Issue 275 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published June 2003 Copyright © Socialist Review

Arts

Review

   

Cultural currents

Cuba on my mind

Socialism without freedom is not worthy of the name writes Mike Gonzalez

Castro's old Soviet friends were not friends of the workers
Castro's old Soviet friends were not friends of the workers

My e-mail has been full to overflowing recently as the grandees of the international and Latin American intelligentsia lined up to defend Cuba. Some weeks ago, the Cuban government tried and summarily executed three hijackers who had seized a Cuban ferry. In the same period, 70 people were arrested and tried for opposition to the Cuban state and sentenced to jail terms of up to 20 years.

The astonishing thing is that people on the international left have rushed to justify the actions of the Cuban state. Many of them have a long record of opposing imperialism, of exposing and protesting at the US's 43-year siege of Cuba. In recent times these same voices have been raised against the abuse of power in Argentina, Chile or Uruguay and have been the first to demand fair trials, external inspection of prisons and police and the establishment of democracy.

Why then do these same people now accept without question an argument that under certain circumstances all of these rights and democratic instruments should be suspended?

The tone is always moralistic and outraged. The argument is always comparative. How can you compare a few excesses by a Cuban government under siege with the appalling crimes of US imperialism? How can you criticise Castro's regime when his enemies are all financed by the CIA and backed by the Pentagon? It is a crude and simple formula--the enemy of my enemy is my friend. It is also a dangerous and simplistic argument. More importantly it is an evasion of responsibility.

Years ago I debated the question at an early Marxism conference with a comrade from New Left Review. His central argument was that what determined whether or not a society was socialist was the public ownership of the economy. The government could be a military dictatorship, he suggested, so long as there was no private property and the government declared itself to be socialist! I replied that socialism was about freedom, about the emancipation of the working class from the tyranny of capital and the pursuit of profit. That liberation was worthless unless it was the act of workers themselves. Have we in Britain not yet understood how wide the gulf is between those who claim to act on behalf of the majority and the real interests of the working people?

For 43 years Cuba has been under siege from the US--that is undeniable. Equally, the Cuban Revolution of 1959 brought important educational and health advances to the Cuban population. Yet free healthcare and higher education were available throughout the old Communist states of Eastern Europe--yet no one today would claim that they were free societies where workers could control their own lives. They were dictatorships maintained in the name of socialism to the benefit of tiny bureaucratic minorities and at the expense of the overwhelming majority of people.

So it was with Cuba. We may argue about whether Cuba was an advocate of spreading revolution in the 1960s. After that, Cuba functioned as a loyal ally and instrument of a Soviet Union that repeatedly sacrificed the interests of the oppressed to its international interests. Within Cuba, dissidents were suppressed, gays were persecuted, and workers were allowed no independent voice.

Nobody for a moment imagines that the US's opposition to Cuba had anything to do with workers' power. Its continuing assault on Cuba is based on its pursuit of hegemony and control over Latin America. But for socialists, these were not the only options available. Our responsibility was not to adjust our vision of socialism to the short-term expediencies of the Cuban state. The questions we had to ask were much simpler. How can we create a real grassroots democracy? How can we build the confidence of workers to defend their interests independently of government diktat? What should we say when those who rule the society are not open to recall or criticism and grow rich while the bulk of people remain in poverty?

The answer is not different in Britain or the US from the reply we would give in Cuba. We must work to build the organisations of workers, carve a space for independent action, demand the accountability of those who claim to represent us and build real solidarity with those who, like ourselves, are fighting for the self emancipation of workers. Instead we are asked to choose the lesser of two evils. Is Cuba better than the United States; are smaller injustices better than big ones; is capital punishment wrong in the US yet right in the camp of its declared enemy? Dictatorship, oppression, state violence, summary justice and the denial of freedom can never be defended. We have ample lessons from the past of how such justifications become, in an instant, collusion with the worst of crimes.

We can and must denounce Bush and Blair's murderous assault on freedom in Iraq. We have an equal responsibility to expose it in Cuba. We can and must fight imperialism. But if we are to win the wider movement, we must be the unconditional, principled, consistent champions of freedom--not the cheerleaders for a lesser evil.


Film

BULLETS AND BALLET

Matrix Reloaded
Dir: Larry and Andy Wachowski


Caught in the line of fire
Caught in the line of fire

The Matrix films take place in two parallel worlds. In the real world, machines rule. Most humans are kept in tanks to be farmed by the machines to provide their fuel. The few that remain free live in the last surviving city, Zion, deep within the earth's crust. Our world is the world of the Matrix--a computer simulation designed to keep the bulk of humanity pacified while the machines feed. The Matrix trilogy chronicles the struggle against the machines, which takes place in both the real world and the illusory world of the Matrix.

Morpheus--part prophet, part guerrilla leader--moves between these two worlds and recruits forces for Zion by freeing people from the Matrix. He is driven by his belief in prophecy, which gives him an extraordinary self-confidence. Two of the humans he liberates, Trinity and Neo, are central to the plot. In the first film, Neo, a computer hacker, stumbles across the Matrix and, with help from Trinity and Morpheus, discovers that he has powers to fight against the deadly computer-generated agents within. For Morpheus this proves that Neo is the 'chosen one' who can win the fight against the machines.

Reloaded begins as thousands of robotic sentinels are sent to destroy Zion and the last remaining free humans. Morpheus, Trinity and Neo re-enter the Matrix, believing that this is the only terrain on which they can defeat the machines. Here they encounter a series of bizarre sentient programmes that try to help or destroy them.

The second in a trilogy of films (the final episode--Matrix Revolutions--comes out later this year), Reloaded is one of the most anticipated films in recent years. The Matrix broke new ground by combining computer-generated special effects and stylised kung-fu moves to create a new kind of action sequence. The technique, dubbed 'bullet time' by the directors, was taken up and copied in a number of other movies such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Equilibrium. But Matrix was also successful because it used the concept of the Matrix to deal with real themes, such as the superficiality of everyday life and the relationship between humans and technology. The central preoccupation in both the Matrix and Reloaded is the question of choice and free will. Sometimes this is dealt with rather heavy-handedly. Characters tend to represent different ideas and themes, rather than being well-rounded personalities, and there is a lot of cod philosophising. But there is an interesting and unresolved ambiguity running through the sequel. For Morpheus and his supporters, Neo is a messianic figure who will inevitably bring down the Matrix; this mysticism is constantly challenged and undercut as the plot develops.

Reloaded also builds on the 'bullet time' technique. The fight scenes and car chases merge real actors with computer-generated characters and backgrounds in a completely new way. It is certain to set new standards in the film industry. This is an extremely violent film, but the violence is so unreal and choreographed that it is more like a kind of deadly ballet. The sheer beauty of these sequences is the only thing that prevents them from becoming a completely dehumanising barrage of images and sounds.

These techniques create new possibilities, extending the palette for future directors. It would be interesting to see them used in other, less violent, contexts.

Although at times the acting and the script do not match up to the quality of the action sequences, Reloaded does attempt to create intelligent science fiction that uses an unreal world to deal with real questions.
Joseph Choonara


A REVOLUTION IN THE MAKING

To Kill a King
Dir: Mike Barker


Changing the course of history
Changing the course of history

This film is set against the background of the English Civil War after the parliamentary rebel armies have decisively defeated the Royalist forces of King Charles I at Naseby in 1645. A film covering the period to Charles I's public execution and beyond has many devolopmental options--a history of the 17th century, the causes of the Civil War, the nature of the social revolution of which it was an expression, the religious cloaks, the main dramatis personae of the action, and more. The director, Mike Barker, after consideration, has made a deliberate choice and cut out all except the last option, focusing on the friendship between the two civil war leaders, Lord General Thomas Fairfax, creator of the victorious New Model Army, and his second in command, Oliver Cromwell.

The class nature of the English Revolution was not nearly as clear-cut as the French 140 years later, and there were many compromisers who wanted the king to remain--reformed by being subject to parliament instead of the divine right of kings. Fairfax was one of these. Cromwell was not. And Cromwell's unfair conduct of Charles's trial and the advance signing of his death warrant strained relations between the two friends to breaking point. After the king's execution, with the army, in Fairfax's view, spreading violence and fear in the new republic, and Cromwell behaving more and more like a king without a crown, Fairfax decides he has to put a stop to his old friend's dictatorial practices, and arranges to have him assassinated while he is addressing a crowd. A discussion between the two just prior to this in which Cromwell expounds his vision of the republic moves Fairfax strongly, and at the last minute he saves Cromwell from the assassin's bullet. Admitting his betrayal, he is forced into political exile. The wounds are healed six years later, when Fairfax hears that Cromwell is ill and dying. He rushes to his side and in an emotional scene they make up.

The mixture of the deeply personal and highly political is very tense and dramatic. This is much enhanced by the introduction of Fairfax's wife Lady Anne as a central player in the drama, trying, true to her class, to keep Fairfax on the side of the king--unsuccessfully, though it helps to blunt his revolutionary zeal and widens the rift between the two friends. Here again, the mixture of the love element in the political plot heightens the dramatic impact and engrosses the viewer's attention.

If one accepts the film within the limits offered, it is a fine presentation, well acted, particularly by Rupert Everett as the king and Olivia Williams as Lady Anne, with very impressive locations, costumes and crowd scenes. A historical materialist would have wished for a clearer description of the combatant class forces, which would have explained the generic origins of Cromwell's attitudes and actions instead of their appearing to come just from his head.

The film does, however, acknowledge that what took place was a revolution, not a mere historical episode that did not fundamentally change the class nature of English society, as so many historians would have us believe. It does this specifically by a sentence coming up on the screen after the close of the action, saying that it took another 140 years before the epochal changes reoccurred, in the French Revolution. And no one disputes that that was a revolution.
Chanie Rosenberg


A SYMBOL OF THE NEW WORLD ORDER

Lilya 4-Ever
Dir: Lukas Moodysson


Looking for new horizons
Looking for new horizons

This dark, sobering film, the latest by acclaimed Swedish director Lukas Moodysson, is all at once a profoundly moving story, a protest against misogyny, a damning indictment of the new world order and a longing for something better. It is, in short, a tale for our times. Set in the bleak housing schemes of the former USSR, it charts the descent of an abandoned Russian teenager into prostitution, rape and finally suicide.

Lilya 4-Ever marks a departure from Moodysson's first two movies--Show Me Love and Together. The satirical--whimsical even--humour of his previous work has been replaced with an unblinking vision of human desperation and suffering.

It could have been completely different. Moodysson was inundated with offers from Hollywood after the international success of his last movie, Together. He courageously turned them all down in order to maintain his independence. Or as he put it recently, 'They don't care about art over there, just money.'

Lilya, played magnificently by Oksana Akinshina, lives in a crumbling Russian city (it remains unnamed because, I suppose, it could be any Russian city). Its decaying housing blocks stand as a testament to the failure of both Stalinism and the free market. The promise of prosperity and peace that heralded the end of the Cold War is a distant memory.

Lilya's life takes a turn for the worse when her mother deserts her for the chance of a better life in America. All alone she befriends a homeless boy, Volodya. It is perhaps the film's only moment of compassion. They sleep side by side. They sniff glue and race around an old Soviet base where their parents used to work. Eventually, however, poverty and hunger drive Lilya into the arms of wealthy men in the local clubs. As other critics have commented, this would be ample material for most other film-makers. Moodysson, however, adds a second act of terrible, almost unimaginable cruelty.

Lilya meets an attractive stranger called Andrei, who promises her a job in Sweden. Out of desperation she travels, on a false passport, across the Baltic. When she arrives she is imprisoned in a flat and forced into prostitution.

In a compelling but deeply distressing piece of cinema Moodysson shows us everything from Lilya's perspective. We see the men's faces as they loom over her, their faces contorted and perspiring. It is all the more powerful--and frankly difficult to watch--because it isn't particularly graphic. It is simply enough to witness her subjugation and the men's lustful hatred.

The film is undeniably pessimistic. But so much so that it brings to mind Trotsky's remark, when discussing the modernist writer Céline, that occasionally the very intensity of pessimism bears with it a dose of its alternative. Indeed Moodysson recently insisted in an interview that 'it's okay to view Lilya as a pessimistic film, as long as you face that pessimism and try to do something about it'.

To its credit the film appears to be linked to a campaign launched by Amnesty International to promote the rights of Russian women, and the Unicef project to end child exploitation.

Lilya 4-Ever's political punches are delivered deftly but devastatingly. The symbols of the new world order crop up throughout the film. The yellow arches of McDonald's haunt Lilya's every move--from Russia to Sweden. The well-heeled stranger, Andrei, buys her a Happy Meal on their first date. Her captor in Sweden 'treats' her to a Big Mac after she has been raped. Volodya, her one friend, wants to be Michael Jordan. This juxtaposition between western products and human desperation underlines the inequalities of the new world order.

At the beginning of the movie Lilya announces that she shares her birthday with Britney Spears. It's hard not to speculate that had she been born a rich white American her fate would have been quite different.
Tom Wall


WHEN ART AND POLITICS DON'T MIX

Max
Dir: Menno Meyers


John Cusak in 'Max'
John Cusak in Max

Max is set in Munich after the defeat of Germany in the First World War. One of the two main protagonists is Max Rothman (John Cusack), a Jewish artist who lost an arm in the war. Now he runs an art gallery and shows the new art that exploded in Germany as a result of the turmoil of defeat. He meets another veteran who, unlike him, is penniless. He too has an interest in art--and reactionary politics. It is struggling artist Adolf Hitler. The premise for the film is that Hitler chose politics over art because he couldn't get a break in the latter, declaring that 'politics is the new art'.

This period did see the emergence of many great painters like George Grotz and Max Beckman, whose work was inspired by their war experience painted onto the ruptured landscape that was post-war Germany. Much of their work is the backdrop to the film. It starts off well enough. Many of the soldiers who came back from the war returned to find their countries shattered by events. In Britain there was mass unemployment and in 1919 a massive strike wave. Things were far worse for the Germans. The effects of the Allied blockade meant that thousands were still starving to death. The whole country was in chaos and on the verge of revolution. Certain elements within the army formed the Freikorps in reaction to the Treaty of Versailles and the threat of a workers' uprising. They went from town to town crushing the rebellions and it is to these reactionaries that Hitler aligns himself.

The problem is that Max gets less convincing as it goes on. As the relationship between Max and Hitler develops the dynamic between them becomes unconvincing. Hitler comes across as a rude man of limited talent but possessing a deep streak of self-pity. Max's friendship with him comes from their shared experience in the trenches and his own guilt that he is from a very middle-class background and has returned home to comfort. His artistic interest in Hitler is really only sparked when he sees some of the Führer's drawings of what were to become Nazi icons--SS uniforms and swastikas mainly. Yet as Hitler rants about Jews Max, who is completely aware of what Hitler is saying, can carry on their friendship as if it was a matter of which football team you support. Max is very stylish and the acting is good, but the plot backs the film into an ever more ludicrous ending.
Nigel Davey


Theatre

BAND OF WARRING BROTHERS

Henry V
Dir: Nicholas Hytner
National Theatre, London


A contemporary setting for 'Henry V'
A contemporary setting for Henry V

No other Shakespeare play has been so shamelessly harnessed to the chariot of imperialist war than Henry V. In the 1944 film version Laurence Olivier turned it into a patriotic wartime epic by cutting out those bits of the text that didn't conform to this political objective. From the Falklands to the first Gulf War, and most recently in the war on Iraq, the propagandists and the ideologues have appropriated Henry's famous rallying cry in order to provide a noble justification for squalid adventures. Even the Sun got in on the act by making a direct comparison between Col Tim Collins' call to arms in Iraq with Henry's at Harfleur.

Hytner's brilliant production, however, takes a different tack. In business suits and modern battle fatigues the setting may be contemporary, but the interpretation stands any crass jingoism on its head. The adverts for the production explicitly describe a young leader taking his country to war with no moral or legal justification. Hytner himself has made his own anti-war stance clear. The beginning of the play has the two bishops presenting an implausible justification for the invasion of France to a willing king and his ministers. Henry is willing because an attack on France will divert attention from his problems at home, not least his dubious claim to the throne: 'Be it thy course to busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels'.

The war is pursued ruthlessly. Dissident cabinet ministers are executed. The French are portrayed as boastful and overconfident. The citizens of besieged Harfleur are threatened with dire consequences. Prisoners are shot. The rank and file of the army are browbeaten and cajoled into action. In a poignant rejection of his own carousing past Henry shoots his old drinking buddy Bardolph for looting. God is recruited to the project. The rhetoric of the play, designed to provide the ideological justification for the war, consequently rings hollow. The gap between the grand speeches and the sheer brutality of war becomes a chasm.

Hytner has made clear his determination to involve more black actors and his multi-ethnic cast give excellent performances, especially Adrian Lester as Henry. A stark and dramatic set makes good use of the theatre's wide open spaces, and powerful sound effects and the clever use of video footage all combine to make this a memorable production. The pace of the action is brisk enough to keep the audience engaged and Hytner clearly puts his own stamp on the play as any good director should.

One of the production's strengths is to undermine perceived notions about the timelessness and universality of Shakespeare. This is not the Shakespeare of the national heritage beloved of all politicians seeking ideological cement for their own concept of nationhood. Instead we have an Elizabethan product worked on for a contemporary audience.

The 'relevance' claimed for Shakespeare nearly always misses the point. The study of Shakespeare is often justified by reference to his universality. But this assertion flies in the face of the fact that his plays were shaped by the tensions of a specific historical period--the transition from feudalism to early capitalism--a period which saw the rise of the bourgeoisie, and splits in the aristocracy and attempts by successive kings and queens to reinvent themselves in order to cope with the changing circumstances. The old medieval concept of an absolute ruler imbued with divine authority was being challenged by the shifting economic reality and the monarchy was constantly being called on to justify itself.

Henry is such a monarch. Shakespeare has his king mixing incognito with his troops before Agincourt in order to gauge their opinion and finds them less than reverential towards him . He addresses them with the comradely 'we band of brothers' when he feels the need to persuade them to go into battle against superior enemy numbers. But when the casualties are reported the brothers become 'none else of name'. He is portrayed as acting in his own interests and not swept along by blind external forces. By exploring the complexity of his experience through the dilemmas and contradictions of his character and by use of language that illuminates these tensions, Shakespeare can engage a contemporary audience in his drama. This is why Hytner's production succeeds. His own interpretation does not force parallels or stretch analogy beyond credibility, but he does provide a staging of the play that challenges the audience to think.

Go and see Henry V if you can, especially since some of the tickets are being offered at a reduced rate.
Shaun Doherty


PEEPING TOMS AND JERRY

Jerry Springer: The Opera
Dir Stewart Lee
National Theatre, London


Double exposure at 'Jerry Springer: The Opera'
Double exposure at Jerry Springer: The Opera

Jerry Springer: The Opera is a highly original and exhilarating show that is both a satire on the successful US TV show and a serious modern opera. In the TV show, conflictual couples are invited by Springer to air their disputes in public and to submit to criticism or mediation by him and members of the studio audience. The results are orgies of brash self revelation in which the participants expose their innermost secrets to a gawping and at times mocking but invariably fascinated national audience.

We are treated to displays of public intimacy more appropriate to group therapy than prime-time TV. It seems that it wasn't too hard for unscrupulous business operators to sniff out the commercial mileage in extending the process of self revelation from ten people to ten million. The show highlights the fact that there is no place where capitalism's writ does not run--it commodifies even our deepest anxiety and pain.

The opera brilliantly exposes the show's expression of our addiction to celebrity, amply fulfilling Andy Warhol's prediction that everyone would be famous for 15 minutes. It matters not that today anything goes; it can be because one is a two-timing bisexual or that one harbours a secret desire to be put in diapers and spanked by one's fiancée. The singers, playing the studio audience, heartily voice songs such as 'Three-Nipple Cousin-Fucker', 'My Mom Used To Be My Dad', or 'Chick With a Dick'. They complement their excellent singing with highly expressive body movements.

Writers such as Erich Fromm and Christopher Lasch have argued that every age develops its own peculiar forms of pathology which articulate in exaggerated form its typical underlying character. The problem for individuals under late capitalism is not that of controlling their deepest strivings, as it was when Freud was writing. Today, the problem is the fear of a lack of inner substance, the anxiety that there may not be anything there to control. This creates a profound and terrifying sense of emptiness in the minds of the individuals who make up contemporary western society. It gives rise to a compensatory mechanism, a desperate attempt to boost the self by projecting a set of images that reflect an alternative, more powerful and meaningful reality. 'Self presentation', the projection of attractive or compelling appearances, thus becomes the core reality of one's self, giving rise to narcissism, or raw individualism. The opera brilliantly captures this crucial aspect of western capitalist culture.

In act two, Jerry Springer goes to hell, where he is confronted by his studio audience and where he has to arbitrate between God, dynamically sung by Benjamin Lake, particularly in the song 'It Aint Easy Being Me', and Satan, a seductively vital performance by David Bedella. Jerry himself is played by Michael Brandon in the only non-singing role. He effectively portrays Springer's peculiar mix of blandness and moralism. Richard Thomas's music is both powerful and affecting and Stewart Lee's production is well paced and convincing. Lee and Thomas wrote the book and lyrics. A memorable evening.
Sabby Sagall


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