Issue 267 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published October 2002 Copyright © Socialist Review

Arts

Review

   

Cultural currents

A gathering at the funeral parlour

We live our lives as we dispatch the dead, says Mike Gonzalez

Death in the family
Death in the family

Once a year families in Mexico gather at graveyards to eat with the dead. It's a strangely joyous occasion. There is a flower that the Aztecs called sempixóchitl, the eternal flower, that people arrange in white sprays before they sit down to dinner at the graveside. On that day people give each other sugar skulls with a name label crudely pasted on the forehead. For weeks beforehand the skulls sit piled high at all the local markets, in bright colours, arranged in a pyramid.

Nothing could be further from the sombre way that we deal with dispatching the dead. Dark suits, black ties, gloomy mood music--it is the moment when the church reclaims the wayward, and promises a terrible revenge expressed through the sombre wailing of the organ. Anyone who has ever arranged a funeral knows how quickly bereavement must translate itself into packages, casket shapes, bureaucracy--in other words, how quickly it is swept away and hidden. In other cultures grief is publicly performed, the weeping audible, the sorrow shared with the collective. In the Anglo-Saxon way, it is an intensely private thing, decently withheld in company. Only occasionally is a public ceremonial allowed, as a kind of ritual act of obedience (a state funeral) or sometimes more cynically used for public purposes--as, in my view, the 11 September commemorations appropriated private grief and, with or without permission, turned it into an official legitimation of revenge.

The brilliant new TV series Six Feet Under doesn't yield to the pact of silence. Each chapter begins with a spectacular death--the porn star electrocuted in the bath, the woman decapitated by hitting a bridge after a girls' night out, the gay man beaten to death in the street. The family undertakers, Fisher Brothers Funeral Home, receive the remains and prepare them, lovingly beautifying them in the white-tiled basement embalming room for the reassurance of the people left behind.

The series began with the sudden death of the patriarch, Nate Fisher, crushed by a bus as he was bending to light a cigarette in his brand new hearse. He returns from time to time to witness the changes and dramas in the life of the family he left behind--to share the gradual peeling away of all the layers of protection and denial that we are led through.

It's an odd contrast--the professionals rebuild the shattered faces of the past to reassure the people left behind to grieve that the passing was smooth, and to provide the most beautiful image for them to remember. Yet at the same time the individual stories of this typical American family are steadily exposed until you see the messy, contradictory, vibrant humanity behind the masks the living sometimes wear (that is, of course, to be expected from the writer of American Beauty).

There's the mother, 30 years repressed and caged in a marriage conducted in whispers. She unlocks her desires piece by small piece in the months after her husband's death--and reveals, by the way, that she'd been having an affair with her hairdresser for 30 years! There's stiff closeted brother David, who wants to be a church deacon ('It's good for business') and cruise on the sly, until he finds that compartmentalising your life is just too tough. But even his coming out is clumsy and confused. Clare, the adolescent sister, symbolically explores her problem, going to and from school in an old hearse painted green. If she's the most complex and (judging by fan websites) the most popular of all the characters, it's probably because she takes it for granted that personal life is always a mess.

There are other things going on too. The independent family firm at first buckles before the giant corporation and its production line methods, then changes and becomes defiant, gathering the little people at the funeral directors' convention and deciding--in the best It's A Wonderful Life tradition--to confront the bullying giants.

Funnily enough, death hasn't often been the theme of TV drama--at least not ordinary death. When Jessica Mitford wrote about The American Way of Death, and Evelyn Waugh followed with The Loved One, theirs were satires on the sanitising of death, the way in which American values were projected all the way to eternity. Waugh's Whispering Glades Funeral Parlour was simply Disneyland for the deceased, with piped music and the kitsch imagery that reduced every complex human feeling to one of six available selections.

In Six Feet Under, you could say the deaths are the pretext. After all, a funeral is always for the living--an occasion to confront (or deny) our fears, our sense of loss, our yearning for the world to be otherwise, our disappointment, our terror. At the end of each episode, the screen fades to white. Another stone is laid, another epitaph written. But there is something oddly comforting about the fact that the Fisher family remains as confused, uncertain and full of contradictions as the rest of us--behind the practised (but increasingly cracked) mask of studied sympathy.


Theatre

PLAY FOR TODAY

Ivanov
by Anton Chekhov
National Theatre, London


It is easy to dismiss Ivanov, alongside Chekhov's other plays, as being full of melancholy middle class moaners who need a kick up the backside. Easy but, I think, a mistake.

The play starts in the house of Nikolai Ivanov, who owns some land and is a smalltime local politician. He has fallen on hard times, and is reduced to juggling his debts and wondering how he can survive. He lives with his uncle, a minor aristocrat who has blown everything except his title, and his wife, who has been disowned by her family.

Ivanov is suffering from depression, and has come to despise both the people around him and himself. He is able to worry about his ill wife's health but not able to care for her. The convictions with which he once inspired people have gone, leaving only their shadow to taunt him in his decline.

As in Chekhov's other plays, we are introduced to a narrow stratum of the Russian middle class--both the poor and the really wealthy get only bit parts--who are trapped in the backward Russian countryside. The characters are so wrapped up in themselves and local gossip that they do not talk about what is happening in the next village, let alone within the country as a whole. But we are brought into a world saturated with the feeling that change is needed yet will never come.

The doctor attending to Ivanov's wife is angry at the self obsession and callous frivolity that he finds himself in the midst of. But his outbursts of criticism wash over his intended targets like water passing through pebbles. He does not represent any other way of life to challenge the status quo. Perhaps he is just a younger version of Ivanov himself, before he was broken by the strains of this dull yet difficult existence.

The unusual staging of this production adds to the sense that these are characters hemmed in with no escape. The stage is set in the middle of the two banks of seats, as if the audience is looking into a fish-tank with invisible glass.

One of the play's strengths is the way Chekhov creates a world that draws you into caring about his protagonists despite their obvious flaws. The silences, which can be awkward and prominent, add to this feeling.

Step back a bit, and the characters, who might seem specific to Russia on the eve of the 20th century, begin to be more universal--the man who wants to have a laugh but begins to cry when the effect of vodka wears off, or the rich woman who pleads poverty and is so mean she begrudges her guests having jam with their tea. Being productive, working is a regular refrain that is suggested as an alternative to inertia. But this inertia is part of the world they inhabit.

The cast put in strong performances, especially Owen Teale in the lead role, which make up to some extent for the play's weak ending, which would otherwise transform a tragedy into a melodrama. But this is tragedy in a very everyday sense.
Nicolai Gentchev


SHAKEN AND STIRRED

Outlying Islands
by David Greig
Royal Court, London


History comes alive in Outlying Islands
History comes alive in Outlying Islands

Plays premiered at the Traverse Theatre at Edinburgh's Festival Fringe are generally well worth seeing, and Outlying Islands is no exception. The storyline starts simply. Before the Second World War two enthusiastic ornithologists are sent by the 'Ministry' for a month to monitor the migratory and nesting habits of birds on the furthermost small empty island north of Scotland--empty, that is, save for the leaseholder and his niece. The plot then develops along two paths which have little connection with one another, though enacted by the same personnel. One is political and, unexpectedly, highly relevant today, the other sexual. Both subplots are gripping as they unfold.

In the first, the leaseholder's only interest is to get compensation for his losses. The ornithologists wonder what losses, and the secret of the Ministry's real intentions is gradually squeezed out of the leaseholder, to whom it had been divulged confidentially. History suddenly comes alive, as such an event really happened in British history. The current politics around weapons of mass destruction and the projected war on Iraq is also brought to mind.

With the consequent downgrading of dramatic emphasis on bird watching, the second subplot can come into its own, and it takes over the second half of the play. This involves sexual banter on the part of the two men, and their relationship with the leaseholder's niece, Ellen. She proves to be a very interesting and singular woman. Having been brought up on the island with very little contact with mainland people, her outlook is natural and uninhibited, and she takes it upon herself to lead the sexual encounters to remarkably explicit ends. This decides the outcome of the play as the ship arrives to take the ornithologists home.

This is an excellent play, riveting from beginning to end. Each of the characters is very well drawn, individual and psychologically convincing. The two subplots, while distinct, are each engrossing in their different ways, and manage to live happily together as they involve the same four people in whom an interest has been aroused in the earlier subplot and carried through to the later one.

This is a play well worth making the effort to see.
Chanie Rosenberg


Film

PERSONAL AND POLITICAL

Sweet Sixteen
Dir: Ken Loach


Scally can wait
Scally can wait

Ken Loach is a master film-maker, so a new release by him is something to look forward to. For over four decades Loach has celebrated the heroism of working class people. His films always draw from ordinary working class lives extraordinarily moving and relevant stories. Sometimes they feature militant collective struggles that shake the system and its apologists. In other films Loach centres on intimate family dramas that reveal the politics of everyday life.

His new film, Sweet Sixteen, is vintage Loach of the second type. It tells the story of a working class family from Greenock, near Glasgow. The film begins with Liam waiting for his mother, Jean, to be released from jail for a drug offence. The day of her release will also be his 16th birthday. Liam is desperate to find a way of starting again, to create a new life for himself and his adored mum. He also wants to reunite Jean with his 17 year old sister, Chantelle. Chantelle, herself the single mother of a young baby, has given up on their mother. Jean has let herself be used by manipulative men and let her kids down too many times. She has lost Chantelle's trust, but not Liam's.

So, along with his best mate Pinball, Liam sets out to make some serious money. Their dreams of a better future focus on a caravan overlooking the beautiful Clyde estuary. Liam wants to buy it for his family to live in, away from drugs, bullying men, poverty and alienation.

The boys are right scallies, sticking two fingers up to authority and getting into every scam going. The brilliant aspect of the two boys' characters is that just as they are wild and savage, they are also innocent, lovable and very funny. But as the boys struggle to raise the cash they get stuck in a contradiction. The more canny and audacious they are in trying to get money to escape from crime and violence, the more deeply they get involved with drug dealers and the criminal underworld. Liam knows he is being dragged further and further into a vicious, dangerous world, but he cannot let go of his dream. Violent confrontation with the people holding him back becomes increasingly inevitable.

Sweet Sixteen is a brilliant account of the lives of people struggling to overcome their circumstances, dependencies and fears. It was highly acclaimed when it was shown at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year, with special praise going to 17 year old Martin Compston, who plays Liam. Compston is not a professional actor--he is now a footballer--but Loach's skill in directing non-professional actors adds an authenticity and emotional power to his films. Compston's performance really is astounding. He is in practically every scene in the film and he holds all of them with gripping power. The rest of the cast give brilliant support.

There are uneasy moments in Sweet Sixteen, where powerful drama is mixed with gangster film style tension and violence. But overall Sweet Sixteen shows why people desperately try to break free, and why it is so difficult for them to succeed.
Judy Cox


TEHRAN TAXI

Ten
Dir: Abbas Kiarostami


A journey of self discovery
A journey of self discovery

Ten is the latest film by Abbas Kiarostami, one of the many talented Iranian directors making their mark on world cinema. Kiarostami has received critical acclaim for a number of his past films, and is a previous winner of the Palme D'Or at Cannes. I doubt he will repeat the same triumph with Ten, but nevertheless this latest offering is a revealing social insight into modern day Iran.

The film focuses on a driver (the compelling Mania Akbari) and her passengers over the course of ten brief journeys. Akbari holds this film together, laughing, questioning, supporting and arguing with her various travellers. Akbari's most frequent passenger is her young son, a very demanding child, at times playful but more often than not barking orders at his mother. These exchanges are intense and aggressive, and make for painful viewing. Central to this relationship and to the whole film is the rights of women. Akbari is a divorced woman who does not sit at home, and cook and clean for her menfolk. This certainly causes a great deal of distress for her controlling son and her ex-husband as she struggles to achieve her own personal freedom, particularly through the sphere of work.

Akbari's other encounters are all with women, including a pious elder on her twice-daily pilgrimage to a Muslim saint's mausoleum, a friend who is in emotional turmoil because her lover has left her, and a somewhat implausible incident with a prostitute. The latter encounter is dark and brooding, and Kiarostami intensifies this scene through his use of light (or the lack of it). The prostitute tells Akbari of her dealings with married men and the lies they tell their wives. No doubt her clients include a number of the Islamic clerics who have held power over the past 20 years. Layered over these stories is Akbari's frustrations over finding parking spaces and dealing with the problems of Iranian traffic. This certainly adds a realistic dimension to the film and brings the stories down to earth.

Visually the film is not so strong. The viewer only has two viewpoints, both of which are from the dashboard of the vehicle. One is a shot of the passenger and the other of the driver. This offers a very minimalist approach to film-making. At times the results are engaging, and we can see the emotional stresses endured by each character. However, given the dialogue's heavy script, I think the film would have been much stronger with some shots of Iran itself. This would have provided a brief and welcome relief from the intense conversations. Furthermore, the lack of any other visual perspectives meant that the film could have been shot in Beirut, Cairo or Baghdad. There is no indication of the film's location, though I presume it was Tehran.

This weakness also highlights one of Ten's strengths. The characters struggle with a range of universal emotions and issues including divorce, sexuality, work, childhood, religion and sex. The problems and dilemmas for Kiarostami's characters are not unique to the women of Iran. We come to the conclusion that Iranian and Islamic society is not that much different from other societies around the world, including the West. So much for the clash of civilisations!
Mubin Haq


NOTHING TO WRITE HOME ABOUT

All or nothing
Dir: Mike Leigh


Driving each other crazy
Driving each other crazy

Mike Leigh is often bracketed with radical film-makers such as Ken Loach. I've always had my doubts about this, and his latest offering does little to allay them.

Phil (Timothy Spall) is a London taxi driver struggling to make ends meet. His wife Penny (Leslie Manville) works in Safeway. Their stoic daughter Rachel cleans at an old people's home while their son Rory is unemployed and aggressive. Phil and Penny's relationship has long been stale, which Phil finds particularly hard. It looks set to continue this way until Rory has a heart attack, provoking some honesty between them and a chance that things could change.

Most of the film is spent setting the scene, so it moves fairly slowly. Perhaps Leigh was trying to convey the boredom and despondency of life on a run-down council estate, but the result is to make it rather dull. There are a few subplots along the way involving other people on the estate, but they aren't particularly gripping, or indeed novel.

From the opening scene, where Rachel slowly mops the floor in the old people's home, we know this is going to be a somewhat miserable experience. Leigh's composer, Andrew Dickson, seems to have recycled the same mournful score he used in Secrets and Lies, and it sets the tone for a film where the grim nature of working class life is not so much explored as laboured.

The characterisation is also problematic. Like many of Leigh's productions, the characters often feel more like stereotypes and clichés than real people, and ultimately this leaves us with a lack of sympathy for them and their situation. While Spall's performance overcomes this in places, the characters are generally dysfunctional. This might be reasonable in some characters, but when it's pretty much everyone, you start to suspect that the film isn't based on empathy, but on voyeurism--that this isn't so much a gritty picture of real life, but an opportunity for middle class audiences to gawp at how bad things can get.

On the positive side, it is at least refreshing to see a film about a relationship which, unlike most Hollywood and Britflick fare, recognises that our emotional lives are affected by material conditions and have a social context. We do get a real sense that the nuclear family can be something like a prison to its members, and yet we cling to it as a 'heart in a heartless world'. But what a heartless world that is!

If he is trying to make a point here, and it isn't clear that he is, Leigh leaves us with neither an explanation for that heartlessness, nor a suggestion of hope that we, or his characters, might escape it.This isn't essential for the film to be of worth, but for a production whose entertainment value is low (I was wishing it would end soon after it began), we might hope at least for some rationale behind the misery.
James O'Nions


Music

REVOLUTIONS PER MINUTE


Ms Dynamite--part of a musical explosion?
Ms Dynamite--part of a musical explosion?

There are now signs that the daily intensification of global politics is beginning to find an echo within popular music. In the US, amid a climate of patriotism and mass censorship of any dissent, huge selling artists such as singer Mary J Blige and rapper Nas have come out firmly against the war on Afghanistan and the threat to Iraq. The reworking of Marvin Gaye's 'What's Going On' by MTV Allstars (Christina Aguilera, Bono, Ja Rule, Alicia Keys and many more) featured a video clearly identifying poverty, racism, Aids and Third World debt as the backdrop to the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon. In the week of 11 September 2001 itself the world's most popular album was by 'nu-metal' band System of a Down, despite--or perhaps because of--their outspoken anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist lyrics.

In Britain George Michael released the single 'Shoot the Dog', with an excellent animated video showing Tony Blair as a loyal poodle to the missile-worshipping madman in the White House. Michael confessed his inspiration was the Mirror's anti-war reportage, particularly that of John Pilger, saying, 'I thought it was so refreshing to see a paper doing this-not just accepting what the government was saying.' The singer remained unrepentant following predictable criticism from US and Murdoch-owned media, saying, 'Anyone who has a problem with the cross between pop and politics should look at the politics first and the ridiculous media response second. The truth is the argument has been strengthened, and if the record comes in at 56 it will have done its job. This situation is more important than any record or any attack on me.' (It reached number 12 in the UK charts.)

Similarly, at the start of September popular British groups Massive Attack and Blur helped fund a double-page advert in NME against the war and for the 28 September demo.

Of course the above are not yet typical examples of politicised popular music. The multibillion dollar global music business continues to make vast profits from churning out formulaic rubbish. The charts don't give a true picture of the music many are into--for example the complete exclusion of the likes of bhangra and world music from the lists of bestsellers, despite massive grassroots popularity. Yet, many up and coming artists are making great music that expresses the anger, defiance and hope for a better world felt by hundreds of millions across the world, particularly among young people.

There has been a resurgence of such artists in US hip-hop, with the popularity of acts like Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Common Sense and Dead Prez. UK hip-hop is in possibly its rudest health ever, with the likes of Roots Manuva, Mark B & Blad and Blak Twang all enjoying TV exposure and chart success. The video for the latter's recent 'Kik Off' single shows footage of protesters battling cops in the anti-capitalist demonstrations of Prague and Genoa, with a chorus of 'Get ready to kick off!'

Jamaican music, for years dominated by often brilliant though generally apolitical dancehall reggae, has seen a big increase in popularity for 'conscious' MCs like Sizzla, Anthony B and Capleton, who in turn have had an influence on bigger stars like Beenie Man, who asked on a superb recent hit tune, 'Has the world gone mad?'

This exciting shift in reggae is marred only by a prevalence of homophobic sentiment on even the most conscious records--a contradiction mirrored in hip-hop stars like Eminem, who can be simultaneously brilliant and reactionary.

In Britain garage music remains popular. While some of its more famous exponents, like So Solid Crew and Oxide & Neutrino, have been plugged on the basis of sexism and the glorification of violence, this year in particular has seen bright and positive new stars emerge.

Ms Dynamite, originally and still a superb garage MC, has made an album full of great r & b songs making smart points about racism, sexism, and the worship of money and violence. Easily the most popular garage club act is Heartless Crew, who mix a wicked blend of garage, r & b, jungle and dancehall with positive lyrics and a good time vibe.

Ms Dynamite performed at the Anti Nazi League's 'Love Music--Hate Racism' carnival in Manchester at the start of September attracting over 30,000 people. Along with the Doves, The Shining and Billy Bragg, the carnival also featured the cream of Britain's hip-hop, indie, garage, bhangra and drum & bass talent. The success of the ANL carnival will be built on with a series of gigs and raves across Britain in the coming months.
Lee Billingham


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