Issue 282 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published February 2004 Copyright © Socialist Review

Arts

Review

   

Cultural currents

Power to the beetle

A decade on, the Zapatistas still inspire resistance, writes Mike Gonzalez

The Zapatista National Liberation Front speak out
The Zapatista National Liberation Front speak out

In January 1994, some new and unexpected faces joined the public gallery of political images. Actually, the faces were barely visible--just the eyes through the slits in the woollen balaclavas they wore. The Zapatistas, unknown warriors from the Mexican south, had stolen the thunder of the three presidents meeting to announce the North American Free Trade Area (NAFTA) to the world's press corps. But their slick Armani suits made very boring pictures compared with the rough blankets and open sandals of the guerrilla fighters of Chiapas.

That was ten years ago. Today the indigenous communities of the Lacandon forest of Chiapas are still resisting, still surviving the relentless siege of the Mexican state whose armies have them surrounded. Their villages still lack water and electricity; their children still rarely get beyond primary school. And yet from time to time they break out of the siege. Three years ago, a procession of cars and buses carried them slowly through the southern states to the capital, Mexico City, a thousand miles from Chiapas.

The spokespeople of the communities spoke in the vast square built on the ruins of the Aztec capital and then addressed a Mexican congress which agreed to their demands for Indian rights. When they returned, of course, the arguments and compromises began--and the undertakings the politicians had given were gradually whittled away.

Once again, the Zapatista National Liberation Front had broken from its encirclement--and demonstrated to the world and the Mexican poor that it existed. The convoy that took the Zapatistas and their leader, the enigmatic pipe-smoking mestizo, Subcomandante Marcos, was accompanied along its route by the white overalls of the Tutti Bianchi.

In a remote corner of Mexico, communities who speak more than 30 obscure indigenous languages have come to symbolise a political alternative. It is a paradox. They are isolated and besieged. Since their rebellion began early in 1994, they have remained in their corner of Chiapas. Across Mexico and beyond solidarity committees were instantly formed, and there was a rising expectation that these unlikely revolutionaries would open a new chapter in the struggle for a better world.

Ya Basta was just one of the organisations formed to carry their message and their model to a movement waiting for a new direction. Although the Zapatistas, poor as they were, had very little power compared, say, with the combined forces of organised trade unionists, they seemed to have an enormous moral authority behind them. Excited commentators in Europe and north America proclaimed that this was 'the first postmodern revolution'. And when the internet flickered into life and started to bring messages from out of the south, that seemed to confirm their optimism.

The idea of postmodern revolution was a contradiction, of course. If, as the postmodernists suggested, we dealt only with the pallid reflection of reality, the shadows projected onto a video wall, then revolution was simply another illusion. And the mystery deepened when the daily bombardment of the thoughts of Subcomandante Marcos sped across cyberspace. How could you contain a revolution that was trapped inside a military circle, yet could have a constant dialogue with the world?

In the first year of the rebellion, Marcos offered an equally perplexing answer to the question of revolution. He seemed to thrive on paradox. How could we take power from those forces in Mexico City and beyond who were responsible for the poverty and despair of the Zapatista communities? How could the inspiration of that January rebellion materialise on the other fronts of struggle that were appearing every day, from the factories of South Korea to the villages of the Bolivian highlands?

The answer came from Marcos at first, until his place was taken by a beetle of uncertain origin called Don Durito. His enigmatic pronouncements and inscrutable pearls of wisdom seemed rooted in a different set of concerns. We can take power without taking power, Marcos suggested. There was universal laughter. It was a beautiful trick played on the military masters of the world wide web.

In one sequence of Don Durito's fables were to be found the solutions that the global movement of resistance had searched for since the fall of the Berlin Wall. We would use their technology to announce a refusal to speak their language. It seemed a perfect formula for avoiding the corruptions of Stalinism, the endless squabbling of the sect, the vexed problem of leadership that plagued a movement that yearned for equality and community.

What could be more powerful than a beetle in cyberspace! And yet, Don Durito never left Chiapas. The wisdom of the Lacandon forest proved too hard to translate into a wider world.

Ten years on, the Masters of War have failed to put out the flame that was lit by an indigenous rising in a remote corner of Mexico. But if it has stayed alive, it is because other fires were started, one after another, across the world; and because, as the struggle spreads, we will challenge the power of the global system. That is the only way to release Don Durito from the prison of cyberspace.


Theatre

SONGS OF REBELLION

An interview with Alistair Hulett and Martin McCardie


Red Clydeside, a show combining songs and drama, was a sell-out success at last month's Celtic Connections festival in Glasgow. Mark Brown spoke to singer/songwriter Alistair Hulett and writer Martin McCardie about making art out of Glasgow's famous workers' uprising.

This show, about workers' resistance during and immediately after the First World War, is a new version of the Red Clydeside song cycle. What are the origins of the cycle itself?

AH: I recorded a CD a couple of years ago with Dave Swarbrick, the fiddle player, and we performed it last year at Celtic Connections. In the show I was performing as the singer/songwriter and the narrator, which was exhausting. So when they asked us back again this year, we thought we should take it a stage on and enlist the services of a real writer and some real actors.

Which is where you come in, Martin. What did you do with what was already there in the show?

MM: Talking with the actor Gary Lewis about it, we thought that, rather than try to write a play, we should just tell the story, but tell it in a way that is entertaining and injects some humour. Alistair had done a lot of research just for the sleeve notes, and a lot of that is in the script. I've turned it into a piece for three actors. One character is from the present day, and asks a series of questions about Red Clydeside. The other two characters are like whispers on the wind, and they come out with all the facts and figures about what actually happened.

People have been singing folk songs about John Maclean and Red Clydeside for a long time. Why did you think a full song cycle was necessary?

AH: I was really astonished when I came across a biography of Maclean written by his daughter Nan Milton. I had been singing Hamish Henderson's song 'The John Maclean March' for years, knowing very little about Maclean other than that he opposed the First World War, he was a socialist, and he had been put in prison for his anti-war activity. I realised pretty quickly that that was about the extent of what nearly everybody who sang that song knew about Maclean. I was over in Australia when I read Nan's book--I was over there for about 25 years--and I thought, 'I want to do a CD about this whole story.' It has become even more relevant today. This was an anti-war movement that turned into something on a much larger scale, that challenged the whole capitalist system.

I realised that to do this properly I'd really have to be in Glasgow. So a large part of my decision to come back and live in Glasgow was that I wanted to do this song cycle.

There is continuing controversy over the legacy of John Maclean within the left. Does your piece touch on any of that?

AH: The main controversy is over events that occurred late in Maclean's life, after the war was over. Maclean elected not to have anything to do with the creation of the Scottish wing of the Communist Party (CP). We come down strongly on the side of saying that Maclean was actually wrong about that.

What we really wanted folk to come away with was the idea that you can organise and you can fight to change society. Maclean and the Red Clydesiders came within a whisker of pulling it off. The ruling class were so terrified that they sent the largest mobilisation of troops and tanks on native soil in British history. When Maclean said they could turn Glasgow into a 'revolutionary storm centre', he wasn't deluding himself.

MM: The script uses the words of the famous Glasgow socialist Harry McShane, who explains why Maclean was reluctant to get involved in the formation of the CP. The piece is a celebration of Maclean, but also of the other Red Clydesiders. Willie Gallacher (a leading member of the CP) is quoted many times. I hope people won't fall out over the differences--I did a John Maclean event several years ago, and a fight started in the audience between someone who took Gallacher's position and someone who took Maclean's position, and it kind of defeated the purpose of why we were all there.

Is there a further life for this piece, or does it end with this year's Celtic Connections?

MM: The next step would be to do something different again, maybe a full play, who knows?

Martin McCardie's new play based on Mark Steel's book Reasons to be Cheerful begins an extensive Scottish tour at Paisley Arts Centre, 19 to 21 February. See www.784theatre.com.


CUSTOMER-ORIENTED EXPRESS

The Permanent Way
by David Hare
National Theatre, London, then touring


Survivors' poetry in 'The Permanent Way'
Survivors' poetry in The Permanent Way

David Hare's latest work is not a play in any conventional sense, rather a dramatised documentary that subjects privatisation of the railways to a rigorous and devastating critique. We are presented with a mosaic of individual testimonies from 25 characters--both those responsible for running the privatised network and those at the sharp end of its failures. We hear several groups of voices: the remorse of those who initiated the demented, give-away sale but then realised it was unworkable; the complacent tones of a senior Treasury official and an investment banker who made millions from it; a leading entrepreneur (Richard Branson blithely announcing a more 'customer-oriented' railway); senior rail executives and contractors who employ unskilled labourers in skilled maintenance work and hope their families won't be on the train when the chickens come home to roost; and the hypocritical voices of puffed-up politicians too cowardly to reverse the disaster through renationalisation--John ('This must never be allowed to happen again') Prescott.

On the other side, we hear the largely unheard voices, the despairing words of engineers whose skills, experience and high standards have been shoved aside to make way for a fast buck, for shareholders' dividends and asset-stripping. Finally, we hear the angry voices of the survivors and the bereaved of the four crashes since Blair took office in 1997, and the voices of those who campaign on their behalf.

Hare, together with members of the cast, interviewed dozens of people involved with the railways (described by insiders as 'the permanent way') at all levels, including survivors and bereaved. Their statements are reproduced verbatim, but Hare has skilfully edited the transcripts to create characters with real life to them, who rise above mere cardboard cutouts and ensure that this is not propaganda but compelling political theatre. They remind us that under nationalisation the Treasury always refused to subsidise the railways but since privatisation they are funded more generously than ever. As for safety, it is simply not a priority for a privately owned railway.

It is hard to believe that John Major's government was allowed to get away with splitting up the railway system into 113 parts. The play emphasises that it was this fragmentation, and in particular the notorious separation of track from wheel, and of operation from maintenance, that resulted in so much death and injury.

The Permanent Way, however, is more than a critique of railway privatisation. It is a metaphor for what Britain has become--a run-down society in which chronic underinvestment in social infrastructure over decades has resulted in a country where nothing works properly, with a culture in which the cunning and manipulative 'skills' of managers and accountants are more valued than the expertise and commitment of public sector employees, in which buck-passing has replaced accountability and in which market-speak rules, so that wherever you look, 'customers' have replaced 'passengers'. In sum, the play adopts rail privatisation as a symbol of the cultural, moral and political degeneration of British politics in general and of New Labour in particular.
Sabby Sagall


STUFF OF DREAMS

His Dark Materials
by Nicholas Wright
National Theatre, London


Strong acting and technical brilliance pull off the show
Strong acting and technical brilliance pull off the show

No one ever said it was going to be easy--epics never are. One of the strengths of Philip Pullman's trilogy was the vast and complex nature of the worlds he created. Lyra and Tom both live in Oxford but Lyra's Oxford is very different to the one we know. In her world everyone has a personal daemon (a spirit-like animal) attached to them, which can change in childhood but whose nature becomes fixed during adolescence. The two meet in a third world and from then Pullman pulls the characters back and forth through these different worlds, throwing a few more in along the way, until Lyra and Tom, battling against the power of the church, save the worlds and the republic of heaven begins.

Pullman has managed to move some distance from established children's fantasy. His characters have depth and provide a relieving antidote to saccharine Harry and Hermione or schmaltzy Frodo and Sam. Anna Maxwell Martin (two years out of drama college) does a great job of playing the young teenage Lyra, capturing her frustrations, sulks, youthful blind determination and sheer joy at the thrill of discovering what life is about. Pullman creates bizarre creatures but his heroes are not superhuman--they are grounded in a human realism.

The task of turning three books into a six-hour theatrical event faced two main challenges. The adapted script inevitably had to condense and cut much from the books. Nicholas Wright injects humour into the script and the main characters are developed convincingly. At times the pace of the scene changes is exhausting and requires a familiarity with the books to be able to follow the different threads of the story. Characters who have the space to be developed in a thousand pages of prose appear fleetingly on stage, only explained when the plot requires it. Pullman was able to pull off a subtle anti-religious theme through the books which becomes much more stark on the stage (much to the annoyance of some Christians who complained at the National's choice of His Dark Materials for their Christmas show). The show does introduce a subtle parallel with the 'war on terror'--there is a fear of development of weapons of mass peril and the president of the church is played as an American with more than a hint of Donald Rumsfeld.

The second challenge was the depiction of armoured polar bears, the sailing of a balloon across Arctic skies, tiny beings called Gallivespians used as spies and the daemons which talk and react to their human companions. On the whole (with the exception of the witches) the many beings are brought to life superbly. The technical achievements of the puppet makers and manipulators drew sharp intakes of breath of sheer delight from the audience. But it's a testament to the whole performance to be able to place a knee-high puppet among actors in the centre of the huge Olivier theatre and pull the audience's attention.

Much has been lost from the novels but what has been created at the National is a feat of wonder. The technical brilliance steals the show, but the strong cast manages to keep it together. After The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter this is a breath of fresh air--catch it if you can.
Beccy Reese


Film

THE AGE OF CANT

Dogville
Dir: Lars Von Trier


What lies beneath the mask of civilisation
What lies beneath the mask of civilisation

Lars Von Trier's masterpiece of radical cinema has produced howls of anger from establishment critics in the US, and this is no surprise.

Set in Depression-era America, Dogville tells the tale of a beautiful fugitive, Grace, who flees from gangsters and the police to a small rural town. Tom, a sympathetic aspiring writer and philosopher, takes her in. He makes a plea to the suspicious local folk, to whom he often gives lectures on morality, to take her in as a demonstration of their compassion. They reluctantly agree, so he suggests to Grace that she carry out small domestic duties as a measure of her good faith. The situation soon turns sour, however, as they learn she may be involved in a series of bank robberies and a reward is offered for her surrender. Are they being taken advantage of? Surely she should compensate them somehow? So from being a cherished sweet stranger, she becomes a scapegoat, bound by servitude and slavery, a vessel for all their fear and loathing. What unfolds is a dark and unsettling political and moral fable with direct echoes of Brecht. Indeed Von Trier has stated he was inspired by a song from Threepenny Opera. The final retribution is one of the most shocking scenes in contemporary cinema; even the end credits are provocative.

Stylistically this is extremely ambitious, shot entirely on a sound stage in Europe in a highly theatrical setting. From overhead, the set resembles a giant monopoly board--there are no walls, few props and we see the characters in the background carrying on their business. Despite the artificial structure, we are soon absorbed into Von Trier's universe, imaginatively filmed and utterly compelling throughout its three hours. The casting coup was to place the current princess of Hollywood, Nicole Kidman, as the star of the film--her unique ability to convey the sweet-faced ingénue is used to devastating effect. It also includes other Hollywood icons, Lauren Bacall and James Caan, and a wry windy narration from John Hurt.

It's not hard to see this mordant critique of American bourgeois values as an indictment of the so called 'humanitarian intervention' of war, that beneath the mask of civilisation is self serving interest. The incredible impact of this film is as if a unique cultural bomb was detonated in the auditorium, which only zaps right wingers and warmongers, liberal handwringers and apologists.

Unsurprisingly, Dogville has received a savage reaction from some critics in Hollywood. The lead reviewer of Variety magazine said at Cannes 2003, 'There is no escaping the fact that the entire point of Dogville is that Von Trier has judged America, found it wanting and therefore deserving of immediate annihilation. This is, in short, his "J'accuse!" directed toward an entire nation.' Nicole Kidman pulled out from appearing in the next two films of Von Trier's US trilogy and one can only surmise that perhaps she was advised that her standing in the industry would be threatened if she continued to work with the director.

Lars Von Trier, raised by Communist parents, once said, 'I'm not satisfied with the way things are, and furthermore, I'm willing to do something about it. I'm the Che Guevara of the film world.' Of the US: 'I don't see them as less evil than the bandit states Mr Bush has been talking so much about.' Before the 2001 Danish general election he bought full-page newspaper ads urging voters to shun the far right Danish People's Party.

This highly original, thought-provoking and discursive counterblast against the hypocrisy and cant served up to the US public should be watched by anyone with any sympathy with that country's exploited and oppressed.
Stephen Philip


THE JOY OF NEGLECT

American Splendor
Dir: Shari Springer Bergman and Robert Pulcini

Lost in Translation
Dir: Sofia Coppola


Boredom will bring us together--'Lost in Translation'
Boredom will bring us together--Lost in Translation

Both of these films document the quiet desperation of modern life. American Splendor charts the life of gloomy loser Harvey Pekar. Lost in Translation examines the vacuous lifestyles of the burnt-out bourgeoisie.

However neither film is depressing as they also show the funny, uplifting moments that make life bearable, and sometimes even breathtakingly beautiful. American Splendor may be concerned with Pekar's monotonous existence as a filing clerk in a run-down US town, but it is littered with scenes of exquisite wit and defiance (the kind of thing that gets most of us through the working day). Lost in Translation manages to transcend the listless boredom of the two principal characters with simmering desire.

Harvey Pekar, the star of American Splendor, is a Jewish working class bum from Cleveland, Ohio. Think Homer Simpson meets Woody Allen. In the US he is an unlikely cult hero as he writes a popular underground comic book based on his humdrum life.

The film follows Pekar--played with cranky bug-eyed brilliance by Paul Giamatti--from obscurity to relative fame. His wife tires of their 'plebeian lifestyle' and leaves him for someone with presumably better prospects and personal hygiene. Left alone with his collection of 78 jazz records he starts to write comic strips with a friend, the artist Robert Crumb. It meets with success, although never enough to turn him into an arrogant celebrity. Indeed he is the scourge of such self importance. His brief stint on the David Letterman show ends when he castigates Letterman for cracking jokes at his expense and attacks NBC.

American Splendor--like the mountaineering epic Touching the Void--freely mixes documentary techniques with feature film dramatisation. The real Harvey Pekar, his wife and his colleagues appear throughout the movie. In one particularly baffling scene the actors playing Pekar and his slightly autistic workmate Toby loiter in the background while the authentic Pekar and Toby discuss the relative merits of gourmet jellybeans. If nothing else it reminds the audience that Pekar is as gloomy and witty as his cinematic alter ego.

Sofia Coppola's second feature Lost in Translation is a remarkably confident and accomplished film. Set in a vast, soulless Tokyo hotel it focuses on the chance meeting of two lonely American guests. One is an ageing action hero, Bob Harris (Bill Murray), filming a whisky advert on the proviso that it is never shown in the US. The other is a sad young woman, Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), neglected by her photographer husband. Their lives drift inevitably together and then just as inevitably apart when their time in Japan comes to an end. They drink, dance, sing karaoke, watch television and eat sushi. Their growing romance never, however, climaxes in a steamy Hollywood love scene. Instead it is teasingly suggested in the briefest of looks and the slightest brush of arm against arm. It is more Brief Encounter than Sleepless in Seattle.

What could have been an unfocused art movie is raised above the ordinary by Bill Murray's comic brilliance. He effortlessly conjures laughter out of almost nothing--looks, expressions and confusion. His very appearance in a trendy camouflage T-shirt is hilarious. It is all at once vain, sad and funny.

The movie does suffer from a lazy kind of xenophobia. All too often the Japanese are the butt of the jokes. Bob and Charlotte mock a Japanese chef in a restaurant. A Japanese film crew also comes off the worse against Bob's wit. Yet the Japanese are shown in a different light when Charlotte introduces Bob to some local friends.

Despite this drawback, Coppola's film, like American Splendor, finds joy in the most unlikely of places.
Tom Wall


DVD

PROTEST IN THE BELLY OF THE BEAST

Last Party 2000
Dir: Rebecca Chaiklin and Donovan Leitch


Why watch a documentary made three years ago about the last US presidential election? Surely the world has changed so much in the time since that it couldn't possibly teach us anything? But this documentary looks at the elections through the eyes of those excluded from the process--protesters, the poor, minorities and many other groups.

The actor Philip Seymour Hoffman narrates the documentary. He says he agreed to because he felt 'ill-informed' and had an 'aversion to politics'. Six months before the vote they hit the campaign trail, going to the Democratic and Republican conventions, and talking to those outside.

We are guided through the documentary by a range of interviews--Noam Chomsky, Tim Robbins, Susan Sarandon, Michael Moore and Eddie Vedder, along with ordinary activists--explaining what's wrong with the two parties of business competing to run the US for the rich.

Hoffman is visibly worn down by the party conventions--the huge amounts of money spent, the mindless sloganeering for Bush at the Republican convention, Al Gore's autocue with the important words underlined to sound like he means it, and the fact that although the conventions might look a little bit different, what they are saying is basically the same.

A break from the empty razzle-dazzle of the big conventions comes with the campaign for Green candidate Ralph Nader. We see the huge support for him at the super-rallies that were held, despite the fact that the mainstream media kept him out of the process.

Michael Moore explains how working people are conned into looking to the Democrats to bail them out of their situation, but that 'it doesn't work'. He also speaks at a Nader rally, saying that no legislation, Republican or Democrat, has made life better for ordinary Americans, but Nader's campaigning had been responsible for a raft of environmental legislation that had made life better. Given Moore's recent support for General Wesley Clark as the Democratic candidate, perhaps he should watch this documentary.

The really inspiring parts of this documentary are when we're reminded of voices of protest 'in the belly of the beast'. Protests are shown from the point of view of protesters, starting with Seattle in 1999, and ending with the demonstrations against Bush's theft of the election at the end of 2000, taking in the protests outside the two conventions and the conventions that were held to hear alternative voices. The film doesn't flinch from showing the brutality of the state towards those who dare to stand up against the big parties and corporate power--the rows of riot police, the plastic bullets, the clubs. And it points out that protests do make a difference--anything that has benefited ordinary Americans has had to be fought for.

Hoffman is wonderfully, unashamedly partisan. He often interrupts his left wing interviewees to agree with them, and nods enthusiastically when they make anti-establishment points. From his previous position of being 'ill-informed', he sees in all its ugly reality what the political system in the US is doing to people.
Phil Whaite


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