Issue 283 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published March 2004 Copyright © Socialist Review
Four centuries later, Mike Gonzalez finds Don Quixote a strangely modern tragicomic hero
|One of the many illustrations of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza|
'Tilting at windmills'--it's a phrase you often hear whenever people launch ferocious assaults at imaginary enemies. But perhaps not everyone remembers that the first man to charge at slowly turning sails was an elderly Spaniard wearing a pudding bowl on his head. Don Quixote was his name--and the only witness to this particular attack of lunacy was a plump peasant riding a donkey who found it impossible to convince the old man that these were not giants with flailing arms who needed to be brought down a peg or two. The reluctant witness was his squire, one Sancho Panza.
This incident is only a small door into the extraordinary world of the novel written in the early 17th century by Miguel de Cervantes, a one-armed tax collector disillusioned with his society and heavily in debt himself. The 1,000 pages he produced, at record speed, turned out to be one of the truly great works of world literature. Every age, every century, has produced its own translation. Every age has not just rediscovered, but in one sense reconstructed, Cervantes's great original. And the 21st century already has two new versions in English--one by John Rutherford and the other (much less convincing) American translation by Edith Grossman which has just been published.
Don Quixote, or to give it its full title The Tale of the Ingenious Knight Don Quixote de la Mancha, is in many ways a very modern story. Not so much in its content as because it begins by recognising that people exist in a material reality but make sense of it in terms of values and ideas. Quixote is an elderly man whose great love in life is reading novels of chivalry. The world inside his head is populated by knights, damsels in distress, giants and monsters--the mental universe of a medieval man. In that imaginary reality what drives people to act in one way or another is ideas of honour, chivalry, nobility and heroism.
In some ways these are ideas whose origin is in military virtues, and whose proofs are found in battle. Quixote makes a long speech in the novel explaining why arms are superior to learning, because the fighter risks his life while the intellectual risks only contradiction.
The comedy of the novel comes from the fact that, while Quixote's imagined universe is populated by these creatures from the tales that he read, the reality of Spain at the turn of the 17th century was much more like the world seen by Quixote's reluctant squire, Sancho Panza. In his world you measured success or failure on a balance of profit and loss. When he meets the old knight, and hears his cockeyed notions about the local barmaid (who Quixote has christened the Princess Dulcinea) or the broken down old nag the Ingenious Knight describes as his faithful stallion, he leaps to the conclusion that he is crazy.
It is the offer of a weekly wage, board and lodging that persuades him to stay--despite the frequent beatings and blanket tossings he's subjected to whenever the old knight decides to attack yet another group of travellers he has arbitrarily concluded are agents of evil. It's his own interests that motivate Sancho, and the prospect of a little hoard at the end of the journey.
And yet something curious happens as they make their way backwards and forwards across Spain's dry central plateau--Castilla-La Mancha. By the time the second volume of the novel is published, seven years after the first, Quixote and Panza find that they are famous and their adventures have gone before them. In a word, they are celebrities.
So when a duke and duchess persuade them to visit their estates and offer Sancho the governorship of an island, Balataria, they are flattered and convinced. Of course it is all a joke, and in the manner of a 'reality show' the governor's new subjects, lining up to hear his judgments and disputes, are in on the act too. Yet Panza turns out to be a wise fool who has learned some important lessons from his irritating boss. His judgments are wise and insightful, and based on some of the values of honour and justice that he has learned from the fading knight.
When the two men finally return home, Quixote is exhausted and overwhelmed by reality. He sees his imaginary world invaded by the harsh realities of a world dominated by commerce, the market, exchange, and the values of profit and loss. The paradox, and the beautiful irony, is that Sancho has learned the opposite lesson, and understood something of the petty corruptions and the narrow vision that inform his own universe.
Four centuries later, and even at 1,000 pages, the battle to rediscover idealism in the face of a world that seems intent on weighing, measuring and packaging everything for sale seems irresistibly familiar.
The Barbarian Invasions
Dir: Denys Arcand
This is an apparently simple film about a man's slow death, but it seems like all of life is in it. A father is terminally ill in a Canadian hospital, and gradually his family and friends around the world deal with the news, gather round the dying man, and grapple with the meaning of his life and death for both him and them.
Putting a lingering death at the centre of a film is brave and unusual in itself--our culture rarely deals with death seriously outside church. The Barbarian Invasions treats death in an unsentimental but painfully intimate way--after initial confusion and denial, family and friends spend the film trying to find ways to make the man's death easy and dignified. To do that they break all sorts of conventions and barely have a religious thought, presumably one reason for the film's enigmatic title.
But it's a brilliant move as well, because as you watch the film you become aware that the nature of a death can tell you a lot about the society you're in, and what's more, people's deaths make others think hard about the past and the future. So the film very naturally can become a meditation on the state of things.
The shape of the film is beautiful. The family is in a mess, and at first they don't want to deal with the dad's death. The father, who is an old lefty lecturer, claims not to want to be fussed over and certainly doesn't want special treatment, but the public ward is horrible and the doctors keep getting his name wrong. His investment broker son (a barbarian invader from the City of London) decides to throw loads of money at the problem, partly to wind his dad up. He pulls strings to get the best medical opinions, the latest scan over the border in the US, and a private room. He then sets about getting hold of his dad's friends, pupils and lovers, and gets them to the hospital even if he has to bribe them.
The storyline reminds you of the dreadful fact that you need a lot of cash to die in dignity. But ironically the son's corrupt and venal efforts create the space for a reconsideration of their lives by all present, and that leads to growing awareness that things are wrong. The older family and friends--the generation of 1968--talk nostalgically of the time when they had ideas and ideals to believe in. The dad's life of shameless sexual promiscuity throws doubt on conventional ideas of marriage and morals. His strength in his final days gives strength to others in the midst of crises in their lives. Surrounded by his friends, the man who appeared at the beginning of the film to be an irritable self indulgent wreck becomes an inspiration to all.
The film manages to touch and illuminate a hundred issues without being forced. There are moments of cynicism, such as when the hospital trade unionists appear as corrupt as the authorities. But most of the performances are full of surprises in an ordinary, intense situation, and there's an anger in the old man and a beauty in the film that raises it way above resignation.
Dir: Bernardo Bertolucci
|Isabelle imitates the Venus de Milo|
Bertolucci's The Dreamers captures the excitement and energy of the events in May 1968 Paris, when a students' revolt grew into the biggest general strike in history and threatened the entire fabric of the French political and economic order. Though focusing primarily on the cultural turmoil that accompanied the sudden outbreak of radicalism, this is a film in which there is an overwhelming sense that the world can and should be changed.
Matthew is a young American drawn to Paris by his passion for films. He is soon intoxicated by Theo and Isabelle, Parisian twin students, when he encounters them at a protest against the sacking of a radical film exhibitor and the closure of his alternative cinema at the hands of the authoritarian French regime (scenes based on a real incident). The pair draw him into their world, with their heady mixture of sensuality and thirst for cultural discussion. Soon he is resident in their parents' house, where the three while away the hours re-enacting scenes from classic movies, experimenting sexually, and rehearsing the topical debates about film, philosophy and the future. Theo and Isabelle see their struggle primarily as a personal one--as though living a bohemian existence is enough to challenge the austerity of life under de Gaulle. The inward-looking nature of the threesome begins to irritate as we hear the sounds of revolt outside the closed shutters of the apartment--we yearn to see what lies beyond their darkening effect. At points Bertolucci's characters seem a mere vehicle for his love affair with the movies they discuss, and their pretentiousness is annoying. More seriously, the objectification of Isabelle's body during the sex scenes becomes almost unbearable at times.
Yet Bertolucci stops the film from falling into portraying 1968 as a purely cultural and sexual phenomenon by gently mocking the pretensions of the main characters, and Theo in particular. A radical activist friend accosts him outside class one day for his lack of engagement with the struggle, against the backdrop of students painting political slogans over the walls and pillars of their grand university buildings. Even Matthew attempts to inject a sense of the outside world into the stifling insularity of the twins' existence, such as when a playful debate about Hendrix or Clapton spills over into a passionate argument about conscription in Vietnam. When he finally entices Isabelle out of the apartment on a date--to the cinema, of course--the reality of the struggles around them is brought home by the real life footage he stares at on televisions in a shop window and the mounting piles of rubbish in the streets they wander down, presumably caused by a refuse workers' strike. This gap between their talk of change and their lack of involvement in any actual struggle is a source of much humour in the film--especially towards the end, when Isabelle's melodramatic gestures are literally smashed by the intervention of the outside world into their bubble-like world. The dramatic final scene, though highly stylised, is refreshingly full of the vigour of 1968.
Bertolucci intertwines documentary footage from 1968 with the main narrative, as well as cleverly deploying extracts from the myriad films the threesome adore. The cinematography is beautiful in its detail and is a celebration of attempts to see the world in a new way.
This is not a film that will enable you to understand May 1968, but it will give you a taste of the dynamism of the times.
House of Sand and Fog
Dir: Vadim Perelman
|Ben Kingsley on the road in House of Sand and Fog|
Publicised as an 'exploration of the American Dream gone awry', House of Sand and Fog looks promising. A thriller revolving around disputed ownership of a house, the film attempts to deal with issues of immigration, racism, and the crushing of individual hopes by bureaucratic state machinery and alienation. As such, and as a thriller that draws its tension from the relationship between its characters rather than special effects and shootouts, it is certainly streets ahead of most Hollywood movies.
Massoud Amir Berani is a former colonel in the Iranian airforce under the Shah, forced to leave during the 1979 revolution. In the US he is reduced to doing two jobs, as part of a road repair crew and in a petrol station, to keep his family in the style they are used to and to put his son through college. When recently divorced ex-addict Kathy Nicolo is evicted from her house in California as a result of a bureaucratic mistake Berani sees a way out of his bind, buying the house for a fraction of its worth at auction with plans to sell it on and make a huge profit. The resulting clash over the ownership of the house gets increasingly out of control as a racist deputy sheriff, Lester Burdon, intervenes on Kathy's behalf.
Initially, though not quite believable, House of Sand and Fog is gripping, and is helped no end by a superb performance by Ben Kingsley as Berani, a vicious and arrogant man trying to regain some control in a life turned upside down. The unsympathetic nature of his character makes his (and the viewer's) realisation of racism all the more arresting. Kathy is also compellingly played by Jennifer Connelly as a woman whose mental health is eroding under a series of emotional blows and who desperately clings to the obsessive and dangerous Burdon.
Sadly, however, the film doesn't live up to its potential. As the tragic consequences of this 'clash of cultures' (as it is described in the blurb) are revealed, the story and the script become more and more unlikely.
It is based on a book by Andre Dubus III which was made an instant bestseller after being chosen as an Oprah Book Club selection, and its message is ultimately Oprah Winfrey-esque: People should understand each other and get on, no matter what their differences, and it is 'our hopes, not our hatreds, that divide us'. The film's symbolism is clunky and obvious--endless shots of fog rolling in to obscure the house were especially irritating. But the biggest problem with the film is its lack of credibility. It is hard to believe in Berani's predicament, and harder to sympathise. Kathy's fight for her house gets more desperate as a visit from her mother draws closer, giving the impression that retaining the illusion of normality is more important than having somewhere to live. Maybe this is a problem the middle classes can relate to, but it seems bizarre. The sheriff's character and responses, pivotal to the film, are utterly unbelievable, and Ron Eldard is badly miscast.
House of Sand and Fog left me feeling depressed--not at the tragic turn of events in the film, but that the chance to make an intelligent film about the immigrant experience and the alienation of human beings from each other had been given the Dreamworks/Oprah treatment, and reduced to sentimentalism about the importance of family and the destructive potential of greed.
by Banner Theatre
|Violins and violence in Burning Issues|
In 1984 Banner Theatre threw themselves into support for the miners' strike. They raised money, sang at demonstrations, toured picket lines, and put together a passionate, committed chronicle of the events. This year they interviewed many of those involved in the struggle for their latest show, Burning Issues, which tours the country from March. It weaves together filmed interviews with other documentary material and songs to produce what the company refers to as a video ballad. This powerful production tells the story of the strike within the context of earlier miners' victories and later political protest. The musicians shift easily from traditional English folk songs which were created in the 1984-85 strike to the newer songs which are influenced by rap, reggae, jazz and Middle Eastern music.
The show opens with Arthur Scargill's defiant speech detailing what was at stake in the strike. It is followed by moving descriptions of the devastation of mining communities since 1984. But why was the government so determined to inflict a defeat at such an enormous cost? The show tries to answer this by taking us back to the successful miners' strike of 1972. There is an exciting account of the decisive closing of Saltley coke depot in Birmingham by thousands of workers walking out of work one morning and joining the picket in response to an appeal from miners.
Governments were determined to break this unity and power. The show details something of the journey Tory and Labour governments took to reach the bitter battle of 1984 when miners are shown as having little choice but to strike. Archive footage and interviews convey the determination of pickets, the activity of support groups, the ferocious battles with the police, the disappointments with the TUC and the bitterness with the Labour leader, Neil Kinnock, who berated the striking miners. Miners' wives talk about the way their view of the world changed as they were drawn into building solidarity. Despite the defeat, those recalling the events speak with pride about their involvement and the lessons they learned about media bias and the injustice of the police and the judiciary.
The final phase of the show shifts the focus to more recent struggles. As the performers sing 'Bella Ciao' the screen fills with film of the anti-capitalist demonstrations and the protests against the war. 'The show is called Burning Issues', says Dave Rogers, the company's coordinator, 'because the strike exposes the real divisions in society and the revolutionary potential of ordinary people to change the world.'
The Quare Fellow
by Brendan Behan
Liverpool Playhouse, then touring
The Quare Fellow is one of the only plays where the audience never sees the central character. Written by Brendan Behan in 1954, it depicts 24 hours in an Irish prison, from slopping-out time (graphically portrayed) to the following morning. During that time one prisoner receives a reprieve from hanging, while another murderer (the quare fellow) waits to hear his fate.
The prisoners are serving their time for a variety of offences--one old lag has been in and out for years for begging. The play, however, does not concentrate on why the prisoners are there, but on the interaction between them, and their reactions to the current situation.
Behan does not deal in stereotypes. The characters are neither merely victims nor villains. They are influenced by the prevailing ideas in society--one of them being hugely shocked to find that the guy in the next cell is there for the (then) offence of 'sodomy'. He finds murder rather more excusable! Behan portrays the chief warder as a decent man, in the job because it is comfortable for him, trying to do his best for the prisoners, and opposed to capital punishment.
The play was first performed in England by Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop Company in their own particular style, influenced by music hall and with more of an emphasis on the comic aspects. This production by the Oxford Stage Company, directed by Kathy Burke, rejects that approach. The humour is still there, especially in the first act, but it is a gallows humour, a way of dealing with their situation and what may come.
In the last two acts the tension builds as the realisation dawns that there will be no reprieve. The hangman arrives, an efficient little man determined to do his job properly, making his calculations (weight, height of prisoner, drop) quite coolly.
The ending of the play is dark and sombre, yet defiant. As the clock strikes eight an enormous din breaks out, with prisoners banging, shouting and drumming on doors. This, we are told afterwards, occurred whenever a hanging took place.
Brendan Behan spent several years in prisons in Ireland and England because of his involvement in Republicanism and the IRA, and was in one of the prisons when an execution took place. He began writing in Mountjoy prison. His book Borstal Boy was inspired by his three years in an English borstal.
Though the Sinn Fein leader Michael Collins expressed his wish to abolish the death penalty when Ireland became independent, it remained legal in Eire until 1990, although the last hanging occurred in 1954.
As the play is touring England, finishing with four weeks at the Tricycle Theatre in London from mid-April, many readers will have the chance to see it. I cannot praise too highly the accomplishments of the cast and their director. The audience witnessed ensemble playing of the highest order. Kathy Burke will be one of our noted directors.
The Art of Philip Guston
Royal Academy, London
|Philip Guston at the Royal Academy|
Philip Guston (1913-80) was an American painter whose family were poor immigrants from Odessa. Like most kids, he loved comics. His favourite was 'Krazy Kat', drawn by George Herriman, a black cartoonist (unusual in those times).
He caused shock and outrage in the art world when he switched from abstract expressionism (the New York School which included Pollock, de Kooning and Rothko) to a crude, figurative style. Other artists refused to talk to him and he was accused of selling out. But this exhibition shows that the change was not so abrupt. Mid 20th century American concerns of war, violence and conspiracy are in evidence here from pre First World War bombing raids and hooded Ku Klux Klan to dark Nixon-era paranoia. The hooded figure motif is used throughout his work and although he was deeply affected by the Scottsboro case, in which black men were falsely accused of raping a white woman, the hood is used to suggest disguise and concealment rather than overt KKK racism. These, mixed with images from Guston's own life (the suicide of his father, his brother's car accident), create a powerful effect with humorous personal references sharing canvases painted with pessimism, fear and despair.
The exhibition clearly shows his progression through different styles as a painter. As a young man he worked on the government-funded mural projects in New York and also in Morelia, Mexico. He was associated with the abstract expressionists in the 1950s, a movement whose exponents were perhaps responding to postwar freedom of expression after the enforced social realism of the Nazis and Stalinists. He felt he could go no further with abstract expressionism, and one of the fascinating things about the exhibition is that we can see recognisable forms gradually emerging from apparently abstract canvases. The images of the 1960s are sometimes cartoonish with fleshy tones of blood and guts, but they never take on the concerns of slick commercialism, as did the pop-art movement. In the 1970s his images become darker with the more controlled lines of the Nixon series.
After seeing the exhibition, you are left with questions about his political conclusions. Guston does not suggest or offer any way out of the bloodshed and violence, and the overwhelming feeling is one of despair. Still, his bravery in exploring his political concerns along with his personal demons is energetic and sometimes emotionally overwhelming.
Constantin Brancusi: The Essence of Things
Tate Modern, London
Constantin Brancusi (1876-1958) was the greatest sculptor of the first half of the 20th century, and is often compared to Picasso as an innovator of new styles. In particular Brancusi was the first great sculptor to approach abstraction in his work, and the exhibition dramatically shows his movement in this direction. He thus laid the foundation of the avant garde and 'modernism'. At the same time he always sought meaning beyond the ephemeral. As he said, 'What is real is not the external form but the essence of things,' and this too comes across and is strongly felt. In his view 'one always wants to understand. But there is nothing to understand. Everything you see here has a single merit--it has been lived.'
Brancusi was born in Romania but moved to Paris in 1904, and briefly worked with Rodin. He left within weeks, however, to plough his own furrow, which mainly meant carving directly into stone or wood instead of the modelling and bronzing techniques used by Rodin and most previous sculptors.
His specific sculptural language can be reduced to four basic elements or motifs that appear as pure geometrical forms--the ovoid, the cube, the cylinder and the truncated pyramid. The last makes up his 'endless column' in Targu-Jiu in Romania, and is shown only in Brancusi's photographs.
The cube is more popularly represented by The Kiss, two sculptures of which are represented here, and in a photograph of its apotheosis in The Gate of the Kiss in Targu-Jiu.
The most emotionally moving and evocative rooms contain the ovoids--egg or face shaped sculptures which are quite overwhelming in their mimimalist perfection. They start with a captivating, realistic Head of a Sleeping Child (1908). One can then follow over the years Brancusi's paring down of the features of the head, till by 1920 Sculpture for the Blind is completely featureless, a pure ovoid, stunning in its emotional effect. This is repeated in The Beginning of the World, which has a room to itself. Here the pure ovoid is supported by exhibition pedestals or 'thrones' to highlight and exalt the work, to which Brancusi paid significant attention. The other room inspiring strong emotion is the one containing his soaring birds, and these too achieve their apex in a room devoted to just one sculpture, Bird in Space (1932), made using polished bronze, a piece that transfixes you as your eye follows its body soaring into space.
Tate Modern's presentation of the sculptures adds considerably to the pleasure of viewing them. Each sculpture has plenty of space to be appreciated from all sides--a great asset with Brancusi, for whom the different and additional aspects on all sides make up the complete sculpture. In addition most of the larger works are not cut off from the viewer by intrusive tapes, but are placed on large round white circles, mimicking the millstones Brancusi worked on in his studio. This is the most moving exhibition of sculpture I have seen for a long time. Everyone interested in art--that is, all of us--should not miss it.