a cafe where Mick engages in a ritual dance with the counter girl, who joins the guerrilla group.

The climax to the film is a kind of wish fulfilment--the 'if' of the title reflecting a sense of 'if only' one could take revenge. The rebels talk the language of national liberation guerrilla movements. 'Violence and revolution are the only pure acts,' muses Mick in response to the obscenity of child mortality in Africa.

If... is a product of its period. But it is being re-released now because sections of the film industry have woken up to the fact that global struggle is back on the agenda. The mood of hatred towards authority remains as fresh as ever. Catch it if you can on its limited release up and down the country.
Gareth Jenkins


RESISTING THE TEMPTATION OF LOVE

Charlotte Gray
Dir: Gillian Armstrong


Charlotte Gray, based on Sebastian Faulks's novel, is a classic story of girl meets boy, girl loses boy, girl signs up as a spy behind enemy lines in Vichy France to find boy, girl ends up with different boy. Cate Blanchett plays the title role, a young Scottish woman with a love of all things French and a hatred of what the Nazis have done to the country. She is naive and romantic, and falls in love with an RAF officer at a party. When he fails to return from a mission over France she resolves to go there and find him. Her opportunity is already in front of her--she has been asked to train as an agent. Throughout her training she has an air of smugness--her training officers think she is fighting for her country but she knows her real mission is to find her pilot.

She is parachuted into southern France, impeccably made up, her mission to work with the local Resistance. When a Resistance mission is ambushed, Charlotte is forced to confront her own naivety about the motives behind the war--on both sides--and must question what her own role in it all is. She discovers that she feels much more strongly about the work she is doing and her comrades in the Resistance than she had previously thought.

The film is visually stylish and stylised. Vichy France is grey and cold--perhaps the heavy grey of a defeated people. Charlotte's red lipstick and bright Parisian outfits mean she stands out and seems to represent something different. Although she loses her naivety in the course of the story, she never loses her hope.

The film is being pitched as an epic wartime romance-cum-tearjerker, but even with excellent performances from Blanchett, Billy Crudup as Julien and Michael Gambon as Levade, Charlotte Gray left me strangely cold. The film takes itself very seriously and attempts to sweep you up in a dramatic and emotional wave, but I found myself ignoring the plot which was very predictable. This is a central problem with the film. It favours a love story of little interest over the fascinating politics of the period and the role of the Resistance in France.
Sally Campbell


Theatre

DOING THE DEED OF DEATH

Julius Caesar
by William Shakespeare
Barbican, London


An assassination carried out as decently as possible
An assassination carried out as decently as possible

'The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars
But in ourselves that we are underlings.'

Very early on in Shakespeare's play Julius Caesar one senior senator, Cassius, engages another, Brutus, in one of the most eloquent and effective agitations in all literature. Rome is threatened by a dictatorship under Caesar, the military conqueror, and the more democratically minded senators are moved to revolt. Cassius stirs Brutus with Caesar's overriding ambition, and above all by his claim to be greater and more 'constant' than other men. If Rome is to prove true to its democratic traditions, he argues, Caesar must go. Popular revolt is out of the question since it might threaten the senators themselves. So when he considers the options to himself, Brutus concludes that 'it must be by his death'. The seeds of the patrician conspiracy are sown and put into practice.

William Shakespeare was not a revolutionary--quite the reverse. His own sympathies would have rested, almost certainly, with the dictator and his fawning successor, Mark Anthony. The playwright's supreme artistry, however, did not depend on his views, but on his powers of observation of human behaviour, and transmitting what he observed into drama. Thus Cassius's argument is as accurately conveyed as is Caesar's determination not to give an inch to reform or the reformers, or Brutus's insistence that the assassination must be carried out as decently as possible.

Moreover, as I realised for the first time watching the Royal Shakespeare Company production, Cassius is always right. He is right about refusing permission to Mark Anthony to speak at Caesar's funeral, and right to seek to avoid the disastrous battle at Philippi. Mark Anthony is a great orator, and makes a famous speech over Caesar's body, but once he successfully turns the mob in his favour he reveals himself as no less ruthless a tyrant than his hero. The ebb and flow of the argument in the first part of the play is irresistible, whatever side you take.

In this production,Tim Piggot-Smith reveals Cassius's agitation eloquently enough without really conveying the anger and passion that Shakespeare intended. Though the production clearly favours the conspirators by dressing Caesar's supporters in fascist uniforms and ridiculing Caesar (Ian Hogg) as a ranting buffoon (which he wasn't), and although Greg Hicks sensitively identifies Brutus's dilemmas, it's still hard to come away from the production with the feeling that the conspirators get as fair a hearing as they should. Partly this is the fault of the play itself, which disintegrates horribly after the assassination. I've never been able to understand the row between Cassius and Brutus as they prepare for the final battle, and nor is the play helped by the ghost of Caesar staggering round the stage in his underpants. But the early arguments, the excitement of the conspiracy and its aftermath, are as powerful as ever, and not to be missed.
Paul Foot


WHEN BLACK AND WHITE UNITE

The Syringa Tree
by Pamela Gien
National Theatre, London


Pamela Gien in 'The Syringa Tree'
Pamela Gien in The Syringa Tree

This play brought back many heart-wrenching impressions and feelings I had as a child growing up in apartheid South Africa. In the play Salamina, the loving black nanny of Lizzie, a six year old white child, is pregnant, and when Lizzie wants to announce the coming joy, Salamina reacts in terror: 'No, no, don't tell anybody', because if you're a black servant you can't keep your child--the police will take it away. The police come stalking relentlessly late at night, and the frightened black servants climb up the branches of the syringa tree to hide. Salamina's baby has 'no papers', and when illness takes her to the Soweto hospital she gets 'lost' in a bureaucratic web, and is only 'found' through the endangering intervention of Lizzie's mother.

The remarkable thing about this play is that it is a one woman show. Pamela Gien, who also wrote the play, takes on all the numerous parts of children, black and white, English and African parents, grandparents, bigoted Afrikaner neighbours, servants and police in a most convincing manner, with accents, intonations and attitudes absolutely true to life. The people enacted also cover a wide range of ages, all of whom this young actress realistically portrays in a moving performance. It covers 20 years in the intertwined lives of the two black and white families. The play is heartwarming in showing the solidarity between the two families in adversity. This transcends the official policy of vicious discrimination and enforced segregation of the apartheid years.

The play starts in apartheid's middle years, the 1960s. Those years are deeply invested with biographical aspects of Pamela Gien's life in South Africa, where she was born and brought up, but which she left to get married in 'the land of the brave and free'. However, she returns to South Africa for a reunion.

As a one person show The Syringa Tree is quite remarkable. It has received numerous awards, which does not surprise me.
Chanie Rosenberg


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