Issue 270 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published January 2003 Copyright © Socialist Review
The great and the good form a self-selecting club, says Mike Gonzalez, which ignores the rest of us
|Churchill at the 1954 Tory Party conference|
'Madness in great ones must not unwatch'd go' (Hamlet)
Recently, the air has been full of talk of greatness. Churchill, Brunel, Princess Diana, Darwin, Boy George were all candidates for the Great Britons award. It was predictable enough that Churchill ultimately won.
The tabloids and hundreds of identical magazines--OK, Hello, the Daily Mail, the Sun--alert us daily to the eating disorders and emotional dysfunctions of soap stars and footballers. We are asked to see in these fleeting shadows on the telly screens some quality that marks off a tiny minority of the human race. 'Fame! I'm going to live forever' the song said, as if the dewy eyes of Auntie Jane and the monstrous clicking vote calculator on the screen were the guarantee of specialness. There are Pop Idols, and Pop Idol rejects; there are 'celebrities' whose qualification might be a single body part, or a double barrelled name, or a public descent into madness. These are the people they ask us to believe are candidates for immortality!
But surely there's a difference between the famous, the transient celebrities, and the great? Well, I'm not sure that there is. Tariq Ali recently wrote a wonderful Guardian article on the Nobel peace prize. Perhaps the award could give us a catalogue of the genuinely great--after all, they are picked by a distinguished and neutral committee of experts. But when you look at the list, it is hard to imagine a definition that could embrace Hitler, Henry Kissinger, Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Rabin, Teddy Roosevelt and Mother Theresa--not to mention Jimmy Carter and Hamid Karzai (an unsuccessful candidate for 2002). Each of them could equally be eligible for permanent appearances at the international court of human rights, or arraignment at the Tribunal of Absolute Hypocrisy.
Churchill was a delusional megalomaniac thrown by accident into a position of power at the beginning of a war he really hadn't thought was necessary. His 'greatness' was a myth carefully fabricated to symbolise a sense of common purpose in a nation divided by a chasm of class distinction--Diana's role was much the same. The Begins, Kissingers, Carters and the rest were heroes of their class. They represented its power or its aspirations best. Individuals can have key roles to play--Stephenson built the first steam engine, Rutherford split the atom, Fleming discovered penicillin. But they didn't emerge from the ether like alien visitations, rather they absorbed and embodied a history of thinking and research--and in almost every case, they acted with and through others to achieve their particular breakthrough.
It may be that one individual at a given point imagined a possibility that did not yet exist--like Brunelleschi, the Florentine watchmaker, who worked out how to construct the largest cathedral dome ever built without columns or supports. But he drew on the wisdom of hundreds of others. Was the architect 'greater' than the mason, or the painter, or the cutter of wood? Pablo Neruda wrote a marvellous poem about the great Inca city of Machu Picchu, high in the Andes. He asked who had made this extraordinary place possible. His answer? John Stonecutter, John Barefoot, John--the anonymous labourer who left the mark of his chisel on the stone.
In any case, the capacity to dream, to imagine a different world, is not necessarily a skill available only to a tiny minority--unless, of course, society is divided into those who think and those who labour, as capitalist society is. The problem with the discussion of greatness is that it suggests that the superiority of some over others is a natural phenomenon, as inescapably built into our genes as red hair or aquiline noses. Many people have made contributions to human progress--some small, some enduring--but they are each part of a collective advancement, small or large steps towards a better, freer world. Churchill's contribution was what exactly--other than singlehandedly to maintain a corner of the cigar-making industry? To consign thousands to a futile death in the Dardanelles? The real problem is that he, like Bush and Blair, believed deeply in a concept of greatness that set him above the considerations that govern the lives of most people. And that belief came from ideas that saw greatness as the counterpoint to everyone else's lack of it.
In the end, ideas of greatness imply the ordinariness of the majority of people. We should beware the self appointed heroes of the age--sooner or later they will be demanding sacrifices of the rest of us. We should remember the old adage: 'They are only great because we are on our knees.'
If we must celebrate someone, let's create a monument to John Stonecutter and John Barefoot, and give Churchill, Kissinger and the rest the place they deserve--in the rogues' gallery of class warriors.
|9/11 films miss their target|
11.09.01 is a movie I expected to like. After all, it is an interesting idea. Eleven directors from around the world were given a budget of $400,000 and asked to make a short film (each a symbolic 11 minutes 9 seconds and one frame long) about 11 September.
It's also a film that our enemies actively hate. It has been mercilessly attacked in the right wing press of the world, usually for being 'anti-American propaganda'. The film has been effectively banned in the US. On the other hand Indian director Mira Nair has acclaimed the movie a 'rebirth of cinema's conscience'. If only.
Sadly there are problems in almost all aspects of the movie. The whole conceit of the 11 directors and symbolic time frame is clunky. Some of the segments seem squashed, especially Mira Nair's film, while others are little more than throwaway ideas (some of which would have been better thrown away). There are also problems with the perverse choices of directors. Given that this is a French project you have to question why a mediocre director like Claude Lelouch got the call to make his mawkish little love story. Were Tavernier or Guediguian (or even Godard) on holiday? Or are they just too politically fiery for a project that hedges far too many of its bets?
That failure of nerve is most obvious in the 'Israel' part of the film. By any standards this is bereft of any artistic imagination (think GNVQ student with a camcorder). Moreover, it has absolutely nothing whatsoever to say about 11 September beyond a mendacious special pleading for the Zionist military machine. Why is this visual pollution in the movie? The answer seems all too obvious to me. It is there to 'balance' out the pro-Arab 'Egypt' segment.
The fact is that anyone trying to make a movie about 11 September has to confront two unavoidable challenges--one artistic, the other political.
Firstly there is the problem of artistic expression. On the fatal day the images from New York were simply overwhelming, but every thinking person in the world is by now surely turned off by the cult of 11 September. So the first critical question is: do these films find the visual daring to show or tell anything that is fresh, or even just different, about the most media-hyped event in history?
The answer is sadly more no than yes. Some of the movies have real vivacity (like those from India, Iran and Burkina Faso) but too many of the others ('Egypt', 'Bosnia' and 'France' especially) are frankly artless, even banal. The exceptions are the pieces by Sean Penn and by the veteran Japanese director Imamura, both of which are self consciously 'arty'. Personally I liked these, but I can understand why others found them pretentious.
The bigger challenge facing a film like this is political. Bush and his junta have hijacked 11 September and emptied it of its personal tragedy. 9/11 has been turned into a quasi-religious myth, which they use to bludgeon dissent to their holy war. It is simply not enough to mourn the dead, because the dead have been posthumously enlisted in Bush's crusade for oil. So the second critical question is: do these films break out of that sanctimonious orthodoxy to set 11 September in a more critical political understanding?
Again the answer is mixed. Some are critical of Bush's imperialism, especially 'Egypt'. The sections from Burkina Faso and Iran wryly remind us that 11 September had a very different meaning at the edges of the global economy. But overall the mood is more sorrow than anger.
There is, however, one quite brilliant exception to all of the above. Ken Loach's 11 minutes won the Critics' Prize for Best Short Film at the Venice Film Festival and never was an award more richly deserved. Loach and his usual collaborators pull off the synthesis of artistry and political acumen that the other directors fumble. Artistically the film is a master class, while politically it has a clarity and a rage which the others simply do not approach. Loach reminds the world of a different 9/11--11 September 1973, when CIA-sponsored terrorists overthrew the elected Allende government of Chile, killing several times as many people as died in the Twin Towers. It is a simple but devastating piece of bravura film-making that cuts directly through all the sanctimonious 9/11 moral blackmail.
Unfortunately, Loach's 11 minutes aside, too many of these short films miss their target. I tried very hard to like this movie more, but I just didn't. I would file it as an interesting and honourable failure, but a failure nonetheless.
Dir: Roman Polanski
|The Warsaw Ghetto, subject of Polanski's The Pianist|
When the Nazis invaded Warsaw in September 1939, 360,000 of the city's 1 million inhabitants were Jewish. By the time the Nazis retreated in January 1945 there were only 20 Jews left alive. The Pianist is the story of Wladyslaw Szpilman, one of those survivors.
Roman Polanski's understated film documents the growing horror of the occupation with the detached style of its source account, Szpilman's Death of a City. We see the confiscation of Jewish property and funds segue into starvation level rations. Separation, in the form of banning access to public transport, parks, benches and pavements leads to absolute segregation, as the Nazis wall up a whole section of the city and designate it the 'Jewish District'. This vast yet horribly overcrowded prison was rife with starvation and epidemics. Its boundaries were continually reduced until in July 1942, 300,000 people were deported to the Treblinka extermination camp.
The Pianist is a compelling personal tale which must have been immensely difficult for Polanski to make. As he recounts, 'I survived the Krakow ghetto (another Polish city subjected to similar abuse) and the bombing of Warsaw and I wanted to recreate my memories from childhood. It was also important for me to remain as close to reality as possible, and not make a film that was typically Hollywood.' This he achieves admirably. There is none of the overblown melodrama typical of tinseltown. Visually and musically, the film retains a dignified composure. The latter restraint is particularly notable--given Szpilman's talent as a pianist, the temptation to regularly inject his music must have been great. But it is the absence of his craft, the silence which surrounds him in his loneliness, which is so powerful.
His isolation develops after escaping the deportation to Treblinka, and later being smuggled from the ghetto to a series of safe houses. He flees shortly before the ghetto uprising, an inspiring insurrection of the 40,000 remaining Jews (only 200 of whom had obtained arms), which lasted almost a month and cost the Nazis severe casualties. It is here that the personalised narrative of the film is a disappointment. Polanski's refusal to follow Szpilman's family to Treblinka is understandable, given his own grief and his determination to avoid sentimentality. But only to see this uprising at a distance, through the curtains of Szpilman's window, feels a terrible letdown. The cinematic canon is rightly replete with the horrors of the Holocaust--but this feels as if an opportunity to explore the hope, the defiance against oppression, has been missed.
The Pianist intelligently explores the little solidarities that existed in the midst of the desperate betrayals, the Jews who refused to police their people for petty privileges, the non-Jewish Poles who risked their lives to give sanctuary to people like Szpilman. Resistance is celebrated, albeit subtly, but tethered to the pianist's narrative we barely see the greatest collective act of resistance to the Nazis.
This reservation aside, the film demands viewing. Its greatest asset is Adrien Brody, who embodies rather than plays Szpilman, and will be familiar to many readers from Ken Loach's Bread and Roses. His CV displays the happy habit of choosing engaging films--among them Spike Lee's Summer of Sam and the undervalued Restaurant.
Two years before his death in July 2000, Wladyslaw Szpilman's account, which had been banned by the Stalinist authorities in 1946, was finally republished. In between he pursued a highly successful musical career as a pianist and composer. His first performance on Polish radio after the war was Chopin's Nocturne in D minor, the piece he had been playing when a Luftwaffe bomb interrupted him six years earlier.
Dir: Elia Suleiman
|Looking for change in Divine Intervention|
What do we learn of the real lives of Palestinian men, women and children from the press? Not much. Divine Intervention is a highly successful attempt to challenge this censorship by omission. Its form is reminiscent of 1980s Latin American magical realism. This is not accidental. In order for those voices to be heard, director Elia Suleiman has created an allegory, a pastiche of the sufferings of the Palestinian people which contains sublime moments of pathos, humour and love. Heavily influenced by the silent movie, there is little dialogue, but the deadpan delivery of what conversations do take place magnifies their significance and heightens their humour.
There is a sympathetic examination of the contrasting experiences of Palestinians living in the state of Israel compared to those in the Occupied Territories. The contradictions of their silent and tragic existence, dimly expressed through petty jealousies and trivial acts of revenge, is contrasted with the active resistance of the intifada by those living in Gaza and the West Bank.
We see life through the eyes of ES (also the director) a 40-something Palestinian man living in Jerusalem, and the two most significant people in his life--his dying father and his lover from Ramallah. His father, a fighter from 1948 and a continuing hardline political activist, is well respected in the local community but overwhelmed by a lifetime of struggle. The lovers are barred from crossing the checkpoint between the two cities so their intimate encounters take place on a patch of land overlooking the border crossing.
Symbolically, their freedom of movement and means of expression is restricted. Their relationship is yearningly portrayed in 'what if' and 'if only' imagery, simultaneously understated and totally over the top. We begin to question whether their relationship even exists at all. Like all life in Palestine, relationships are conditional, dependent on the whims of the occupying army and the demands of the Israeli state. The ennui of suburban living, the petty and not so petty challenges of dealing with neighbourhood disputes, are dealt with in bizarre, slapstick but incredibly touching ways.
Words are indeed weapons, but the visual imagery, the ambiguity and humour speak volumes here. The ways in which people attempt to take control of their lives in situations not of their own making are brilliantly conveyed. Visual witticisms portray the mood of the escalating conflict in the Middle East while the challenge of life under occupation is dealt with by revealing the day to day absurdities. From the outset the peace process is seen as a western 'gift' delivered by Santa Claus--unwanted, rejected and chased out of town by the youth, Palestine's future.
Yet the mood is not entirely dark and menacing. The security forces for the most part are portrayed as buffoons. The daily indignities they inflict on the Palestinians are revealed for the cowardly, stupid and bully boy tactics that they are. The music, as in silent movies, plays a significant role. The soundtrack, performed by a cross-section of Middle Eastern inspired artists including Natacha Atlas and Joi, provides a perfect backdrop. Atlas's interpretation of Screaming Jay Hawkins' 'I put a spell on you' in a 'stare out' between an orthodox Israeli and the main character is classic cinema and awfully funny.
Most of the characters in the film are men yet it is the female lover who symbolises the unfulfilled potential of the Palestinian people. The final sequence is a blinding example of this--the phoenix rising, the super-heroine conquering the baddies. But underlying the fantasy sequences and the humour is a terribly poetic sadness. This film is a classic--go and see it.
Metropolis: Special Edition
Dir: Fritz Lang
|Metropolis--a milestone of world cinema|
During the first half of the 20th century many of the great milestones in world cinema were repeatedly censored, re-edited and generally mutilated beyond recognition. In particular, the most highly politically charged films were most liable to be either banned or bowdlerised and Metropolis, the classic German Expressionist film of 1926, was no exception.
Ostensibly, Metropolis tells the story of a vast, luxurious and thriving city in the not so distant future. But there is a contradiction in this supposedly brave new world. While the children of the rulers of this city play games, dance and relax in the lavish clubs and gardens that sit atop the numerous skyscrapers, far below, in the depths of the city exist the workers. Here an army of dehumanised, enslaved, indistinguishable people toil endlessly on the giant machinery of Metropolis, keeping the city alive. Their lives are miserable and short and they enjoy few of the things they work to produce. The film deals with the inevitable conflict that arises between these classes.
A few years before Metropolis's original release the British Board of Film Censors decreed that no film should contain 'any reference to the relations between capital and labour'. Clearly a difficulty for this film! It is scarcely surprising then that what was actually a fairly straightforward narrative was described as 'incomprehensible' by the likes of HG Wells when Metropolis emerged in its officially sanctioned format. The film has appeared in various guises since, few of which bear any resemblance to Lang's original vision. This newly assembled special edition is therefore especially welcome, coming the closest to recreating the version shown at the German premiere.
Stylistically, Metropolis is an undoubted work of radicalism and genius. The use of fluid, mobile camerawork at a time when shooting conditions tended to be quite static; intricate montages in which the same piece of film was exposed repeatedly to different images; the skilful deployment of both real action and fake models within the same shot to create impossible scenes--all of this combines to tell the story in an imaginative, original and utterly engaging way.
Politically, however, Metropolis remains very problematic. For example, to most viewers the class divide described in the film would appear to be one based on the ownership (or lack!) of the city and its machinery. Instead Lang simplifies this social gulf as being an inescapable result of the division of labour in society. John Fredersen--the industrialist and governor of the city--and his cohorts are 'workers of the brain', while the oppressed and angry masses underground are 'workers of the hand'. Not only does such an analysis fail to explain why one of these groups of workers should enjoy such great privileges over the other, but it is anyway fundamentally false. Today's modern working class consists of a whole army of office clerks, administrators, call centre operators and other 'white collar' workers or 'workers of the brain'... yet their conditions are no better than traditional manual labourers and are often worse.
Lang created Metropolis at a time when many office workers did enjoy substantial privileges over other groups of workers. However, the film gives the impression of a director more interested in simply 'mirroring' what society superficially looked like, albeit through the distorting glass of Expressionism.
Ironically it is actually the great 'realist' films of Soviet cinema, such as October 1917 and Strike, which provide the really visionary cinematic ideas about society and how it could be changed. This contrast is especially evident in the final scenes of Metropolis when the workers smash up everything in sight and generally cause carnage, only to realise how foolish they have been, in what is clearly meant to be Lang's portrayal of a revolution. Indeed the film's only real suggestion of a way forward for society comes in the symbolic final shot, which features the revolting sight of the workers' foreman embracing hands with the industrialist. Most viewers will find this a pretty miserable thought, but it does at least make clear Lang's misguided belief that the differences between rulers and ruled may be unjust, but are not irreconcilable.
King Hedley II
by August Wilson
Tricycle Theatre, London
|Dancing to a different tune in King Hedley II|
King Hedley II is the eighth in August Wilson's projected cycle of ten plays exploring the black experience in each decade of the 20th century. Set in the Reaganite 1980s in Pittsburgh's Hill District, it is a time of urban devastation brought on by slash and burn economic policies. Job opportunities are scarce and violence is a part of everyday life. Like all of Wilson's plays, starting with Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, and including Fences and The Piano Lesson, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize, it is set in the background of an American society created by racism.
The play tells the story of the title character, an ex-convict who is at war with both his past and his present. The King is selling hot refrigerators along with his partner Mister, (named Mister so the white man will show him respect) scrambling to get enough money together to start their own business. King's wife, Tonya, the 35 year old mother of a teenager who is herself a mother, is struggling with the news that she is pregnant again. King is the son of Ruby, the high-spirited young woman of Wilson's Seven Guitars. Ruby's history of hooking up with unreliable men continues with Elmore, a smooth-talking conman from her past with the capacity to poison the future. King Hedley II is the darkest of Wilson's works, the most deserving of the Shakespearean echo of its title. Yet it is always amusing, with fully developed characters who demand to be heard. Truthful monologues allow characters to tell it like it is.
Wilson says 'That's the role of theatre, is to make sure the story is told. Write about the history, and the truth will be clear.' His own history informs his work. He dropped out of the 10th grade of Gladstone High School when a teacher accused him of plagiarising a 20-page paper on Napoleon. He got his own education at the library and on the street. Music, particularly jazz and blues, is a recurrent theme in Wilson's works, and is reflected in the lyrical dialogue. Wilson recalls 'my plays stem from impressions I formed on The Hill in the '50s and '60s...Those were times of great struggle and change for blacks. I was drawn to the Black Power movement in the 1960s.' He helped found a volunteer troupe in his native Pittsburgh that mounted the incendiary works of LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka). 'I tried to write myself, but I wasn't any good at dialogue,' he says--a surprising judgement for a playwright whose skills are so illuminating. Wilson gives words to trumpeters and trash men, cabbies and conjurers, boarders and landladies, all joined by a heritage of slavery and racist American society. Their patois is his poetry, their dreams are his dramas.
Throughout the play there is the influence of Aunt Nester, a 399 year old black woman who has finally died. She has appeared a lot in the previous plays of the cycle and in my opinion her years refer to the years since the black population arrived in America. Wilson intimates that something has died in the black community and this death represents that loss. Although I think this is deeply pessimistic Wilson still manages to give a brilliant explanation of violence in the mean streets. Violence comes from the very need to survive, the brutes come from brutish conditions, and low horizons and hopelessness garner them. As King says 'I know which way the wind blows and it don't blow my way'. The only job he is offered from school is that of janitor and even that is removed as recession bites.
The play lasts three hours and held the audience for every minute of the performance by gritty humour and machine gun rap lines. There are some great performances from Joseph Marcell as the intrusive scam-merchant, Rakie Ayola as King's pregnant, straightforwardly honest wife and Pat Bowie as his mother steeped in her memories of her earlier career as a songstress. Treat yourself--head down the Tricycle Theatre and if you have the chance see his other plays.