Issue 268 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published November 2002 Copyright © Socialist Review
Mike Gonzalez finds the Vietnam War still has the power to horrify
|Another victim of the American War|
'And it's one, two, three
What are we fighting for?...
Don't ask me, I don't give a damn
They're sending me to Vietnam'
(Country Joe and the Fish)
Michael Herr's Vietnam is a brutal, corrupt and unforgiving place. His Dispatches, now republished 30 years after it first appeared in Britain, created the atmosphere of the Vietnam whose image has coursed back and forth across our consciousness since the last US helicopter fled Saigon in 1975. Herr wrote the script for Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket and the voice-over for Apocalypse Now. It's his voice we connect to the stories of madness and cruelty that we associate with that unforgotten war.
Reading it again is deeply discomforting, as the inflated rhetoric of patriotic gore, the lies and the concealment, the denunciations of foreigners in Washington (and Westminister) grows increasingly hysterical. What is it about the Vietnam War that haunts us? Why does Dispatches still awaken a sense of disbelief and horror? Why did the soundtrack of the Vietnam War that accompanied David Soul's reading of the book on BBC Radio 4 still feel so searing? Perhaps it's because that weird combination of country, Hendrix, Joplin, the Stones' Nineteenth Nervous Breakdown and the Ride of the Valkyrie at breakneck speed is already faintly audible on the borders of Iraq? Perhaps Vietnam has somehow come to define what war is really like.
We know the fields of France were witness to barbarism and cruelty; we know something of the impact of the air war on Dresden and Berlin, the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto, the siege of Stalingrad. But in Vietnam the mythology of war as a game of chess played with living bodies came to bits. The difference is in the opening section of Herr's book: 'There was a map of Vietnam on the wall of my apartment in Saigon...and some nights, coming back late to the city, I'd lie out on my bed and look at it... If dead ground could come back and haunt you the way dead people do, they'd have been able to mark my map CURRENT and burn the ones they'd been using since '64...even the most detailed maps didn't reveal much any more; reading them was like trying to read the faces of the Vietnamese, and that was like trying to read the wind...'
The American war on Vietnam had no battlefields, no frontiers. As you read Herr's description, the overwhelming sense is of fear, horror, psychosis shared and bizarrely celebrated. His dispatches are populated by 'grunts'--rank and file soldiers--whose enemy was everywhere and nowhere. Their maps were blank; their name for the enemy--'Charlie', 'VC'--told them nothing. How do you recognise them? They all wear black pyjamas; they are all alien to us. They are everywhere.
That's where the paranoia began. Herr's dispatches are disturbing because he writes from inside the nightmare, with all the tension and terror that turned these young men into killing machines. It is all the more frightening because, emptied of any concerns for justice, or ethics, or solidarity, they opened fire anywhere, everywhere. After all, who could know where the enemy was?
What happened in Vietnam, of course, was that the conduct of imperialist war relied on an ideology that was also total and without cracks. But the resistance in Watts and Newark, in Birmingham, Detroit and Berkeley drove rough levers into the seams of the wall and broke the smooth surface. And after that came despair and half a million men on heroin or the LSD that made the edges of the battle zones seem multicoloured.
No wonder the US right became obsessed with Vietnam. It had blown the bubble open. Samuel Huntington, he of the 'clash of civilisations', says, 'It is in the interests of the West...to limit the expansion of the military strength of Confucian and Islamic states, to exploit differences and conflicts among Confucian and Islamic states...' and so on and on.
To do that the grunts must see themselves walking in darkness, without maps, with no sense of what lies outside their own world except the menace of 'others' hidden in the shadows. That's probably why the maps of Iraq never show people, or living places, or homes or farms, why we are never shown the grief or scarred faces of Palestinians.
And yet people still pull aside the curtain and ask the questions they are forbidden to ask because they are unpatriotic, or terroristic, or a threat to order. Steve Earle's new album Jerusalem is a powerful indictment of everyone who might be saying now, 'I realise that ain't exactly democratic but it's either them or us and it's the best we can do' ('Amerika V.6.0'). As he says on the sleeve notes, 'In times like these it's also important to remember the names of John Reed, Emma Goldman, Abbie Hoffman, Bobby Seal, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King...who insisted on asking the hardest questions in our darkest hours.' Dispatches is the most powerful testimony how easily barbarism can fill the silence if nobody asks the questions
Dir: Richard Kelly
|Spot the odd one out|
This is not the first film about a murderous giant rabbit, but it is by a long way the best.
On one level, cult triumph Donnie Darko is an old story. Donnie (magnificently played by Jake Gyllenhaal) is the troubled outsider at high school, with a dysfunctional family and a genius IQ. And he has a monstrous giant rabbit-thing giving him orders. It is a measure of 26 year old, first-time writer/director Richard Kelly's prowess that the fact this rabbit goes by the amiable name 'Frank' does nothing to diminish the chill of its presence.
The story is a knot of weird visions, twisted narrative and intimations. Loosely, it is about Donnie and his family, his difficult time at school, his struggle with what may be madness, his romance with the new girl in his class, and his cold conviction that the world is coming to an end in 28 days and counting. And his friend--that rabbit, that no one else can see. That horrific rabbit.
It is a great pleasure to see a film which genuinely plays fast and loose with genre. Is this horror? Psychodrama? Comedy? Science fiction? Teen romance? Yes, it is. And it is also extremely effective satire. 'First and foremost', Richard Kelly has said, 'I wanted the film to be a piece of social satire that needs to be experienced and digested several times.'
Set in 1988, during the battle for presidency between Bush Sr and Dukakis, Donnie Darko is saturated with, repulsed and fascinated by, the culture of late Reaganism. Donnie's teenage sister Elizabeth (Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jake's real-life sister) scandalises her father by announcing at the breakfast table that she intends to vote Democrat. This suburban world is so cossetted and smug that even Dukakis's anaemic liberalism seems like a threat.
The film takes its satire seriously. There is a species of false satire, exemplified by The Wedding Singer (ironically starring Drew Barrymore, who redeems herself totally by starring in and executive-producing Donnie Darko) which does little more than scatter around lame gags based on the most banal observations (Legwarmers! Cyndi Lauper albums! Amusingly large mobile phones!). Donnie Darko is very different from the comforting nostalgia which domesticates its subject. The 1980s are about more than bad hair--they are as predatory as the rabbit.
In a superb sequence introducing us to the high school, time itself breaks down, and in a bravura succession of slowed-down and sped-up motion the camera tracks mercilessly along the corridors, wordlessly shoving the paraphernalia of the 1980s in our faces. It is hilarious but deeply unsettling. What might have been a succession of cliches becomes a nightmare, a bad trip. People float through the corridors like the dead in hell: bullies taunting fat kids and snorting cocaine from their lockers, sneering teachers in shoulder-pads, cheerleaders with their grotesque quasi-military manoeuvres, and...dammit, what's that tune? God help us, it's Tears for Fears. 'Head over Heels' becomes the soundtrack to Dante's Inferno.
Donnie is saved from bizarre disaster by the terrifying intercession of Frank, and from then on, believes the world is spiralling to its end. He becomes obsessed with time and time travel, and with the idea that destruction can be creation. He engages his science and English teachers (a couple, the only teachers he respects) in long, arcane conversations. Conversely, he drives his conservative, new-age-drivel spouting PE teacher to apoplexy, and intervenes brutally in the life of the town's appalling motivational guru (played excellently against type by Patrick Swayze). But while these episodes are extremely funny, the mood grows increasingly foreboding. Donnie's experiments with 'creative destruction' take more and more violent forms. In one excellent slow-motion scene his brutal vandalism is counterpoised with his young sister's performance in the glitzy pre-teen dance troupe Sparkle Motion. The latter is a sequined high-kicking march into Glamour Hell, and it is far more scary than Donnie's axe games.
The film's brooding, pop-uncanny atmosphere is brilliantly sustained. The impending apocalypse refracts off the little apocalypses everywhere. Everyone needs saving--Donnie's girlfriend Gretchen; Donnie's mother; Donnie; perhaps even Frank--and the fear and humour are laced with very humane sadness.
Donnie Darko's flaws are those of a first film. Kelly cannot resist making the satire too broad and parodic when dealing with the most unlikeable characters, like the odious guru Jim Cunningham. The characterisation of Donnie as a 'lone genius' is an unnecessary cliche. And though the incessant film references (to everything from Harvey to The Evil Dead) are sometimes fun, in places they become a bit intrusive and smug.
But these are snipes. For the most part Donnie Darko is remarkable for its avoidance of cliche. In one terribly touching moment when Donnie talks to his mother about his possible madness, for instance, we are shown that, yes, the Darkos are dysfunctional, but they're not that dysfunctional, no more than the rest of us. No matter how strange the film gets, it never loses its humanity.
By the way, the first film about murderous giant rabbits is 1972's schlock pulp Night of the Lepus. I'd rather watch Donnie Darko again.
Dir: Bertrand Tavernier
The French Resistance is a subject that film-makers have returned to time and time again. The vast majority of these films present either romanticised versions, typified by the recent blockbuster Charlotte Gray, or glossy sitcom Allo, Allo types. There is no danger of either with Bertrand Tavernier's wonderful new film Laissez-Passer (Safe Conduct).
The film portrays life in German-occupied France and centres on Continental Films, a German-controlled production company founded after the Nazi occupation. Tavernier uses the company as a metaphor for French society. Should French technicians agree to work for Continental? Is it a hiding place away from the prying eyes of Gestapo agents, or is it equivalent to collaborating with the enemy?
Drawing on their real-life experiences, Laissez-Passer is the story of two men whose lives converge and entwine. Dean Devaire (played by Jaques Gamblin) is an assistant film director who joins Continental as the best possible cover for his resistance activities. He is a man of action, rash, impulsive and daring. The other central character is Jean Aurenche (played by Denis Podalydes), a scriptwriter and poet. He uses every possible excuse to turn down any offers of work from the Germans. He is a playboy, whose resistance to the Nazi occupation is his writing.
This is a complex and multi-layered film. Most of the time people are combating hunger, cold and petty restrictions. With the exception of violent, but short-lived air raids, life is quite mundane. But at all times there is a lurking Nazi presence. The checkpoints, the missing relatives and the suspicion of fellow workmates all create an atmosphere of fear and paranoia.
Every now and then the barbarity of the Nazi regime pierces this greyness. In one scene the lead character is walking down the street deep in thought. All of a sudden a lorry passes him. Crammed into the truck are men and women wearing yellow stars. No comment is made but the horror and brutality of the Holocaust hits you in the face.
The film's tension centres on Dean Devaire. It follows his attempts to contact the Resistance after he steals confidential files from a Gestapo office. His journey through the suburbs of Paris and the countryside shows a society ravaged by war and paints a true picture of the French Resistance. Not one united, as is so often portrayed, but one divided between those loyal to De Gaulle and those linked to the Communist Party. Tavernier even finds time to raise some of the debates that raged inside the Communist Party.
Despite the serious subject of the film there are some amusing moments. In one scene, Tavernier reverses the traditional view of the British army and portrays the intelligence service as a bunch of bumbling fools only concerned with 'having a nice cup of tea'.
Resistance for Tavernier is not just limited to those who carry out acts of sabotage or guerrilla warfare. Laissez-Passer shows the bravery of those organising illegal unions, and refusing to write pro-German scripts. This film eats into your soul. I'm sure that like me you will leave the cinema pondering the moral dilemmas the characters face and wondering how you would act facing such situations. Tavernier's sympathies clearly lie with those resisting the Nazis. But he also explores the motives of those who collaborated and those who are just concerned with day to day survival.
Laissez-Passer is Bertrand Tavernier's 20th movie and is every bit as good as his previous films--the stunning It All Starts Today (Ça commence aujourd'hui), L.267 and Round Midnight. It's going to be a busy few months for socialists, but you really should make time to see this movie.
Bowling for Columbine
Dir: Michael Moore
|Moore takes aim|
A spokesman for Lockheed Martin is lost for words. The biggest employer in Littleton, Colorado cannot explain why two students at the local Columbine high school massacred their own classmates. But his condemnation of violence rings hollow--for Lockheed Martin is an arms manufacturer, and behind the spokesman sits a deadly US missile.
Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine is full of sharp, witty attacks on the absurdities and hypocrisies of the status quo, converging around the singular obsession of the US right--gun ownership. Attempting to explain the extent of US gun crime--last year there were 11,127 gun deaths compared to 68 in Britain--he takes aim at the Wal-Mart superstores (who sold the ammunition that was used in the Columbine shooting) without letting other 'evildoers' (as George Bush might put it) out of his sights.
Bowling for Columbine is not essentially an argument for gun control. Sure, the Michigan militia, which proclaims gun ownership a civic duty, is effectively ridiculed. They don't exactly make the job difficult--a real estate negotiator crawls around in fatigues while another boasts about the sexist calendar he's produced. But Moore argues there is a far deeper problem--a culture of fear nurtured by the media, harbouring barely concealed racism.
In one particularly engaging scene a barrage of news reports on black 'suspects' is pasted over the quickening thump of a heartbeat. Even a report on invading bees takes on a racialised, menacing tone, as the audience are told that 'Africanised' bees are naturally more aggressive than their friendly European counterparts. In a period when violent crime fell by a fifth, coverage of it rose by 600 percent--and the subtext of the fearmongering is that black people pose the danger. As the National Rifle Association's Charlton Heston lets slip while trying to explain gun crime, it's a question of 'ethnicity'.
Moore challenges the director of the TV programme Cops to produce a show that tackles white-collar criminals rather than reinforcing stereotypes about desperately poor people. He admits that he wouldn't know how to make such a show an attractive proposition for the networks. Moore's rebuttal--mocked-up credits for the Corporate Cops--is worth the entry price alone.
The film is energetic and acerbic, full of memorable twists of narrative. One highlight is a South Park style history of the US (in which a recurring motif is white Americans shooting people). The only significant weakness is a baffling idealising of Canadian society. Moore's gift is managing to move from commenting on tragedies such as Columbine to using humour to illustrate the absurdity of, for example, the hysteria that gripped US schools in the wake of the shooting. In this climate a child was expelled for playing cops and robbers with a paper gun, and another for waving a biscuit at a teacher.
When six year old Kayla Rolland was shot by a (black) boy in her first grade class there was a venomous reaction whipped up, including threats of lynching. Rather than throw his hands up at an inexplicable horror, the best that many liberal commentators can offer against a conservative witch-hunt, Moore traces a story of grinding, destructive poverty. The boy's single parent mother, coerced by a welfare-to-work scheme to travel 80 miles by bus to do two jobs for a pittance, was still unable to pay her rent. Forced to leave her son with his uncle in a crack house, it was there that he found the pistol. The leading corporate proponents of welfare-to-work? Step forward, Lockheed Martin.
Which brings us to US foreign policy. The day of the Columbine shooting was also notable for being the heaviest day of bombardment of the former Yugoslavia. Clinton came on screen to proclaim his regret at the deaths of the former but not, of course, of the latter. In homage to such breathtaking double standards, Moore provides a montage of 50 years of US imperialism. Grim images of militarism and death are accompanied by Louis Armstrong's breezy 'What a Wonderful World'. We need more film-makers like Michael Moore.
Dir: Roger Michell
|Banek(Ben Afleck) makes a meal out of his legal case|
In synopsis Changing Lanes could sound crude and sentimental. It's about two New York men living very separate lives which literally collide on the FDR driveway. Gavin Banek (Ben Affleck) is the Young Turk of Stephen Delano's up-market law firm. Handsome, lean, married to the boss's daughter, he has it all. Doyle Gipson (Samuel L Jackson) is a recovering alcoholic, holding down a job tele-selling insurance and desperate to fix a mortgage for his estranged wife and two sons to forestall her move out of his life to Oregon.
They are simultaneously en route to the same courthouse when the accident happens. Banek expects to routinely defeat a family challenge to the disbursal of a client's estate. Gipson hopes to contest his wife's file for divorce.
When Banek flees the scene of the accident, ignorantly refusing Gipson's attempts to exchange insurance particulars, he leaves behind a vital file which loses him the expected walkover in court. Banek is given the rest of the day to retrieve this file by the judge. Gipson's lost time, meanwhile, leaves him too late to convince the divorce judge that he is mending his ways. This sets up the consequent cat and mouse day of the two embittered protagonists, towards a feel-good ending which I will not spoil.
What makes this tale so absorbing is its careful depiction and plotting of class tensions. Both lead actors produce superb portrayals of separate struggles to do the right thing--morally, sexually, professionally. Gipson's humble determination to regain his family by renouncing alcohol turns into seething anger when thwarted by bureaucracy and ill feeling. Banek's shame at having effectively conspired to defraud the wealthy client's estate is only aroused when his boss switches from promising to give him his yacht to heartlessly threatening him with the sack.
The camerawork and editing are crisp, detailed and vivid. New York looks dirty, potholed, smoky, crowded, smelly and overcast--far from the postcard imagery. South African director Roger Michell, who made the very differently toned Notting Hill, has followed many previous foreign visionaries in taking a look beyond the cliches at an America with faultlines.
The script manages to juggle believable characters, complex micropolitical issues and sufficient dramatic twists--including two quite spectacular attempted acts of retribution--to hold our attention throughout. One or two improbable coincidences of time and place along the way are forgivable.
Made before but released well after 11 September 2001, this is a throwback to Hollywood at its liberal best, whose highpoint was the early 1970s. Casting Sydney Pollack--director of They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, The Way We Were and Tootsie--as Delano seems a nod in that direction. George Orwell once claimed, 'At a time of universal deceit, to tell the truth is a revolutionary act.' So when every moment of audiovisual propaganda is spent telling us to fear the American nation, and feel sorry for New York, it is refreshing to find something closer to its everyday realities than the bulk of multiplex dross.
Dir: Ben Hopkins
Footprints is a documentary film about cluster bombs, concentrating on their effect in Afghanistan today and Laos in 1969. That year Laos, a small country bordering Vietnam, had an amazing 19 million cluster bombs dropped on it, more than those dropped on all countries during the Second World War. The characteristic of cluster bombing, besides directly killing people on a vast scale, is that up to 30 percent do not detonate, but settle underground and last for decades. The documentary shows victims in 2002 of the bombs dropped in 1969--a young boy without an eye, people without legs and other limbs--who describe the effect on their lives. It is also very good at showing how the bombs destroy the close link of peasants with their land, as the presence of millions of unexploded bombs makes access to the land nigh impossible.
Twenty five countries are now producing cluster bombs. The US military loves them, as they cleanse an area of people who cannot enter it because of the unexploded bombs.
This is the most depressing film I have seen in a long time, but growing anger at the scenes as one watches makes one want to do something about it. Discussion with the director, Ben Hopkins, and Richard Lloyd from Landmine Action after the showing brought out a lot of this feeling in the audience.
Truth is often stranger--or more horrific--than fiction, which is why, after years of docusoaps and other imitations of reality, documentaries are growing in popularity. The increasing number of good documentaries from the anti-capitalist and anti-globalisation movements are evidence of this.
The Other Cinema, near Piccadilly in London, is recognising the trend and, teaming up with documentary centre Doc House, is devoting a weekly session on Sundays from 4pm to 6pm to make good documentaries of all sorts accessible to the public. There is obviously an audience for them, as the theatre was completely full, a sizeable queue having waited some time to get in; probably many were turned away.
Footprints is a worthy member of an impressive list of documentary showings which deal with important social and political issues, among them Red Lantern directed by Zhang Yimou, about a fourth mistress to a clan chief in north China in the 1920s; Black Jack directed by Ken Loach; Nursery Riders directed by Jean-Pierre Sinapi about the right of disabled people to have sex and fall in love; Daughters of the Dust, directed by Julie Dash, a seminal work among black feminists; Lessons in Darkness directed by Werner Herzog, about the oilwell fires in Kuwait after the Gulf War.
The popularity of this project augurs well for what looks like becoming a feature of our cultural life.
Young Writers Programme
Royal Court Theatre, London
The Royal Court Theatre is currently running its biennial Young Writers Programme. Imprint features ten scripts chosen from the original 400 submitted by playwrights aged between 13 and 25 who need not have had any previous writing experience. The programme aims to 'open up theatre to the most exciting and diverse range of new voices', offering the chance to attend writer groups and summer schools in support. It is working closely with young homeless and disabled writers, and has previously had some success in producing established writers.
The programme allows, for example, 15 year old Richard Leighton's play Graffiti to be given professional direction and stage design. Graffiti is a short tension-charged play displaying the intimidation games prevalent in school bullying. Others include Emma Rosoman's play with the Sylvia Plath inspired title The One with the Oven, which deals with small town isolation and small-minded friends holding back an aspiring soul. The desperation caused by this entrapment is captured in the haunting cry of, 'I'm bored. Depressed now. Wanna go home. Stick me head in the oven.' Just a Bloke by 17 year old David Watson is a tale of an ex-artist who, having made the big move to London, is finding life a struggle. This is compounded after a visit from his brother and cousin expose the fault lines in complicated family relationships.
There is a thread of alienation and frustration running through many of the plays. Another Dull Day in Armour by Chloe Moss is no exception. This is the tale of Tracy, who is bored with her dull checkout job and the banal conversations that are started by her colleague. Consumed by the claustrophobia of seeing the same faces every day of her life, she longs for the bright lights of the big city and somebody she can be comfortable with. An unlikely friendship is formed with Tony, who is similarly estranged with a caring side absent in most local boys. The possibility of happiness seems real when Tony agrees to run away with her. But news travels fast in a small town and her big chance to make the break is in the balance as her past catches up with her.
Anthem for doomed youth
Imperial War Museum, London
'I am making this statement as a wilful defiance of military authority... I have seen and endured the suffering of the troops, and I can no longer be a party to prolong these sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust.' Siegfried Sassoon's rejection of the First World War is one of many moving tributes to soldier poets killed in that conflict in the Imperial War Museum's 'Anthem for Doomed Youth' exhibition. Running from 31 October to 27 April 2003, the installation contains poems and exhibits from 12 of the conflict's best poets, including Rupert Brooke, Robert Graves, Wilfred Owen and Sassoon. Entry costs £5 or £4 concessions.