Issue 279 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published November 2003 Copyright © Socialist Review
Márquez's magical world offers hope for the real one, writes Mike Gonzalez
|Colombian trade union Sinaltrainal campaigns against Coca-Cola|
Gabriel García Márquez's memoirs, or at the least the first volume of them, will be published in early November. It's a strange piece of autobiography, because Márquez has already become a kind of legend. His status as a writer must be unique--he has become almost indistinguishable from the world he has created and the people in it. The Gabriel he writes about, and the Colombia in which he grows up, both seem very familiar and very immediate.
Of course, his novels are set in a single place--the community of Macondo--which is imaginary and metaphorical. It is isolated geographically, surrounded by inhospitable landscapes that trap its inhabitants where they are. At the beginning of Márquez's great novel One Hundred Years of Solitude, Colonel José Arcadio Buendía tried to lead an expedition out of the trap. But on one side is the ocean, on another a great swamp, on another a hostile mountain range. Only the jungle seems to offer an escape route, but after days and days of marching they find only a Spanish galleon in a tree--and the group turns back.
The terrible irony is that while the inhabitants seem unable to escape, external forces can come in at will. When the first train arrives, it's preceded by a woman screaming about this strange new creature about to enter the village. When technology makes its earliest appearance, it is in its most trivial form--ice or false teeth--as consumer goods. The industrial development, the accumulation of resources, the technological foundations happen somewhere else--only the products arrive.
I remember walking along a street in Lima a few years ago where the very poorest people in the city sat in the road with a blanket spread out in front of them selling plastic Donald Ducks and Mickey Mouse pencils. They had arrived in exactly the same way as false teeth came to Macondo.
So isolation was one aspect of Macondo. The other was violence. In his memoirs Márquez describes his early years as a writer and journalist in a country which lived through a 14-year period known only as La Violencia, 'the violence'. What began with the assassination in Bogotá of a popular presidential candidate, Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, and the three days of urban protest that followed, continued as local and regional armed conflict when all political life seemed to be suspended or abandoned--a situation Márquez describes in another novel, In Evil Hour.
The odd thing is that Colombians themselves have begun to use the word Macondo to describe their own world. The metaphorical place seems more real than the ungraspable reality of their own country.
Here was a place whose history, whose very origins, seemed to be shaped by external forces that arrived in their world, yet were outside their control. First it was the Spanish colonists, then European capitalists, later the US oil and fruit corporations. Today, Colombia lives with the unwanted gift of over 2 billion dollars worth of US 'aid' which is almost entirely directed towards the Colombian army and police. External forces and internal interests combine to continue the violence, with or without the capital letter. The state of emergency which suspends normal politics and legitimises all forms of military repression continues with no sign of an ending.
In this frightening reality, trivial things become full of significance. Disney films and comics issuing out of Bush's America take on a sinister undertone as weapons of ideological war. Thirty years ago, as the military coup in Chile was being prepared, the US and its friends and allies in the armed forces always chose the names of Disney characters to describe their military plans--Donald Duck, Pluto, Mandrake. Today, brand names like Nike or Gap carry sinister undertones.
Coca-Cola is perhaps the most chilling of all. Today in Colombia, in Macondo, the workers of the bottling plants are fighting for their lives. Their dispute with the company, like everything else in Colombia, has been militarised; trade union activity is subversion, and therefore subject to direct repression. Thousands of trade unionists have been killed in the last decade under the umbrella of a war against terrorism (previously known as the war on drugs).
The metaphor of Macondo becomes terribly real. You know that somewhere there is a reason for things--real forces, real interests using their power to destroy and terrorise in their own interests. But it is impossible to know who is responsible or how to stop them. That is the reality. On the other hand, in Macondo, in the world of the imagination, of popular memory, the oppressed and exploited have their own extraordinary powers--and their own story, where the world is turned upside down (or possibly right side up).
Small wonder that Colombians, and even Márquez himself, would prefer Macondo to a Colombia where Coca-Cola rules.
Kill Bill: Vol 1
Dir: Quentin Tarantino
|"No peace for the wicked in Kill Bill|
Quentin Tarantino has established himself as one of the world's leading film-makers, largely through the original and imaginative reworking of the cinematic genres which have most heavily influenced him. Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction reinvented the American mafia movie. Jackie Brown was a new take on the Blaxploitation pictures of the 1960s and 1970s.
His fourth film, Kill Bill: Vol 1, is also an homage to other movies. It is, however, a very different film from his past work and, in my view, Tarantino's first real mistake since the dreadful From Dusk Till Dawn.
In contrast to his previous films, Kill Bill has no real aesthetic coherence. In the past his films have combined a hyper-real, cartoonish element with ironic, satirical dialogue, and an intelligent use of cinematic techniques like flashbacks and flashforwards.
Here, however, the clever and humorous dialogue has gone, replaced by martial arts action. This has led Kill Bill to be related to films such as the overrated Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Akira Kurosawa's 1954 classic Seven Samurai. However, the deliberately risible nature of the violence, especially in the closing scenes of the film, makes it more of a postmodern pastiche of a Bruce Lee bloodbath.
Beginning in modern-day California, the film finds a character we know only as 'Black Mamba' (Uma Thurman) arriving at the home of another young woman, known as 'Copperhead', to seek revenge for a crime as yet unknown. The women's pseudonyms are taken from poisonous snakes. They are all members or, in the case of Thurman's character, ex-members of an all-female fighting group called the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad.
With the shadowy, self defined sadomasochist Bill controlling the actions of the group, it all looks drearily like a criminal version of Charlie's Angels. Consequently, although the film benefits from having a woman seeking her own revenge, it also has the sense of a 'women and weapons' male fantasy.
It transpires that Thurman's character was the subject of a mass murder during the rehearsal for a Texas wedding in which she was the bride. Thus Tarantino takes us back to the historic link between samurai films and spaghetti westerns (John Sturges's film The Magnificent Seven was, famously, a remake of Seven Samurai).
However, unlike with westerns, there are very few attempts to engage us emotionally on the side of the hero or, in this case, heroine. Although the nature of the crime committed against her generates sympathy, and while we enjoy her initial act of revenge against a loathsome, degenerate hospital orderly, the detached, comic book aspect of the film quickly deflates any sense of involvement.
As with previous films, Tarantino does play with chronology here, but to no great artistic effect on this occasion (save for the relief of its explanation of how the heroine came to be driving a car with the words 'pussy wagon' emblazoned across it). The film often looks like a colourful fashion advert. Indeed, the heroine's preference for a certain brand of training shoe is the most obvious piece of product placement I've seen in the cinema in a long while. That said, it is beautifully filmed, and the Japanese garden near the end is sumptuous.
Without question, Kill Bill: Vol 1 is a superior action flick. The fact that, post-9/11, Tarantino has passengers travelling in planes with samurai swords at their sides proves he retains something of his sense of irony. However, this film exhibits too little of his previous skill to generate any real anticipation for next year's sequel.
Time of the Wolf
Dir: Michael Haneke
|Eva reaches out in Time of the Wolf|
'This is a film made for wealthy countries. I wanted to see what would happen if tomorrow we had the same situation here that always exists in the Third World. Since 11 September it's easier for people to imagine catastrophes happening here. That's the "news" element.'
So said director Michael Haneke, who also made 2001's The Piano Teacher, of his latest film. Time of the Wolf begins after some unexplained disaster in an unnamed European country. The opening scenes are promising: a nice middle class family drive to their holiday home in the country, the car packed with supplies for a long stay. When they walk in, a man emerges from a dark corner with a rifle pointed at them. As the husband tries to calm the situation by offering him supplies (he also has a wife and child), the man suddenly shoots him, leaving Anne (Isabelle Huppert) and her teenage daughter and ten year old son to fend for themselves with only the clothes they are wearing and a bike.
They wander off into the grey, misty landscape in search of food and shelter. We never discover what catastrophe has blighted the country, or exactly how blighted it is. The family walk past a pile of burning cattle, reminiscent of the foot and mouth epidemic, and the water is 'contaminated'. The fields appear to be full of corn, yet no one is tending them. There seems to be life in the cities, but no lines of communication to the countryside. Haneke simply wants us to go with the family and see their ways of coping with the situation--gripping onto their 'civilisation' as it lies in tatters around them.
Most of the film takes place in the dark, in dusty barns, or at best in misty morning half-light. There are no special effects or action scenes--the husband's killing takes place off screen, though we do witness a rather graphic slaughtering of a horse later on. Neither is there a huge amount of dialogue. All we have to guide us are the brilliant performances of, especially, the mother and two children and, later, a collection of characters holed up in a railway barn waiting for the never-never train.
This becomes familiar terrain in post-apocalyptic films--the group of survivors trying to recreate a society in the absence of everyday norms, creating rules by which they must all live, following a self-appointed leader, bartering for food or clothing. Koslowski (the leader) gets extra food and water from his contacts in exchange for sexual favours from the women. When a goat goes missing, a French speaker blames the Pole (though at least, in this case, others step in and stop him). People are trying to retain their humanity, and in small acts sometimes do, but are divided and suspicious of each other. The teenage daughter, who clashes with her mum and befriends a loner, and the ten year old son, who hasn't spoken since his bird died early on, are both on their own personal journeys.
The longer they wait, the less real the train that is apparently on its way seems to be. Myths and legends about saviours begin to circulate. But maybe there is hope yet: an act of self sacrifice seems to bring an escape route--or are they just clutching at spiritualistic straws?
'People are used to seeing things that are totally rounded off, consumable--films that say everything and are immediately forgotten. I want to destabilise the viewer, and teaching a lesson is the last thing I want to do. If someone doesn't get me, they don't get me. That's not my problem.'
There is certainly something to be said for that statement. But if I wanted to observe characters I know nothing about, in a situation of which I have no background knowledge, I could jump on a plane to Timbuktu and sit in the town centre not speaking to anyone.
Noi the Albino
Dir: Dagur Karl
Set in the remote fjord regions of northern Iceland, Noi the Albino is a quirky, poignant tale that blends comedy and an impending sense of tragedy. It tells the story of Noi (Tomas Lemarquis), an intelligent 17 year old who is frustrated and bored with life in his hometown, which is cut off from the outside world by a white wall of mountains and impenetrable snow. The town, with no more than 100 residents, is far from affluent, with few opportunities for work and even fewer options for entertainment. Noi finds life dull and stifling--he lives with his eccentric grandmother, who gets Noi out of bed in the morning by firing a shotgun, and he has a rocky relationship with his drunken Elvis-loving father, who is trying, quite unsuccessfully, to reconnect with him. His one friend is a rather grouchy shop-owner, Oskar, who is constantly trying to keep Noi away from his daughter.
Though very bright, Noi cannot be bothered to attend classes or do his homework and is constantly getting into trouble, and hiding in a cellar beneath his house. He is eventually expelled from school after he sends a tape recorder instead of going himself.
Noi starts to take an interest in life when he meets Iris (Elin Hansdottir), the new girl in town, who works in a local cafe. He begins to think about life beyond the boundary of the town, and makes plans to escape. He and Iris embark on a series of adventures, leading to him meeting a fortuneteller who makes a rather foreboding pronouncement.
The setting for Noi the Albino is spectacular and Kari creatively contrasts wacky 1970s design with the bleak winter landscape. The remoteness of the location seems to symbolise the predicament and isolation of Iceland itself. At one point while Iris and Noi are wandering around a museum, they come to a map of the world with buttons that light up. They wonder why no bulb lights up for Iceland.
The gentle pace of the story gives you plenty of time to savour the characters and their understated eccentricities--you develop a deep empathy towards Noi. After the gentle humorous tone that characterises most of the film, the tragic and rather ironic conclusion comes as quite a shock.
Kari brings out the poverty of the town--local infrastructure is badly developed and there are few jobs. Noi's own background is clearly troubled and lonely--his mother is absent from the scene (though we are never told what happened to her) and his depressed alcoholic father cannot find work and often takes his frustration out on his son. Though very fond of his grandmother, Noi doesn't have a particularly close relationship with her either.
Noi the Albino is a beautiful movie, sensitively made and well acted. It is worth watching just to get a glimpse of life in Iceland, a part of the world that we rarely get to see. It is unsurprising that it has won numerous awards including the Nordic Film Prize and the Film Fox Award.
If I have one criticism it is that Noi the Albino sends out a very bleak message: it is about a boy who tries to reach beyond isolation and poverty and fails, through no fault of his own but due to circumstances beyond his control. The relationship between the fortune-teller's prediction and the ending seems to indicate Kari's belief that no matter what we do, fate is in control.
Tales from the Vienna Woods
by Odon Von Horvath
National Theatre, London
|Life's no picnic as the Nazis rise in Vienna|
Odon Von Horvath (1901-1938), the son of a Hungarian diplomat, wrote plays depicting a society haunted by crisis and the shadow of fascism. He spent some of his most creative years in pre-Nazi Berlin, the Berlin of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, where he wrote Tales from the Vienna Woods in 193l. The play is a poignant evocation of pre-Nazi Vienna, the city that had once been the hub of the great Austro-Hungarian Empire. But its dissolution at the end of the First World War resulted in its being shorn of much of its former territory: the great corn plains were lost to Hungary, the main industrial belt to Czechoslovakia. Austria, reduced to a rump, was subsequently hit hard by the Great Depression that followed the crash of 1929. As the economic storms raged, the petty bourgeoisie in Austria, as in Germany, were out in the cold, enjoying neither the wealth of the possessing classes nor the protection and solidarity of the trade unions.
Horvath portrays with sympathy and understanding a range of petty bourgeois characters: Alfred, the gambling ne'er-do-well, Oskar the butcher, Valerie the tobacconist, Herr Spellbinder, owner of a magic toy shop, Marianne, his daughter and shop assistant, and a retired army officer addressed as captain. They struggle to cling on to some semblance of normality, grasping at whatever short-term pleasures remain open to them as the winds of depression sweep away all certainty and the dark clouds of fascism gather on the horizon. So we see them picnicking in the Vienna woods, bathing, cycling and taking group photos. The lilting waltzes of Johann Strauss, including the play's title, are its musical backdrop, an ironic nostalgia that emphasises the characters' doomed attempts to hang on to the past, highlighting the contrast between the growing insecurity of the present and Vienna's former imperial glory.
The drama at the heart of the play sees Marianne breaking off her engagement to the dull-witted Oskar to go off with the dashing Alfred. Her courage in going against the prevailing petty bourgeois moral code is rewarded with tragedy. There is a powerful scene in which the Catholic church is revealed as unbending and cold hearted. But the play's darkest moment is during the picnic when Erich, a young Nazi, gives a Nazi salute and marches off, inducing the picnickers to follow his goosesteps. As he passes Marianne, Erich wishes her 'many upright German childen'. Horvath reveals his compassion in the way he depicts the interaction between the individual characters and the crisis of society: even in the case of the most blatant acts of selfishness, he invites us to view them in the light of a ruthless, decaying society rather than simply condemn them out of hand. The play's most dramatic and affecting moment is towards the end between the loving and honourable Marianne and her selfish, hypocritical father who takes her to task for her 'loose morality'.
This highly imaginative production is directed by Richard Jones and rounds off the National Theatre's Travelex £10 season. There are fine, strong performances from Nicola Walker as Marianne, Joe Duttine as Alfred, Frances Barber as Valerie, Karl Johnson as Herr Spellbinder and Darrell D'Silva as Oskar.
Sergeant Musgrave's Dance
by John Arden
There has recently been an explosion of new and revived productions of anti-war plays. One of the most exciting is John Arden's play Sergeant Musgrave's Dance, which was first performed in 1959 and was inspired by the killing of five people by British soldiers waging a colonial war in Cyprus.
It was initially slammed by critics, but the play really took off during the Vietnam War. As John Arden recently explained, 'It became relevant during the Vietnam War. I saw a highly effective American production in 1967 that surrounded the stage with blown-up photos of the fighting in Vietnam. It became relevant again in 1972 when 13 people were killed in Derry by British soldiers. And what's going on in Iraq makes it even more relevant. Iraq may not be an old-fashioned colonial war, but it's turning into one. We've got an army of occupation.'
Arden's play is about the horror of war and the resistance such horror breeds. In a state of shock at their part in a terrible colonial massacre, a group of soldiers have deserted. They plan to literally bring the war home. They arrive at a small mining town sealed by heavy snow. As Sergeant Musgrave says, 'We have come to this town to work this guilt back to its root.' However, the town itself is in its own state of war--between the miners and the mine owners. The perceptive sergeant claims that this war and the colonial war from which he has deserted share the same roots. Both the local leaders and the miners see the soldiers as potential strikebreakers. The mayor, pastor and constable try to get the soldiers to recruit the 'agitators' so as to defuse the dangers of the strike while the strike leader Walsh warns Musgrave, 'These streets is our streets.'
Against this backdrop we see the full impact of war beyond the battlefield unfold. There are the miners themselves who seek to escape the misery and death of the coalfield by joining the army. There are those left behind like Annie, a local girl grieving the death of her lover and baby, who bitterly offers herself to soldiers 'because we know soon they will be dead'; and the three soldiers themselves shocked and struggling to deal with their experiences of war. Hurst is 'wild wood mad and raging' and wants to inflict this rage on the people of the town, while Sparky just wants to bear witness to the murder of his friend and is the one most willing to seek out some separate private escape. Aftercliffe is a pacifist who has spent his life 'killing for the queen' and is determined at all costs to see an end to killing. Their different oppositions are for much of the action subordinated to the lead of 'Black Jack Musgrave', the sergeant who has a plan 'to carry out the deserters' duty', and exact revenge on those who run the town and who have caused the war.
Throughout much of the play Sergeant Musgrave is the most articulate about the horror of war and who is responsible for it. He is the only one who seems at all clear how it can be ended--'I'm in this to change all soldiers' duties.' He even suggests the deserters have common cause with the striking miners, who he refers to as 'brothers in truth'. However, the final part of the play, set at a recruiting fair in the town, exposes the folly of trying to 'beat war by its own rules'. Raising the dead body of their comrade instead of a British flag, Sergeant Musgrave proposes to the strike leader that they turn their guns on the local leaders, 'those higher up...who never seem to get hurt'. But the miners are in no mood for this: 'Well I take no duties from lobsters. This town lives by collieries. That's coal owners and its pitmen--aye and they battle, and the pitmen'll win. But no wi' no soldier-boys to order our fight for us.'
This is a play about the way war can blow back on the very people who have waged it. Furthermore it provokes the audience to think about how to resist war. Arden recently said 'You write to show people there are things that need to be stopped,' and has recently thrown himself into the movement against war and occupation in Iraq.
National Portrait Gallery, London
|The Hon. John and the Hon. Thomas Hamilton with a Negro Servant
William Aikman, 1728, The Mellerstein Trust
Wandering through the National Portrait Gallery is always fascinating, and free. You pass kings and queens, politicians, explorers, diplomats, aristocrats and, in the later rooms, sports and film stars.
What you don't see very much of is poor people. Until cameras became cheap, very few working people could have their image reproduced. Portrait painting was overwhelmingly about celebrating the achievements, power and wealth of the elite, with the odd poor poet or footballer made good. But this new exhibition, which you do have to pay for, shows that throughout the centuries a handful of servants did have their portraits painted. And this collection shows them to be a fascinating glimpse of the hidden world below stairs, and class and power relationships.
The earliest portraits date back to the 1600s. These tended to feature the servants in the lord's retinue, just as minstrels, jesters and champions, many of whom would themselves come from high-ranking families. The servants who waited, washed and worked were largely invisible. These portraits tended to come from outlying rural areas of the country where feudal links between master and some servants lasted longer.
By the 18th century households had become more segregated. There was a developing gap between 'upper' and 'lower' servants. Upper servants--such as nannies, gardeners and cooks--often had a close relationship with their masters and had their portraits painted.
In 1790, 90 percent of servants were female. But 90 percent who had their portraits painted were male and most closely associated with their masters' leisure interests, such as gamekeepers.
One of the finest paintings is by Willam Hogarth, famous for his pictures of the darker side of life for the lower classes in 18th century London. Servants became a popular subject in the 19th century, when moralising pictures were the norm. Some show wicked servants getting their just deserts, but others are compassionate pictures of the exhaustion and constant humiliation suffered by many women servants. Some even deal with the widespread sexual exploitation of women servants, brought to attention by Richardson's novel Pamela.
One of the most interesting sections of the exhibition focuses on black and Asian servants. By 1750 there were around ten to 20 thousand black people living in London and other large towns, most brought in as slaves. It became fashionable to have a young black servant boy, and they are painted here like cute little lap dogs. Many suffered a cruel fate when they became too old to be cute and were shipped off to slave plantations.
There is a constant tension that emerges in this exhibition. On the one side is the image of the loyal, trusty servant, like Bridget Holmes, painted when she was 96. Bridget was the 'necessary woman' to generations of royals, emptying their chamber pots.
On the other side were the unruly servants. There seems to have been a constant fear among the 'well to do' that their servants were cheating them, stealing their booze, nibbling their dinners, and disrespecting them. The exhibition includes fierce tirades against naughty servants by the writers Jonathan Swift and Daniel Defoe.
The rich needed servants. They had to be waited on hand and foot and the size of their household was a barometer of wealth and status. But by having servants they brought the class struggle right into their own parlours--and bedrooms, kitchens and stables.
Servants are making a comeback. The numbers employed as domestic workers are going up again, although nothing like the 1931 figure, which showed 1.3 million domestic servants in Britain, most of them women.
Today they are more likely to be the subject of reality TV shows and period dramas. But this exhibition reminds us of how miserable, powerless and poor servants were and how, despite everything, they constantly managed to get one over on those who considered themselves the rightful masters.