Issue 278 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published October 2003 Copyright © Socialist Review




Cultural currents

Urban illusion

Leapfrogging kids beat David Blaine's vigil every time, writes Mike Gonzalez

The Free Runners running free
The Free Runners running free

David Blaine is no Harry Houdini after all!

Houdini was a publicity-wise escapologist and illusionist who made his name and a good deal of money in America. He was fond of immersing himself in a water tank while strapped into a straitjacket. But his most famous trick was to jump from the Detroit Bridge while strapped and handcuffed and bob up a minute or two later untied and uncuffed. With time and a bit of help from the media, the story was retold and embellished--in the film of his life starring Tony Curtis, he'd jumped through a hole in the ice in the freezing river and got lost, until the voice of his dead mother guided him to safety.

The origin of many of these tricks is religious. The Hindu fakir would sit for days without food or water, or bury himself alive as a kind of spiritual observance, a separation of mind from body. There was Simon Stylites who reputedly sat on a pole for many years, or the orthodox religious of Mount Athos who bricked themselves for life into isolated mountain caves. They were always fed and nurtured by local people who saw in their abandonment of the material world a kind of higher, purer existence.

You could never accuse David Blaine of a higher purpose. Whether sitting on his pole in New York, buried at the centre of a block of ice, or hanging as he is now in a perspex cube in central London, his purposes are strictly commercial. In fact, it's hard to know what his purposes are, apart from becoming a sort of temporary decoration on the London skyline. If he were a fakir we'd assume that his stillness, his enforced immobility, concealed some invisible activity--thought, meditation, the active removal of soul from body. Without that, there's nothing there but a very dull show--a sort of endless 'being there'.

It seems that Londoners find the whole thing ridiculous, pelting him with eggs and fish and chip wrappers until the very burly minders on the ground shove the offending iconoclasts away. Now whoever heard of anyone chucking things at a Hindu holy man?

The funny thing is that Blaine's first appearances in Britain--his 'street magic' shows--were fantastically good. They were full of wit and energy, and they were always about the beautiful wonder on the face of some street kid or a woman hurrying to work with half a dozen bags or a bunch of teenage girls flirting with this strange being in black and not noticing the trick he was about to play. These were genuine moments of joy and excitement in the middle of the urban rush. As much as anything else, it was the way everything stopped, paused for a moment or two, to give a glimpse of a moment that was magical because it did seem to suggest another dimension--the inexplicable in the heartland of technological certainty.

Trouble is, young Blaine took himself too seriously by far. He began to see himself not as a charming trickster but as a being apart. In a word he got religion, and asked the urban population to admire and adore him. And nobody did. So he now has a clear option--martyrdom, as the one religious act that has an equivalent in a non-religious world, or to own up to being a conjuror and get back to the cards.

Everything that he now lacks in joy and imagination, on the other hand, is there in abundance in the beautiful pirouettes and breathtaking acrobatics of the Free Runners.

Last year the BBC produced a marvellous advert showing a lithe young man hurtling over the roofs of London, sliding down walls and shinning up drainpipes to get to his telly as quickly as possible. No ropes, no safety nets, no bodyguards--just the spring in his heels and the iron in his fingertips. I didn't know it then, but this was my first glimpse of the Free Runners.

It was breathtaking because of its speed and athleticism--and my fear of anything much higher than a ladder made it especially hypnotic. But it was also beautiful and creative. The recent documentary on Channel 4, Jump London, just confirmed and reinforced that sense of excitement. Choosing a dozen or so of London's monuments, these three young Frenchmen leapt and somersaulted their way over walls and balconies, roofs and skylights, over gaps and around chimneys.

They were just kids--dressed like the guys who skateboard up and down every slope and stairway in the world. It was obvious that they had come from the street (their biographies confirmed it) and that this dancing in the air began as an act of defiance, a way over locked gates and across forbidden passageways. Now, it was an art form (the commentary said) but it still conserved a sense of risk and challenge. Blaine's danger was contrived and artificial--like leaping over 29 oil barrels on a motorbike or standing on one leg on a pile of bricks for the longest time (you ask yourself, why?). But for the Free Runners, their running and jumping was a kind of possession, a way of taking over the city, where it had seemed most impregnable, up high, and for a few moments transforming it, shaping it, defying its rules and forms and suggesting something new and tantalising.

That really was magic!



The Illustrious Corpse
by Tariq Ali
Soho Theatre, London

The theme of Tariq Ali's new play is the degeneration of the Labour Party. Given that much of it is set in the present and talks about Iraq, it could hardly be more topical.

It begins 20-odd years ago, with a black Labour activist giving a speech outside the South African embassy condemning apartheid. It ends with him as Home Secretary, being murdered by his 'old Labour' wife, Desdemona, due to her 'betrayed hopes, lost illusions'. As is so common, Huntley Palmer Jones joined the Labour Party to bring about reforms for working class people, but the system ended up reforming him into a soulless careerist.

In many ways the play is almost biographical. Although Ali certainly hasn't sold out, he has observed many Labour leaders do just that. Peter Hain and Paul Boateng were strong anti-apartheid campaigners in the past, Robin Cook was in CND, Jack Straw and Charles Clarke were both activists in the NUS, and so on. This trajectory is not unique to Britain, as Ali told Socialist Review: 'A lot of it is universal. It applies all over Europe--politicians have moved to the right.'

The illustrious corpse-to-be
The illustrious corpse-to-be

What you see in this curious mixture of farce and tragedy is New Labour from the inside, almost in the bedroom. The activist becomes a junior minister, gets a knighthood, and then his NHS doctor wife explains how they drifted apart--'He moved on to Transport and helped push through the privatisation of the air traffic controllers. Even the Tories were opposed to that one. Another row. He defended the government's refusal to take back the railways from the gangs who prefer profit to passenger safety. Another row.'

Then came the mistresses and a 12-bedroomed house in Tuscany as a backhander for a ministerial contract to build concentration camps for asylum seekers. Then came Iraq, and she tells him, 'If you'd walked out when they invaded Iraq I would have forgiven you everything. But no.' So she 'appointed [her]self judge, jury and executioner. Just like the United States.' In a statement that many can have sympathy with, she wonders, 'Surprise is that I waited so long to execute him.'

But you also see a few things outside this incestuous little world through video clips--an old speech from Tony Benn condemning war and footage of the great anti-war demonstrations.

There are some nice touches as the plot weaves forwards and backwards over time. But having said that, the central plot line of a Labour activist selling out is a bit predictable, and the anger and confidence of the anti-war movement doesn't show through.

For a younger audience seeing how over time an ex-activist whips himself into neoliberal orthodoxy is educational, and even on that basis alone it deserves to travel. A tour hosted by the Stop the War Coalition would go down a storm. As Ali says, 'We have this new young generation that has been politicised by the war, and culture in general hasn't responded to this.' This is also because of cutbacks in grants since 'post-Thatcherite culture has stopped innovation and experimentation'.

One of the things which Ali is keen to talk about is that 'Thatcherite views on culture and New Labour ideas on culture are no different at all. The difference is that under Thatcherism there were some elements within the Conservative Party which tolerated that space--under New Labour there is no toleration at all. Everything is market dominated.'

The play is a searing indictment of the cadaver of New Labour, but Ali's view is that the rotting stench which you can smell today has always been there. 'When people say "We've been betrayed," I say: all that's been betrayed are your illusions. To be fair to Blair, he never pretended to be anything else than what he is.'

Despite all the stench and decomposition, he is not arguing that the nature of the beast is one of terminal decline, since 'you can hardly say that social democracy is dead with Labour about to win a third general election'. So in many ways Ali is whipping a live organism with his wit and comedy, a beast that has given itself a new mutated lease of life: 'Social democracy had a certain role to play when capitalism perceived a danger from communism, revolution, or whatever. Once that challenge, real or unreal, went, then capitalism felt it didn't need to make any concessions whatsoever. Social democracy was the conduit for making these concessions, so it decided to become better managers of capitalism, doing so without sentimentality.'

While the couple at the centre of the play obviously cared about each other for many years, the play generally steers away from easy sentimentality. Despite the intimate setting, Ali is at pains to show that Desdemona did not kill her husband out of jealousy over his affairs, despite all the pressure applied by the police and the prosecuting judge. She argues that you can't separate the personal from the political, as New Labour and dominant ideology urge us to do every day.

Desdemona wants to be put on trial for murder, and feels confident about the outcome: 'What if the jury acquits me? Justifiable homicide?' I think she'd be in with a chance.
Tom Behan


The People Next Door
by Henry Adams
Theatre Royal, London

When his local mosque was firebombed, Henry Adams responded by writing The People Next Door, a very funny play about the scapegoating of Muslims which has accompanied the post 9/11 'war on terror'. It also challenges prejudices around age, race and the unemployed.

The central character, Nigel, is a no-hoper recovering from mental illness and living on a council estate, getting by on disability benefits and spliffs, when Phil, a local policeman, violently enters his life with the news that his estranged brother Karim is a suspected terrorist. He insists that Nigel become an informer and since Nigel looks Asian he decides to threaten, bribe and beat him into agreeing to go undercover at the local mosque. At the same time, because they don't trust him the police stir up worries about Nigel among his neighbours, including one elderly woman, Mrs Mac, who is led to suspect that Nigel might be making bombs.

Adams draws our attention to the consequences of the 'war on terror' at home. In the words of PC Phil 'this is not the time to have brown skin'. Even Nigel's black friend Marco claims, 'Those Muslims are the new gangsters. Muslims are like the worst shit ever.' Nigel himself admits that he shares some of the policeman's prejudices, referring to the Muslims as 'the good little boys who go down the mosque every Sunday'--'they ain't cool Malcolm X'.

But when he goes to the mosque undercover Nigel finds absolutely nothing dangerous. Some of it bores him and he at one point suspects a 'bug-eyed man' of cracking on to him, but in general they show him an interest and respect which leads him to spend more time down there. 'Going to the mosque,' he explains, 'was the best thing that ever happened to me... People talk to you man, not just crap. They talk to you about life and stuff.' Nigel 'the loser' increasingly becomes more self aware and confident about standing up to PC Phil, refusing to plant a weapon in the mosque. In the process he also comes to a better understanding with his neighbours Marco and the elderly pensioner Mrs Mac, taking them into his home in their moment of need.

The message of the play is that the real threat to our safety comes neither from the local mosque nor your neighbours, but the police (and the authorities they represent) who become increasingly deranged and brutal in pursuance of results in the war on terrorism. As Nigel says astutely to PC Phil, 'It's 'cause you and people like you treat people like that that kids decide they want to put off bombs. You don't leave them any fucking choice.'

Finally it is the group of council estate neighbours--Nigel, Marco and Mrs Mac--who overcome superficial differences, and unite against the crooked cop. The slightly surreal but upbeat ending was certainly appreciated by the audience in the show I was at who applauded when PC Phil finally gets his just desserts.

This is a very funny play, but as Henry Adams has said, the most important thing about it is the message against prejudice.
Hannah Dee


by Kay Adshead
Soho Theatre, London

Doctoring results in 'Animal'
Doctoring results in Animal

'On the street side the wooden gate is covered in flowers, when they wilt people come and put others, they nail them to the planks... There's a tiny hand-knitted cardie with bloody cuffs, and a shoe with a bloody lace... At the very front, sat in a deckchair like she's on Brighton beach, is the mother of one of the kids trampled to death by the horses... It's very quiet but her lips are moving all the time.' The nurse Elmo sets the scene for Kay Adshead's new play Animal.

This is a dark, wildly surreal play. The production is highly stylised. The monochrome set is a single empty room, with a backdrop of CCTV images depicting fits of rage. But, though depicting a bizarre dream world, Animal confronts us with the truth of our reality.

The play takes place amid growing civil unrest, initially taking the form of peace protests against an unjustified war. The wooden gate Elmo refers to is the gate to a London park, much like Hyde Park. It replaced a steel gate which, along with police horses, crushed an anti-war protest, killing children who had walked out of school.

The play is set in the middle of this park, in a residential psychiatric hospital, where the Pharmaceutica Corporation is testing a new anger-management drug. It is centred around Pongo, who, after living on the streets for 30 years, is now one of their guinea pigs. As the horrific side effects of TR14 become clear, writer Kay Adshead confronts us with the all too familiar sight of scientific test results being distorted so as to maximise profit. Elmo, also a part-time comedian, jokes about the plethora of new 'mental illnesses' that are being 'discovered', and the boom in his employers' fortunes that this creates.

Adshead provides a devastating critique of drugs companies and police brutality. She also confronts sexism (in the form of the rabid womaniser Elmo) head on, which is refreshing in an age where we're told strip clubs are fine as long as they're 'postmodern and ironic'.

But the play poses far more fundamental questions about our times than these. 'In this millennium, will we choose to be animals or angels?' asks Adshead. Pongo's anger-management drug will turn him into an angel. But with everything that has happened to him, does he not have a right to be angry? Is stuffing him with chemicals not treating him like an animal? And what about the peace protesters who, it turns out, the drug will be used on once it has been tested--why should they be pacified?

The demonstrators get angrier, and their protests more generalised--now against the drugs trials and Elmo's sexism as well as the war. As Pongo's side effects become worse, Adshead hints at an optimistic answer to her question. The angelic, withdrawn Pongo still shows brief flashes of animal anger, and human humour. The animal-like protesters float towards the care home, approaching the final climax like angels. Humanity has an option beyond barbarism, and beyond pacifism in the face of barbarism. Maybe the protesters can defeat the drug company.

As Elmo joins the protesters, he is able to shed his sexist attitudes. This partially excuses something which, I felt, was one of the play's weaker features: up until the end, the protesters were all women, and referred to as such. Meanwhile, we are asked to see the cruel, careerist doctor as 'man-like', and the only time we are asked to sympathise with her is when her baby--her motherhood--is involved. As a man who protested against the war in Iraq, I felt a little alienated by this rather crude--and, more to the point, unnecessary--introduction of patriarchy theory.

Consistent with the aims of the production company, Red Room, Animal is a stunning piece of political theatre. The writing manages to be surreal but still highly relevant, funny yet poignant, both raw with anger and angelically considered. The acting is brilliant, and the production--like any vivid dream should--leaves you not knowing what's hit you. Animal is touring the country until mid-November, and I strongly recommend taking this opportunity to see it.
Dan Meyer


The War is Dead, Long Live the War
by Patrick Jones

Walking into the theatre at London's ICA, the first thing you could see was the stall covered with Stop the War Coalition leaflets for the demonstration on 27 September. Then, looking at the play's programme, there was a full-page advert for the demo, and a list of useful websites which included Before the play started, a speaker from the Stop the War Coalition gave a brief speech about the horrors of the occupation in Iraq, and called for people in the audience to come on the demo and bring their friends. All of these things made me pretty well disposed to like The War is Dead, Long Live the War before a word of it had been spoken.

Socialist poet and playwright Patrick Jones may be familiar to regular readers of Socialist Review, for the poems he has written for this magazine, and for his play Everything Must Go, which explored the lives of young people in the Welsh valleys, scarred by unemployment and hopelessness.

The War is Dead, Long Live the War opens in a darkened room. Two men meet. One of them, Black (Paul Amos), has been there a long time. The other, White (Chris Lennard), has just arrived. White is a soldier from the war on Iraq. He is confused and frightened, doesn't know where he is, and just wants to get home. Black seems more resigned, and we soon find out why--he has been there for 85 years, since his execution for desertion in the First World War.

At first White talks about the Iraq war as just--he sounds like he believes Blair and Bush's propaganda. Black, who has seen it all before, is much more cynical. We are supposed to sympathise with the articulate Black, who quotes the First World War poets, and dislike the incoherent White, with his macho posturing, his racism, and his belief in the superiority of the west.

But it all turns out to be a bit more complicated than that. Through White, we are reminded of the economic conscription that leaves young working class men feeling like they have no alternative but to join the army. And as the play progresses, we learn that behind the bravado, White harbours a terrible secret.

Jones's writing is as powerful as ever, using the writings of the First World War poets, as well as his own original poetry, to great effect to show that the horrors of that war continue to this day. Amos and Lennard are both brilliant in portraying the soldiers, and the production uses a very simple set to great effect.

If you get the opportunity when this play tours, go and see it.
Phil Whaite


by Eric Schlosser

In his first play the author of Fast Food Nation powerfully dissects the moment when the US chose the path of empire.

Arcola Theatre, London, tel 020 7503 1646
28 October to 22 November

by Michael Frayn

West Germany 1969: Willy Brandt begins his brief but remarkable career as the first left wing chancellor for nearly 40 years.

Always present but rarely noticed is Gunter Guillaume, Brandt's devoted personal assistant--and no less devoted in his other role, spying on Brandt for the Stasi.

National Theatre, London, tel 020 7452 3000
Until 30 December

The Price
by Arthur Miller

A 90 year old furniture dealer engages his clients in long-winded philosophical debates in this revival of Miller's classic play.

Apollo Theatre, London, 020 7494 5070



Ned Kelly
Dir: Gregor Jordan

Heath Ledger as folk hero Ned Kelly
eath Ledger as folk hero Ned Kelly

Australia at the tail-end of the 19th century was a hard and brutal place. The transportation of convicts had only ended in 1868. The 'freed men'--the failed prospectors, the poor--scratched a living of sorts on 'selections'.

The poor were allowed the free selection of Crown land. It seemed a way out of service or wage slavery, a chance to make a better life. The trouble was that this free selection never lived up to the promise. The best land had already gone, taken by rich squatters who not only had the choice land but--vitally in Australia--also controlled the water sources. They also had the money to make the best of their property. Not surprisingly, squatters and selectors came into conflict--the police, as always, zealously 'protected' the property of the rich. To be poor was to be at their mercy. You could go to jail on their word, and if you were Irish you were singled out for special treatment.

Transportation from Britain was not just for 'common criminals'--every protest movement, industrial upheaval and agrarian revolt was represented on the transport ships. But after the rebellion in 1798, Australia became the official Siberia for the Irish. As Robert Hughes puts it in his book The Fatal Shore:

'The Irish, on arriving in Australia, were treated as a special class. As bearers of Jacobin contagion, as ideologically and physically dangerous traitors, they were oppressed with special vigilance and unusually hard punishments.'

This is the background to the Ned Kelly story. In 1867 his widowed mother Ellen selected a small piece of land in the district of Greta, in north eastern Victoria, hoping to sustain herself and her large family of seven young children. But they soon came to the attention of the police. Ned was framed for horse theft, and after serving three years hard labour he and his family were subjected to a gross campaign of harassment by the corrupt Victorian police, which brought at least 19 charges against members of the Kelly family in five years. But in April 1878 Constable Fitzpatrick, a notoriously dishonest local copper, attempted to arrest Ned's brother Dan, and accused Ned of shooting at him. To avoid capture the brothers escaped into the bush and into legend.

Gregor Jordan's Ned Kelly is a glorious film, beautifully photographed against the Australian landscape, a brilliant weave of fact and fantasy. It brings out the plain humanity of the man, the harshness of his life, his determination to wring what pleasure he could from it, and his absolute refusal to be cowed by those lackeys of the rich, the police. It doesn't shy away from the ugliness of violence, but it distinguishes between the casual brutality of the police and the violence used by those fighting against an unjust and inequitable system, and leaves you with no doubt of whose side it is on.

Heath Ledger is tremendous as Kelly. This is no ordinary bushranger, but a man pushed too far, fighting not just for himself but his class. This is underlined by Kelly's Jerilderie letter--a political manifesto addressed to the governor of Victoria and a call to arms to the downtrodden selectors of Victoria--and by the refusal of anyone to inform on the gang despite the rewards and the imprisonment of family and friends (actually there is one informer, but only one).

The film moves inevitably towards the final showdown where Kelly attempts to meet the police on his own terms, a battle between good and evil. But when Kelly is finally captured even Superintendent Hare, brought over from South Africa especially to catch the Kelly Gang, is in no doubt he is in the presence of a better man than he. Ned Kelly was just 25 years old when they hanged him, but this film shows why, wherever people fight back against oppression, Kelly lives.
Kelly McDermott


Young Adam
Dir: David MacKenzie

Prudish moralism provides headaches for young Adam
Prudish moralism provides headaches for young Adam

Young Adam follows the adventures of an amoral young Scot through 1950s Glasgow. This grey, fog-ridden film shows Adam's gradual slide into a private hell. We initially meet him fishing the corpse of a young woman out of the Clyde with his boatmate, Les (Peter Mullan). The corpse wearing only a nightdress; naturally, the police soon construct a story around an alleged affair and brutal murder that scandalises Glasgow. As becomes clear, Adam (played with conviction by Ewan McGregor) knows far more about her death than he is prepared to let on.

Behind that simple plot lies a complex and morally involved story that Alexander Trocchi penned as an indictment of the hypocrisy of postwar Scotland. For all the puritan howls of outrage at the alleged immorality on display in the murder trial, Glasgow is a city obsessed with sex. Adam himself engages in a series of loveless sexual encounters, and the prurient crowds cram into the courtroom, to groan in titillated disgust.

It's hard not to see something of Trocchi in Adam--as a struggling would-be writer, Adam attempts to create 'something different', while Trocchi himself spent years in obscurity, though he was described by William Burroughs as a 'critical and pivotal figure' in literature and became involved with the political art movement the Situationist International in the 1960s. He became seriously addicted to heroin, taking to writing porn and eventually pimping his wife to pay for his habit. Doubtless Adam's attempts to live a life without a conventional--or perhaps any--morality contain something of Trocchi's own demons. Trocchi died of pneumonia in 1984, later to be honored by Irvine Welsh (among others) as a huge influence.

Critical to the dramatic tension of Young Adam is the impossibility of personal escape from social situations. Adam wishes to be a writer, then he decides to move to China, finally, he becomes a bargehand and--as much, it might seem, out of boredom as anything--starts an affair with Ella, Les's wife. There is a touch of black comedy about Adam's inevitable liaisons--Ella abandons him after he has sex with her supposedly bereaved sister--though this rapidly disappears as, in a series of flashbacks shot in bright, contrasting sunlight, Adam's relationship with Cathie (Emily Mortimer), the drowned woman, becomes clear. For all Adam's pretence at existential freedom, he is far more tied to convention and the consequences of his actions than any of the women he cynically 'makes love' to: in a minor but neat twist, Ella turns out to own the boat Adam assumed was Les's, and so rapidly ditches her husband--before chucking Adam himself.

The dull water, with rain dripping from overhanging branches above the canal, or the Clyde shrouded in mist, acts as a constant backdrop to the story--one often beautifully filmed. Adam's self-inflicted wounds and his attempts at escape revolve around the canals and the river. As should be clear, Young Adam does not make for cheerful viewing: the ending is shocking and the tone of moral ambiguity is maintained throughout--not least in the question of Adam's guilt or innocence, or even in the futility of either category. Nonetheless, it is highly recommended as an intensely dramatic portrayal of sham morality and its sickening consequences.
James Meadway


Dir: Vincenzo Natali

Morgan found marketing techniques becoming ever more invasive
Morgan found marketing techniques becoming ever more invasive

'I'm not meant to live in the suburbs!' cries Morgan Sullivan during one of several identity crises in the sci-fi tinged thriller Cypher. His exasperation at his continuing normality is the deadpan humorous base on which director Vincenzo Natali builds an engaging, hyper real story of industrial espionage.

Sullivan, a bespectacled everyman with a yearning for excitement, is employed by multinational Digicorp as a corporate spy. But his expectations of Bond-style escapades for his alter-ego Jack Thursby are initially dashed as he is asked to record a dismally dull conference on marketing cosmetics. His only consolation is a brief flirtation with a woman called Rita, who (surprise, surprise!) is not all she seems...

Mercifully, we are not asked to spend an hour and a half with a variation on Steve Coogan's self-deluding 'I'm a tiger, grr' character. The corporate conferences that Morgan is supposed to spy on are, in fact, brainwashing sites--Digicorp really have put something in the water. Rita reappears to break the programming. Then things begin to get complicated as a rival corporation employs him as a double agent.

Cypher is an intelligent and multilayered film. The title itself has several meanings, including 'a message in code', 'a key to such a code' and 'a nonentity'--all of which seem applicable to Morgan and his tribulations. It is also full of genre references. Morgan's initial interrogation takes place in Room 102; David Lynch's dizzy intensity is mimicked as is Dark City's debt to Kafka; and enlightenment is offered, Matrix-style, in the form of a red tablet.

Cypher is the film many fans hoped Matrix Reloaded would be. Natali understands--in a way the Wachowski brothers seem to have forgotten--that the fantastic is most exhilarating when it breaks through the mundane. It's Morgan's desire to escape his plodding, joyless life, his feeling of powerlessness in the face of two interchangeable corporations, which is recognisable in a way that Neo's life as a deity could never be.

A brilliantly directed film thus earns itself enough credit, despite its derivativeness, to mute irritation at such cliches as Morgan's hair and eyesight improving alongside his confidence. And while the final of many twists should come as little surprise--the previous reversals having inexorably taken us to only one credible conclusion--it doesn't detract from the pleasure of a relatively low-budget film that boasts big (if borrowed) ideas.
Andrew Stone


Dir: Oliver Stone

This film is one long interview between US film director Oliver Stone and Fidel Castro, with a few clips and music in between. However, before you start yawning, it is quite entertaining and it is a must-see for anybody who still thinks of Castro as some kind of revolutionary leader.

Stone has long held Floridian Cuban exiles responsible for distorting US politics to suit their right wing needs. By just going there, in these climes, he is proving himself a friend of Cuba and an enemy of all those righteous swine who run the White House. The portrait he presents is sympathetic but not sycophantic. And it is not just what Castro says but what the pictures tell us about him which are revealing.

El Comandante wears Nike trainers and has busts of Lincoln and Napoleon in his office. He travels around in a big black Merc (everyone else seems to drive cars from the 1950s). He tells us that Nixon, who he met in 1959, was a small-minded, vain politician. Castro's fine manicured hands and nicely pressed combat uniform tell us that Nixon is not the only vain politician here. The more he says, the harder it becomes to see what the US has against him. He sounds more like Ken Livingstone than Che Guevara.

Cuba came under the US hammer for the same reason Vietnam did. After the Second World War two great superpowers, the US and the USSR, divided much of the world between them. What was left was fought over, not directly but by proxy. Foreign policy at this time was to deny the other side as much territory, and thus resources, as possible. The Eisenhower administration chose not to embrace the new Cuban regime that had overthrown the corrupt dictator Batista--instead it would punish it. In the film Castro says he became 'communist' and aligned with the Russians only after vital sugar and oil were denied Cuba by the US.

Stone's questions are very good as well. He asks if revolution against the New World Order is possible. Castro replies, 'Let's say that change, rather than revolution, is possible.' This is contrasted to archive footage from the Cuban Revolution when an angry Fidel announces the nationalisation of the US-owned United Fruit Company to vast cheering crowds. He insists that all the people love him and is indeed mobbed as he goes about with Stone and the cameras. He talks about the regime's achievements in the face of 43 years of US trade sanctions--especially education, where now, he says, even the prostitutes have degrees.

Occasionally though you get flickers of ordinary Cuban life. Having never been there, everything seems run down, a sort of sunny Hackney. The revolution was a great thing but, like Castro who runs the place, it seems to have lost its way. When asked about the use of repression he says, 'You will not find a picture in the last 43 years of the police oppressing people.' The oppression of gays was due to a culture of 'machismo' and is gone now while religion is not an opiate of the people 'if religion is used to create values to do good or for consolation', then there is a clip of him hugging the Pope. It is obvious from what he says that he does not conceive of spreading any more revolutions, but instead now seeks to accommodate the very system he claimed to have overthrown all those years ago, when Che was alive and Vietnam hadn't even happened.
Nigel Davey

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