Issue 280 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published December 2003 Copyright © Socialist Review
The vocabulary of anti-capitalism is more than a passing fad, writes Mike Gonzalez
|Che Guevara--or is it Antonio Banderas?|
There is a new language developing in the streets that our growing movement passes through. At the European Social Forum demonstration in Paris, there was a man distributing leaflets recommending Esperanto. The Esperantists are at most demonstrations--as they have always been since their great idea was first mooted by a Pole called Zamenhof in 1887. Their theory was that humanity was divided by language, and that a common tongue--coined out of all the other languages--would create understanding and unity.
It was a naive idea, perhaps. After all, in Angola the colonialists and the resistance both spoke Portuguese--but they fought a bitter war of national liberation. And the spoken English of the Caribbean (celebrated as 'nation-language' by the performance poets like Louise Bennett and Mikey Smith) was an instrument of defiance against the English of the Mother of Parliaments. A shared tongue, then, is no guarantee of shared purposes.
Michael Moore and George Bush, Martin Luther King and Colin Powell share a language--but they have filled it with a very different feeling and vision. That's why all the nonsense about anti-Americanism rings so hollow.
There can have been few social movements, on the other hand, as multiple and different as anti-capitalism. We speak in Arabic and Aymara as we take to the streets of Nablus or La Paz; we have no difficulty moving our continuing debates from Florence to Paris to London in the multilingual environment we occupy. It is one of the great leaps forward of the last few years that a new generation recognises effortlessly the difference between a kind of artificial diversity and the real multiplicity of anti-globalisation.
The multinationals and their advertising companies were always quick to incorporate signs of otherness. Bacardi recreated a Cuba of the 1950s complete with cockroach races and salsa music. Honda and Orange claimed to exist in some global environment where everything could coexist--every face, every colour, every age--and yet it existed nowhere. The future--their future--is orange, which is to say colourless and odourless. It's strange to reflect back now on how all-powerful that language of the universal commodity seemed just a few years ago--Naomi Klein's No Logo was a cry in the wilderness against the global market place we were being herded into.
How far we have come!
In four short years the anti-capitalists are beginning to create a new language of their own. It isn't Esperanto because it doesn't start from a levelling down, a flattening of our enormous diversity into an easy glossary. In Paris we marched in front of a van (ironically it belonged to the French Communist Party) blasting out Manu Chao and some salsa band and a French hip-hop hit called 'Stop the War' with some verses in Arabic. The marchers danced and sang--some other words, or perhaps the right ones. It didn't matter.
We have taken the emblems of the market and turned them on their head. 'Anticapitalista' takes the C out of Coca-Cola against a red background that is suddenly and decisively closer to the red flag than the fleece of a Santa Claus invented by the corporation to make itself a monument in the world. The tick of Nike is now a universal sign of sweated labour.
Against that we are developing a language of our own--and a vocabulary of symbols that fit into every struggle easily and with instant recognition. We're finally rivalling the Nike tick! There were precedents to turn to. In the early 1990s black youth everywhere wore Malcolm's 'X' to announce that the chickens were coming home to roost; in the 1970s a figure eight lying on its side evoked the hat that Augusto 'César' Sandino, the pioneer of Nicaragua's anti-colonial struggle, wore.
In the third millennium it is probably the face of Che Guevara that encapsulates the spirit of the time. Over the years the image has become starker; a simple hatch of lines, a black beret with a star, a wispy beard is all that's necessary. It's true of course that the market has tried to take the image back--to make it fashionable, chic, mere style; but then, it always has done that. It made punk rock into a fashion statement, after all--or tried.
And yet, whether or not the T-shirts are mass produced, or the face of the dead revolutionary appears on cigarette packets, boxes of Kleenex or fridge magnets (and it does) the icon seems to escape the kind of neutralising effect that that ought to bring with it. It's as if certain symbols have a resilience that defies the Disney kiss of death. There's a new film on the way with Antonio Banderas playing Che--or that's the rumour. There have already been three or four others.
For all that the charge of rebellion and defiance doesn't ebb away--and the look on the faces of those who wear the image on their lapel or on their chest or round their necks imprinted on a red scarf shouts defiance, anger and a refusal to be cowed.
Some symbols belong to us.
by Gary Mitchell
Royal Court, London
|Loyal Women demanding a little bit of respect|
Gary Mitchell's play gives us a complex, engaging and thoroughly humorous insight into the deeply embedded effects of living in a segregated community. Four generations of women live under the same roof in a poor estate in Protestant Belfast. All have a strong association with the Ulster Defence Association (UDA). One is a baby and the eldest, the mother in law, has confined herself to bed in the living room. This leaves Brenda caring for all of them, including her 16 year old daughter Jenny.
The first half of the play seduces us with a familiar sitcom-like set of familial relationships, albeit with an intriguing subplot. Jenny draws the most laughs as--like Harry Enfield's Kevin and Perry--she flounces around with a permanent sneer and refuses to take any responsibility in the house or for her baby, and demands her mother does this for her.
Brenda duly delivers and thereby unravels the conundrum of deeply loyal women who want to provide love and protection to their loved ones.
Brenda and her family, together with others in the UDA women's section, are locked in a useless battle as they attempt to provide succour and protection against the influences of the outside world. Far from providing respect for and a defence of their community, their actions degrade and brutalise them.
This play has popular appeal. The production is highly enjoyable, perfectly acted and shockingly concluded. It deserves contrast with the play A Night in November by Marie Jones, which toured Britain earlier in the year and similarly outlined the diminishing effects of bigotry within a Belfast Protestant community. There are no revelatory moments here, no solutions. In a similar manner to the novels of Emile Zola the play documents how distortions and hatred can be passed down through generations.
Brenda is unable to protect her daughter and granddaughter from the cycle of violence she has been trying to escape. She is betrayed by the splits and petty jealousies of a flawed and bigoted organisation. She is sold out by a tradition that cannot see the obvious parallels between a young Protestant girl and the man of a different faith she is dating who lives on an adjacent council estate with a similar lack of opportunities.
Brenda admits her priorities used to be, 'Ulster, the queen, Britain and fuck everything else', but while those priorities have changed and she believes that her country and the organisation she belongs to have betrayed her, there is no escape.
There is a section in the Blues Brothers movie that I have always had a problem with. That is the scene where Aretha Franklin powerfully demands a little more 'Respect' and just doesn't receive it--she's laughed out of the script. It does not make the grade in what is otherwise a magnificent satire of white, redneck cultural values.
Loyal Women makes the point that the respect and loyalty that the women of the UDA are demanding cannot be achieved against the bankrupt politics of lies, hatred and self deception.
by Samuel Beckett
Arts Theatre, London
Samuel Beckett (1906-89) was born in Dublin into an Irish Protestant family but lived most of his life in France. He was arguably the supreme modernist writer of the second half of the 20th century. Modernism in literature and the theatre is in part characterised by the description of a world which no longer makes sense, in which the old certainties are dead--for example, belief in god or the inevitability of historical progress. In Endgame, three characters are praying to god, then give up in despair, one of them crying out, 'The bastard! He doesn't even exist.'
The modernist tradition also reveals human personality not as rounded and coherent (in the manner of 19th century novels) but as split and dehumanised, a psychic war zone, prey to powerful unconscious forces, or as atomised into a multitude of criss-crossing sensations and perceptions (for example, James Joyce). In the novels of Franz Kafka, the individual is gradually reduced to an object, the plaything of powerful, impenetrable and incomprehensible bureaucratic forces. In an age which witnessed the battle of the Somme, Stalin's gulags, Auschwitz and Hiroshima, art, if it was to remain truthful, could not simply portray the world as it did in the 19th century.
Beckett is the heir of Kafka and Joyce. Specifically, his plays belong to the Theatre of the Absurd, a type in which the universe and human existence are depicted as without purpose, meaningless and irrational. In his most famous play, Waiting for Godot, two tramps are waiting for someone who never turns up. In Endgame, we are invited to regard as normal a life spent in a dustbin. Beckett's work can thus be seen as a portrayal of human isolation, of the separation of human beings from each other and the reduction of individuals and their relationships to objects, all of which reflect our experience of modern capitalism.
In act one of Happy Days (1961), a woman, Winnie (Felicity Kendal), is buried in earth up to her waist, then in act two up to her neck. But through most of the play she remains stoically cheerful and optimistic, seemingly unaware of her predicament. Her husband, Willie (Col Farrell), has his back to us as he fiddles with his boater and only becomes fully visible at the end. He speaks mainly in grunts, so that their relationship is apparently moribund. Winnie thus experiences a terrifying solitude and almost complete loss of control over her life, but she refuses to be daunted, keeping her anxiety at bay with a certain routine: every day, she empties and repacks a shopping bag, removing and repacking all kinds of improbable objects from a toothbrush to a revolver. Her favourite expression is: 'That's what I find so wonderful.' At the end of act one, she cries out, 'This is a happy day,' and at the end of act two: 'This will have been another happy day.'
At other moments, however, Winnie appears as a woman in denial, one who refuses to acknowledge her desperate and deteriorating situation as she remains absorbed in the details of her shopping bag. The implication might be that to the extent that human beings no longer deal with oppression by recourse to god, the choice becomes one between action and self delusion. In Peter Hall's new production, Felicity Kendal gives a superb performance as Winnie, a role that is clearly among the most testing in the modern repertory. She captures precisely that uncertainty of Winnie's situation which makes her fluctuate between optimism, despair and denial. The other, strikingly innovative feature of the production is Lucy Hall's set, not the usual earthen mound but an almost vertical, tilting serpentine coil, like a giant python. Not to be missed.
National Film Theatre, London
|Sand gets in your eyes in Zabriskie Point|
The National Film Theatre's 1968 season continues through December, with an eclectic programme of screenings from the late 1960s. The feverish political climate and the increased opportunities for directorial independence helped create the conditions for some brilliant cinema. Even the least interesting, most obvious choices are still worth seeing on the big screen--Antonioni's visually sumptuous but pretentious Zabriskie Point (which includes a slo-mo shot of a house being blown up to the sound of Pink Floyd), and the overrated drug hippy biker odyssey Easy Rider.
But some of the more rarely seen films are the real treats here, including two documentaries. In the Hour of the Pig is a classic documentary about the American war in Vietnam. The secretly made Hour of the Furnaces uses extracts from films, newsreel, interviews, songs and poems to tell the history of Argentina's struggle against neo-colonialism.
I'd also strongly recommend Medium Cool, which follows an American cameraman's changing responses to the protests and people he captures. It critiques the cynical, trendy permissiveness of the new establishment as well as the more traditional ideologies of the old. One of its many great scenes shows a group of black militants insisting the reporter listens to their radical analysis of the media. The film--which terrified US politicians--reminds me of the slogan painted on the walls of Paris during November's European Social Forum: 'Media partout, information nulle part' (Media everywhere, information nowhere). It has one of the best endings I've ever seen, borrowing from Vertov's constructivist Man with a Movie Camera.
The season also offers a rare chance to see the radical Japanese film Throw Away Your Books, Let's Go Into the Streets, described by the NFT as 'an explosive rallying call to the young to rebel against the social taboos of Japan'. On the horror front, George Romero's genre-busting Night of the Living Dead allegorises militarised consumerism as zombie flick and is genuinely scary as well as hilarious. Lindsay Anderson's If... shows a private boarding school (which works as a metaphor for all repressive social systems, but also as a portrayal of a very peculiar British institution) taken over by violent revolt and anarchy.
Daisies--banned for two years by the Czechoslovakian authorities--is an endearingly surreal comedy about consumerism in the middle of crisis. Two young women act out cycles of overconsumption and destruction, persuading gullible men to buy them expensive meals, and then behaving outrageously before running off into the night. There is more subversive humour with Robert Altman's classic M*A*S*H satirising army life during the Korean (read Vietnam) War. The gentler Alice's Restaurant stars Arlo Guthrie in a lyrical and generous film set around the restaurant of the title and based on his talking blues song (about being fined $50 for littering and subsequently being rejected for the Vietnam draft for being an unrehabilitated criminal).
There are also showings of TV programmes from 1968. Drama 1968 includes two films: Golden Vision (by Ken Loach) and On the Eve of Publication. The latter is a coruscating 'Wednesday Play' about the crisis of the pro-Moscow left, personified by a talented but sick and embittered writer, who drinks and abuses his lover and friends in a futile attempt to drown his guilt for compromising with Stalinism. It's not pleasant viewing, but it gives a real sense of the failure of the Moscow-orientated old left to connect with the new. The News 68 programme promises to be fascinating archive viewing: it will feature reports on riots in Paris, Russian tanks in Prague, and the 'I'm backing Britain' campaign which urged people to work for free to help the British economy.
Other films include the rare German New Wave film Artists at the Top of the Big Top: Disorientated and I am Curious--Yellow, a Swedish film which mixes reportage and fiction, and satirically interrogates the meaning of women's sexual liberation. Louis Malle's Milou en Mai is possibly an odd one out for its positioning of the 1968 events within a nostalgic frame: its country-house farce (in which the inhabitants are stranded by strikes) is not really satire, more a comically affectionate portrait of a rural bourgeoisie. Nonetheless, most of these films are excellent, and since so many of them spend their time sitting in the archives, it's definitely worth trying to catch some of them.
Dir: Larry and Andy Wachowski
|Superfluous singlasses make a final appearance in Matrix Revolutions|
After watching the final instalment of the Matrix franchise (called Revolutions) it is difficult not to conclude that the writers and directors, the Wachowski brothers, should never have succumbed to the commercial pressures to produce two sequels. Compared to most of the expensive rubbish that Hollywood churns out, this is still a superior science fiction movie. However, the problem for both of the sequels is that startling action sequences and dazzling special effects are not enough to make a good film.
In the original Matrix, the action was closely bound up with the ideas and concepts that the Wachowski brothers wanted to convey. The fight scenes were not ends in themselves, a spectacle to be marvelled at, incidental to the development of the characters. Kung fu was a metaphor for the way in which the hero, Neo, comes to understand the Matrix (a virtual reality controlled by machines), as well as learning how he can beat the system. Consequently, the fight scenes are infused with dramatic tension, drawing the audience into the conflict between humans and machines. As soon as Neo masters the Matrix this tension is lost.
Much has been made of the so called groundbreaking special effects in the films, but although more money was spent on the sequels, it seems that in this case, more is definitely less. Take the now much-used technique called bullet time photography. In the first film, this effect, which gives the impression that a subject is almost frozen in time, was used to suddenly switch the perspective of the audience from 'normal' reality to the reality perceived by the human rebels who understand what the Matrix really is. By retaining a photographic realism the technique has the startling impact of convincing us that the rebels can see and move at super-fast speeds.
However, in the sequels, the realism of bullet time is compromised, as it is merged very obviously with computer animation, in an effort to come up with ever more spectacular action sequences. In doing this we also lose something of the coherence of the original idea that the Matrix itself is just like the real world.
There is, in all of this, a familiar sense that the filmmakers feel they have hit upon a formula for a successful movie, which can just be repeated again and again. Ironically, it turns out that one of the things the humans are fighting against in the trilogy is the constant repetition of a formulaic world!
Yet the ingredients of sexy actors in designer gear, kung fu fighting and a great deal of postmodernist gobbledegook are not enough to fool most of us that the main inspiration behind the sequels is anything other than box-office profits--more remuneration than revolution.
A Short Film about Killing
A Short Film about Love
Dir: Krzysztof Kieslowski
These films are extended theatrical versions of, respectively, 'Dekalog 5' and 'Dekalog 6'. Dekalog--ten one-hour television films loosely based on the ten commandments--was made in 1988, and with it Kieslowski's work started to be seen and recognised outside his native Poland.
In A Short Film about Killing (the fifth commandment: 'Thou shalt not kill') Kieslowski manages not only to produce his best film but also a stunning indictment of the death penalty. In Poland it became instrumental to the abolition of capital punishment.
It's a very dark and grim film. Kieslowski and his cameraman Slawomir Idziak choose to use green filters, and obscure parts of the frame, to accentuate the atmosphere in which most people live.
We follow Jacek, a 20 year old marginal, on his wanders through a depressing Warsaw. He then takes a taxi and kills the driver in a seven minute long scene of slaughter. Jacek garrots the poor man and finishes him by smashing his head with a rock.
Jacek is sentenced to die despite the best efforts of Piotr, a newly-practicing barrister uncompromisingly oppposed to the death penalty.
It's only as Jacek awaits execution that we discover more about him. By humanising Jacek, Kieslowski prepares us to watch the final part--the execution.
In five long minutes the director shows not only Jacek's desperate will to live but most importantly the long and sinister process of the execution. The cold and precise bureaucratic routine is horrendous and enraging. Piotr can only watch and try to keep his temper as we, spectators, can only want to stop the rope being tightened around Jacek's neck.
Kieslowski shows the inhumanity of the death penalty and its use by the state as vengeance for its failures to provide welfare to its people.
In A Short Film about Love ('Thou shalt not commit adultery'), Kieslowski explores the themes of love, voyeurism and desire.
Tomek, a young post worker, is peeping at Magda, an older woman living in an apartment opposite his. At first it seems that Tomek is watching her for the sexual thrill, but night after night his interests are in Magda rather than her sexual encounters. He then makes phone calls and writes fake letters inviting Magda to his post office, before admitting his activities to her.
Magda is initially outraged, but time goes by and she meets Tomek again. They go out on a date. Magda decides to take the young and innocent Tomek to her flat to confront him with sex. Tomek is very nervous as his hands slowly go up Magda's leg, the woman he's been desiring for so long. But he comes in his pants. Magda laughs. He runs away to his flat and immediatly cuts his wrists.
This is when the story is no longer seen through Tomek's eyes but through Magda's. She is riddled with guilt. While Tomek is in hospital, Magda tries everything to find out about his life. She starts looking at his window, waiting for him to come back and hoping Tomek can once again be as innocent as he was before they met. From being the object of voyeurism Magda becomes the voyeur, and from being the loved one turns into the lover.
By using Tomek's and then Magda's viewpoints, Kieslowki gives the viewer a better understanding of both characters' development. Although it is suggested that they will have a common future, it is clear that Kieslowski is more interested in the ways Magda and Tomek try to liberate themselves and overcome the obstacles between them.
Both films are must sees, and both DVDs contain extras giving a better insight into Kieslowski's life and work. It is worth mentioning as a coda that in Dekalog--Kieslowski's masterpiece--'Dekalog 6' has quite a different ending.
A World at War
Millinery Works Gallery, London
|Another Bloody Sunday|
The visitor who will expect an exhibition called 'A World at War' to be full of military images will be disappointed. Frances Newman's art works are at least as much to do with how the war resonates at home. 'Another Bloody Sunday', for example, takes the eye across a breakfast tray with a remnant of toast still on the plate to the newspaper behind it. The image--of the father protecting his son moments before the boy is killed by Israeli gunfire--is immediately familiar. Here it is an invasion, an interruption of the everyday rituals--and it is inescapable. In oil paintings and chalk drawings war is a factor in our daily living--like the menacing black cloud over what looks like Margate in 'Welcome to Dreamland'.
From that breakfast table we are taken through dramatic and often stark images into the shadow world of the migrant and the refugee. They are brutal at times--but they are also ways of making visible what we cannot always be witness to. And on the cover of the catalogue, the beginnings of their flight--escaping from yet another little gift from civilisation, destroying their homes and launching them into an often threatening world.
The exhibition embraces three-dimensional figures, installations like 'Tyranny', the ink portraits of child soldiers and the harsh concrete blocks that freeze the dish and cup of the hunger striker. The point, powerfully made, is that war is more than a formal meeting of military units. In demanding of us a reaction, these works bring together art and politics--the brutal reality and the emotional response that will encourage us to join the 'Roads to Freedom' marchers with whom the exhibition catalogue closes.
The People's History Museum, Salford
The People's History Museum, Salford, has collected an array of sound and visual aids to bring alive the history of the British Communist Party. The exhibition includes poster designing and videos for the kids, and audio replicas explaining the inspiration behind the party--why people joined and what it was like living in a Communist household. As well as the British party the exhibition opens to the visitor the world of 'Communist' Russia and its influence back here in Britain.
The exhibition spans two floors covered in posters, banners and other interesting artefacts from the time such as papers like the Daily Worker and For Lasting Peace.The informative descriptions really bring the exhibits to life.
There are also free guided tours round the exhibition, details of which can be found at www.peopleshistorymuseum.org.uk A day of talks and live performances looking at the party is also planned.
The main museum covers five sections, Revolution, Spreading the Word, After Work, United We Stand and Facing the Future, each with subsections attempting to bring to life the history of the unions and socialism by full replica displays and real machinery from those times, as well as banners, posters and other visual aids. A scattering of audio pieces make the display both interesting and easy for all to follow.