Grace, Favour and Farce, by Tom Jennings. Short review published in Freedom, Vol. 67, No. 15, July 2006.Grace, Favour and Farce by Tom Jennings
[published in Freedom, Vol. 67, No. 15, July 2006]
Manderlay, dir. Lars Von Trier
This is the second of Von Trier’s ‘Land of Opportunity’ provocations, parodying the patterns of American national mythology to expose the intimate interplay between elite liberal philosophy and practical brutality in shaping history. In Dogville (2004), an impoverished 1930s Rockies community cruelly abuse Grace – a stranger seeking sanctuary – as both the self-righteous superiority of her erstwhile advocate and the pious rectitude of the other townsfolk decompose into suppressed sadism. Their ambivalence at her sweet-natured humility is trumped by hidden resentment at her privileged background – she was escaping the dictatorship of her gangster father, but finally revels in his vengeful massacre of the miscreant populace.
The marauding gangsters next hit the Manderlay plantation in Alabama, where slavery persists six decades after abolition. Grace (now played by Bryce Dallas Howard) elects to stay and oversee the implementation of democracy and free trade – a regime change backed by some of her dad’s henchmen. But despite her moral repugnance at prior methods of classification and control of the Africans, her leadership makes error after blunder thanks to similarly overweening pride and arrogance, ignorance and bad judgement, and deeper levels of unacknowledged prejudice, self-disgust and conflicted desire. The freed slaves can’t match her high-handed high standards, and eventually vote for the old system to be reinstated – with her at its head. Again she flees – this time from her own dictatorship.
Manderlay’s minimalist staging and photography are again hypnotically effective, as is the final devastating Jacob Holdt photomontage showing the degradation of southern states black life after abolition – though John Hurt’s cynically reactionary narration is superfluous since this story has no hidden twists or puzzles beyond the apparently unredeemable small-minded passivity of the oppressed. Von Trier’s method narrows down characterisation as well as cinematic language, so that all we see are simplistic stereotypes rather than grandiose philosophy’s pretensions to universal essences. And this is precisely the subject matter of the films – here, Grace’s misrecognition of her own faulty perceptions, dubious motivations and fallible ethics as the objective reality of the external world, subsequently used as the basis for forcibly rearranging other people’s lives. The absurdity of hierarchical power imagining itself as benevolent is thus comprehensively deconstructed.
What remains unexplored are the complex subjectivity and sociality – and hence active potential – of the victims, beyond the manifold psychic contortions necessary for the Black characters to deal with their impossible situation. Conversely, the white former owners work together well with their ex-subordinates – the only glimpse of optimism in the film thus being partly attributed to the penitence of oppressors after their humiliation by Grace for their sins (she exempts herself despite protestations that ‘we’ perpetrated the injustices of slavery). Manderlay is certainly a withering critique of US racism, colonialism and exploitation everywhere, and the general delusions of statecraft – achieved through exemplifying and heightening the dehumanising strategies it derides. Ultimately, such exercises in bourgeois self-contempt may undermine authoritarian fantasies, but scarcely represent revelations for liberation.
Grace, Favour and Farce, by Tom Jennings. Short review published in Freedom, Vol. 67, No. 15, July 2006.Grace, Favour and Farce by Tom Jennings
Rodent’s Eye View, by Tom Jennings. Art review published in Freedom, Vol. 66, No. 14, July 2005
Rodent’s Eye View by Tom Jennings
[published in Freedom, Vol. 66, No. 14, July 2005]
ART The Gerbil’s Guide To The Galaxy by Sally Madge, Bookville, High Bridge, Newcastle upon Tyne, April 20051
Who thinks postmodern art is so much smug pretentious vacuous wank? Not always. Here, a pet gerbil enthusiastically munched its way through The New Illustrated Universal Reference Book – recycling via its physical labour the arrogant presumption that collections of information can encompass history and teach anything worth knowing. Who controls what goes in; what’s left out; how it’s presented and used? This rodent representative of the teeming masses followed its own universal agenda to keep warm, comfortable and secure – with no respect for the supposed wisdom and disciplining power dispensed by elites.
Unfortunately far too many exponents of contemporary artistic practice prefer to pose in the safety of their self-important cliques, venturing out only occasionally to lick the recuperative arses of art’s institutional markets. However, its unique capacity to condense, explore and encapsulate ideas and feelings means that art can critique the intersections of life, culture and politics in such a way as to intrigue and affect us – rather than bludgeoning us with the preachy self-satisfied ideological bullying that politicos are occasionally (!) guilty of. In this case the deployment of ironic reflexivity also illustrates an understanding that aesthetic manipulation (as in other kinds) always entails a rhetoric of power. So, as a ‘pet’, the gerbil has no ultimate control over the contours of its lifeworld. Instead these are provided by an apparently omnipotent superior agency claiming to be well-meaning but serving its own interest … Remind you of anything?
Footnoting the artist’s marvellous Underdog,2 this exemplary and humble bookwork straddles and references conceptual art and popular culture with more biting political pertinence than Douglas Adams’ middle class dressing-gowned slacker tourist3 ever dreamt. Beautiful. Go gerbil!
1. The gerbil gets a second bite at the cherry throughout July when the exhibit resumes at the Waygood Gallery, High Bridge Street, Newcastle.
2. a 1999 video installation remake, with Sam Hooper soundtrack, of Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali’s classic surrealist film Un Chien Andalou.
3. in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
Gene Genies, by Tom Jennings. Art review published in Freedom, Vol. 66, No. 14, July 2005
Gene Genies by Tom Jennings
[published in Freedom, Vol. 66, No. 14, July 2005]
ART Anti-GM event at RISK: Creative Action in Political Culture, CCA, Glasgow, April 2005
A fascinating presentation and debate around genetic modification was held on 2nd April at the CCA, Glasgow in the midst of the collectively self-controlled chaos of the RISK art exhibition. Present were Carey Coombs from the Soil Association lambasting the patently despicable multinational copyrighting of genetic material (thus outlawing farming mutual aid such as seed sharing); and Susan Bardocz and Arpad Pusztai – sacked in 1998 from the Rowett Institute, Aberdeen for speaking publicly about findings of damaged growth and immune systems in rats fed GM food – on the political restrictions imposed on researchers. Also detailed was the arrest and prosecution of CAE’s (Critical Art Ensemble) Steven Kurtz for possession of harmless common bacteria and an over-the-counter device altered to detect the presence of GMified cells. His emergency phone call (after his wife had just died) – was answered by a SWAT team who confiscated his gear (and her body). The Fed retreated from their trumped-up bioterrorism charges to mail and wire fraud (maximum 20-year stretch). You couldn’t make it up … At least the CAE support campaign has heightened awareness of anti-terrorism laws used to harass artists and restrict public discourse.1
The CCA debate – with CAE’s Free Range Grain banners in the background – started from the best ultra-scientific guesses (little meaningful research having been commissioned) on likely effects of GM: growth promoters accelerating cancer progression; antibiotic resistance and allergies mushrooming; interrupting the sequence of gene functioning causing multiple and catastrophic organ and developmental failure, etc, etc. This is all bewilderingly complex as science, let alone common sense; but genetic control basically operates by switching key chemical processes on and off – which are usually implicated in many bodily processes simultaneously, not just the one you’re modifying (a far cry from the triumphalist one-gene one-cure balderdash peddled by education, the media, and corporate interests). A heartening variety of tactics for contestation and levels of attack were then illustrated, including those mobilising the artistic and cultural – rather than merely the traditional agitational – imagination. We need these things in our (political) lives.
In general the RISK programme has offered immense free-range food for thought – not least on artistic activity itself away from the usual snooty careerist middle class networks. Likewise, government definitions of the role of arts in ‘social inclusion’ never engage with the real politics of power. This project manages to do that, and more, in the realms of direct action, protest and political change – with some success in terms of genuine participation.
Regrettably though, when it comes to science, the development of fully-rounded grass-roots mobilisation is often hamstrung by entire schools of red herrings (e.g. rationalism vs. mysticism or primitivism, as in recent debate in Freedom). And, fair enough, some folks are partial to herrings. But if rationality can only solve problems when its limits are acknowledged,2 then letting elites decide what those limits are will be suicidal politically (maybe even literally). And if creativity and passion are just as important as brains, credit goes to RISK for getting to grips with all such good stuff. Some wisdom just can’t be put back in the bottle.
Notes 1. also a convenient excuse for blind sweeps on poor inner city neighbourhoods, deporting tens of thousands of immigrants and refugees (terrorists found = 0): see, e.g. Alisa Solomon, ‘The War on Immigrants’, Mute 29, pp.8-9, 2005.
2. see Mike Michael’s excellent ‘The Power-Persuasion-Identity Nexus: Anarchism and Actor Networks’, Anarchist Studies, Vol. 2, No. 1, pp.25-42, 1994.
AeroSoul, by Tom Jennings. Art review published in Freedom, Vol. 66, No. 4, February 2005
AeroSoul by Tom Jennings
[published in Freedom, Vol. 66, No. 4, February 2005]
Stencil graffiti by Arofish often succeeds in transcending formula and cliché, according to Tom Jennings Arofish is a London-based stencil graffiti artist whose output ranges from slogans and cartoons to more abstract and opaque designs and imagery.1 Diverse traditions of political art are referenced – from satire, surrealism and the modern tweaking of mainstream or commercial discourse and iconography (Adbusters, Banksy) – whereas more tentative, existential subject matter (akin to the Paris work of Blek le Rat) is reminiscent of the Situationist critique of everyday life. Throughout, the limits are tested of the political and visual subtlety which can be achieved using this artform, given the constraints on its clandestine, unofficial decoration of public space.The London graffiti includes anti-war and Palestine solidarity graphics, plus ‘Alien Contact’ – masquerading as a cashpoint machine (i.e. of the Fortress Europe people-bank) with instructions to asylum seekers highlighting the intrusive surveillance spreading through our carceral society (the “liberty zone”). ‘Waves of Terror’ retreats from literal clarity to evoke the menace of colonial adventure, and various other examples are even more indirect and suggestive. Impressionistic flashes of mournful figures appear in limbo, enduring the meaninglessness of life waiting to happen. Some of the website texts echo these themes, but far more angrily – denouncing the drudgery and misery visited on so many (insult seen as added to injury by, for example, crap TV and pop music). Rage thus provides creative energy, but the painstaking stencil process and precarious realisation seem to drain the excess. Vaguely sinister, ghostly renderings remain, bleeding out of the solemn surfaces and rough edges of city landscapes. The specificity of place imbues each scene with a sense of the weight that has to be borne – both by the dead physical infrastructure of mass society, and by the living souls of those flattened into conformity with it. The ephemeral nature of the original brick and concrete canvases (more so than their reproductions in gallery shows or on the website) only intensifies the pathos.
The device of portraying single or small groups of figures in subdued intimate relationships with neighbourhoods proved especially fruitful in the winter of 2003/4 when the artist joined International Solidarity Movement direct action activities in Palestine and Baghdad. The straightforward agitprop images mobilising elements of local customs (and their Western connotations) would work equally well as posters or cartoons, with punchlines stressing the venality of Israeli/US imperialism. So ‘Ali Baba’ (Iraqi slang for thief) deploys enjoyable irony in the Arabic caption, “Hey American, take your oil!” (in the story the oil was used to kill the forty thieves and save Ali). All well and good. But there are much more moving pieces combining personal empathy (concerning the calculated horror and madness of military occupation) with a precision of location – each effectively conveying the predicament of that place, and the anguished experience of being in it.
Arofish starts from his own responses to particular sites and situations. If the images awaken their curiosity, passersby may then connect with the more or less submerged concepts underpinning them – without experiencing this as posing, preaching or stating the obvious.2 The evocative poignancy of the Middle East figurative work is especially powerful in this regard – manifesting creative engagement during the otherwise brutal routine of conflict, and prompting direct and immediate feedback from local viewers. Perhaps overwhelmingly obvious oppression provides a clearer backdrop for focusing on the human condition via the interaction between sympathetic outsiders and those bearing the brunt. I look forward to the artist developing further this dimension to his palette at home, where the postmodern apparatuses of power magnify the rootlessness of existence in our fragmented communities. Here, questions of agency, domination and creativity easily dissolve in hubris, hysteria, narcissism and psychosis; the positions of artists, viewers, producers and consumers being so difficult to disentangle. In this context, shunning the stifling seduction of institutions – while spraying onto their external surfaces shared emotional contours of suffering, despair, hope and solidarity – seems a highly promising endeavour.
1. collected at www.arofish.org.uk.
2. from an email conversation, January 2005.
Slam Dunk Funk Sunk by Clunky Punk Junk, by Tom Jennings. Music review published in Freedom, Vol. 66, No. 13, July 2005
Slam Dunk Funk Sunk by Clunky Punk Junk by Tom Jennings
[published in Freedom, Vol. 66, No. 13, July 2005]
Saul Williams, The Fader Label, 2005
Saul Williams fails to translate potent political polemics into poetic musical magic for Tom Jennings’ ears
Performance poet Saul Williams first came to prominence (rather than just being supreme Nuyorican Grand Slam Champion) thanks to the superb cinematic showcase, Slam (dir. Marc Levin, 1998), portraying a low level soft drugs dealer honing his rapping skills and ambitions in prison before trouncing his trendy peers in an arts café spoken word competition. Since then he has solidified his rep as a premier exponent of oral street literacy, including providing the name, theme song (with Coldcut & DJ Spooky) and publicity text, ‘Pledge of Resistance’, for the anti-war Not In My Name coalition:1
“America is at war, not only with Iraq but with itself. Many Americans are slowly beginning to realize that the norms of American comfort come at the cost of foreign discomfort. Our leaders have always known this. Yet, we have not always truly known our leaders. Thus, now, we are led astray. Our current regime is see-through. They aim to manipulate the world for their own personal gain. As an American of an antebellum bloodline I recognize colonial imperialism under any name and refuse to allow the goals of our leaders to be perpetuated in my name. George Bush is not president of me. He is not representative of my beliefs. He claims no earned authority over the American people. Those who follow his command are misguided. They are many, yet outnumbered. I stand on the side of humanity, marching in the streets of Cairo, London, Paris, Mexico City, NY, Los Angeles, screaming these songs for the world to hear.”2
The eponymously titled Saul Williams (The Fader Label) is his second foray into mainstream music releases (after Amethyst Rock Star, 2001 – co-produced by rap-rock veteran Rick Rubin). His searing, excoriating and exhilarating vocals are set to heavy guitar-based quasi-rock beats which he ambitiously describes as industrial punk-hop – evoking techno and electro, Public Enemy’s cacophonous Bomb Squad production, and sundry descendants of punk ethics: “the tracks range from politics to relationships and the politics of relationships. What I ended up with was something that captured the authoritative cool of hip-hop, the playful angst of rock and roll, the raw emotional torment of emo … and the fuck offness of punk.”2
The lyrics themselves are outstanding and often inspired, especially when nailing the laziness, foolishness, complacencies or darker hidden downsides of everyday clichés and common sense and the dishonest malice of politicians. There is humour aplenty, too, as in the intro to ‘List Of Demands’ riffing on the pretensions of gangsta hip-pop: ‘Saul Williams DID NOT almost die, get shot, beat up, stand trial for murder, but he does have babies by two different women if that counts. Say word.’ However, the percussion and rock focus bring to mind the relative slickness as well as the political sensibility of Rage Against the Machine (with whom Williams worked closely on ‘Not In My Name’) – as well as the punk influence, with more ragged rough and ready slashing guitars echoing 1980s New York pioneers Henry Rollins, Black Flag, and Bad Brains.3
And there’s the rub (but minus the dub). The rhythmic qualities of poetry as literature (with a big ‘L’) are intrinsically tied into the conjunctions of syllable, word, line and stanza; whereas in oral traditions co-rooted in music it is necessary to dissolve ego to some pragmatic extent in the beating of hearts or drums, for example, and in the generally interacting vibrations of audiences. This he seems unwilling or unable to contemplate, instead preferring to thrash his fantastic lyrics to death-by-metal:
“I did most of the music myself. The cool thing about recording before there was an actual deal in place was the fact that most songs simply started as experiments done in my free time with absolutely no pressure to anyone. I was the only one whose head nod determined the fate of a song. Oh, and, of course, your’s too …” (www.contactmusic.com).
Hmm … dead giveaway, that tagged-on acknowledgement of the listener’s existence … Furthermore, while I’ve yet to snag any new versions, Newcastle upon Tyne beatmakers extraordinaire DC Joseph deployed an artfully offbeat snare kick in their slow funky house remix of ‘Amethyst Rocks’ (from the previous album) in a valiant attempt to accommodate Williams’ rhythmically errant diction. But even this couldn’t disguise his refusal to meet the demands of music halfway. And I don’t think it’s just a technical problem of marrying divergent literary traditions. After all, our own dub poets like Linton Kwesi Johnson and Benjamin Zephaniah never have such trouble – and neither do American spoken wordsmiths such as Sarah Jones, Ursula Rucker or Dana Bryant.
Perhaps things are different in the Big Apple, where the freaky cliquey fashionable arts scene has long specialised in co-opting street expression into high-concept commodities. But these days the only obvious reason to dredge up a rock sensibility is the commercial pressure to sell to middle class white kids, who tolerate developments in Black culture only when accompanied by posing shrieking angst.4 Otherwise, the younger mixed urban generations in particular are quite capable of appreciating the real thing, thank you very much – whoever it’s produced by. Next up, check out the website hype (at www.saulwilliams.com):
“In an age where boundless leaps are being made in communication, Saul Williams is evolutionary proof that age old concepts can be fused with new age precepts and expressed with mind opening precision. Never before has the power of word and our ability to dictate our reality been expressed so clearly and creatively, at once. Saul’s poetry represents an evolution of thought, artistry and spiritual consciousness delivered with the lyrical fervor of hip hop and the grace and linguistic mastery of Shakespeare. Saul channels the voice of the New Age, yet allows a wide ranging stream of consciousness to distort the melody like some sort of lyrical Hendrix.”
Exactly. Sounds a little on the hippy-dippy tip, don’t it? … Saul, I’m not saying you’re (musico-culturally) extinct; but you’re definitely late.
1. which included luminary liberal celebrity signatories such as Ossie Davis, Susan Sarandon, Noam Chomsky, Gloria Steinem, Sean Penn and Kurt Vonnegut. Saul Williams has also recorded on Lyricist Lounge compilations; toured with Blackalicious, Cursive and The Mars Volta; co-starred in the Kevin Spacey vehicle K-Pax; has a current broadway show; and plans to perform ‘Said The Shotgun To The Head’ with the Basel Symphony Orchestra in Switzerland.
2. see (www.artistsnetwork.org)
3. Thanks to Kev Anderson for setting me straight there.
4. recent examples being Jay-Z & Linkin Park, and Limp Bizkit & Wu-Tang Clan; or, back in the day, Ice-T’s Body Count, Run-DMC’s work with Rick Rubin, and countless Public Enemy and Cypress Hill collabos. For greater blues-rock-rap profundity, see Mos Def’s Black Jack Johnson project (on The New Danger, 2004) or the Nas & Olu Dara father and son reunion in ‘Bridging the Gap’ (on Street’s Disciple, 2004).
The Discreet Karma of the Bourgeoisie. Short review published in Freedom, Vol. 67, No. 5, March 2006.The Discreet Karma of the Bourgeoisie by Tom Jennings
[published in Freedom, Vol. 67, No. 5, March 2006]
Hidden, dir. Michael Haneke [orig. Caché; in French with English subtitles]
This unsettling masterpiece continues Austrian writer-director Michael Haneke’s merciless dissection of middle-class complacent complicity. An implacable domestic thriller, Hidden exploits contemporary paranoia around video surveillance, with tapes of their stylish Paris home delivered to the Laurents – highbrow TV presenter Georges (Daniel Auteuil), publisher Anne (Juliette Binoche) and their twelve year-old son Pierrot. The affluent intellectual couple’s relationship unravels as they wrestle with memory, guilt and denial once the anonymous ‘stalker’ also shoots Georges’ childhood home and a grubby high-rise flat. The latter is the present address of Majid, who was banished to an orphanage by Georges’ parents after his own (their domestic servants) were among hundreds of Algerian immigrant protestors killed by Parisian police in the ‘Black Night’ of 17th October 1961. In exploring how individual biography and social hierarchy dovetail in producing history, the film provocatively punctures the self-serving vanity of Western liberal superiority.
The manipulation accomplished by its meticulous structure exploits the encroachment of media simulation on our understanding of reality – with the efforts of the Laurents to conceal from themselves and each other the centrality in their lives of their various evasions, hypocrisies and duplicities paralleling the audience’s puzzlement. The static high-definition video photography blurs boundaries between different levels of representation – natural footage and staged action; external event and replay; internal experience of dreams, fantasies and flashbacks – with similar symbolic codes mobilised in visual design, perspective and editing. Being unsure of the status or significance of what they/we see fuels feverish imagination, failing communication and tragically escalating misunderstanding.
Compared with, say, Hitchcock’s reactionary conservatism or Lynch’s mystical fetishism, Haneke’s forcefully innovative cinematic sadism is more expansive and forward-looking. If the clinical deconstructions of miserable bourgeois inadequacy in his earlier films indulged neurotic obsession, here the integrity of younger generations refuses the parent society’s dishonesty. The suggestiveness of Georges’ infantile envy and resentment wrecking Majid’s life may seem an unsatisfactorily heavy-handed allegory for differential power and the class and race hatred still fundamental to mainstream Western society. However, emotional and cognitive patterns conducive to domination are nurtured early in the egos and cultures of the respectable middle-classes – operating precisely through misrecognition, displacement, denial and projection overlain with rationalisation and aestheticisation. Whereas the children’s rebellion (signposted throughout, and with their collusion explicit in the end-credits) shatters smug pretensions via direct solidaristic engagement – but decidedly not when Hidden by higher tastes and dissembling moral dispositions amongst those whose comfort necessitates ignoring the social roots and ramifications of its constitution.
Can’t Knock the Hustle, by Tom Jennings. Book /music review published in Freedom, Vol. 66, No. 24, December 2005
Can’t Knock the Hustle by Tom Jennings
[published in Freedom, Vol. 66, No. 24, December 2005]
BOOKS / MUSIC
Nuthin’ But a “G” Thang: The Culture and Commerce of Gangsta Rap, by Eithne Quinn, Columbia University Press, 2005, price £15.
This superb book presents a fascinating and comprehensive account of the development and mainstreaming of what came to be called gangsta rap, showing how and why the political engagement of preceding American civil rights, Black Power and soul/funk generations shifted towards a disillusioned and apparently individualistic culture glorifying drugs, violence and misogyny. The author convincingly shows how, from its origins in the urban blight of 1980s California, the class-conscious Crips and Bloods LA gang-related realism of NWA, Eazy-E, Ice Cube and Dr Dre cross-fertilised with African and blues lyrical traditions of trickster, badman and pimp (represented for example by Ice-T, the Geto Boys and Tupac Shakur) – challenging for commercial supremacy hip-hop subgenres such as the party pop of MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice, rock crossovers like Run DMC and the Beastie Boys, and the more explicitly politically conscious Black nationalist afrocentricity of Public Enemy, A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul.
Integrated into the historical texture is the parallel emergence of new forms of industrial structure and organisation prompted by the entrepreneurial guerilla tactics of independent record labels grass-rooted in neighbourhood networks of enthusiasts and artists, which succeeded in maintaining significant degrees of autonomy while simultaneously circumventing all corporate and state offensives to silence and/or recuperate them. This puts into context more recent developments in the worldwide commercial takeover of MTV-style ‘hip-pop’, such as ghetto fabulous bling-bling aspiration (Puff Daddy/P.Diddy, Jay-Z, etc) and the grotesquely exploitative nihilism of 50 Cent et al and the proliferation of wannabe studio gangsters. However, Quinn’s subtle and insightful analysis also consistently highlights the persistent presence of radical impulses and voices in the music and lyrics which sensationalist headlines, racism and pro-censorship coalitions conveniently ignore.
Of course, an academic study of the production of cultural commodities and their intrinsic qualities can only speculate on how the music resonates with its audiences’ lives in becoming popular, and Quinn resorts to concepts of subcultural superiority rather than social class in understanding rap’s appeal. This rather undercuts her implication throughout that hip-hop has gained and retained the affiliation of lower-class youth worldwide for over twenty years precisely by renouncing and travestying both conformism to respectable social hypocrisy and the packaged taste sold to elitist niche markets by multinationals. Major record labels are obviously primarily concerned with pandering to the pocket money of middle-class white kids seduced by stereotypical racialised exoticism, and the profitability of the results dovetails nicely with the requirements of governments and sundry pressure groups for moral panics and scapegoats. But the book rightly emphasises that, to those at the bottom of the heap, the ramifications of global postindustrial – as well as local dog-eat-dog – barbarisms are far closer to lived reality than glossy fantasy. So rap’s narratives represent postmodern folk tales of these benighted times – with all the violent exaggeration, ambivalence, desperation, potential and yearning this implies – for millions in the ghettos, estates, shanty towns and projects of every continent; and in the UK just as much as the US.
Likely Lads in the Global Gulag, by Tom Jennings. Short review published in Freedom, Vol. 67, No. 8, April 2006.Likely Lads in the Global Gulag by Tom Jennings
[published in Freedom, Vol. 67, No. 8, April 2006]
The Road to Guantanamo, dirs. Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross, Channel 4, 9th March 2006.
This dramatised documentary speaks for itself as the testimony of the ‘Tipton Three’ – a bunch of Brummie scallies who travelled to Pakistan in 2001 for Asif Iqbal’s wedding. After taking an ill-judged detour to Afghanistan, they lost one of their number (Munir Ali, presumed dead) as the war there intensified, and were hoovered up for three years of abuse, humiliation and torture as ‘enemy combatants’ by the US-funded Northern Alliance and subsequently in Camp Delta, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, before release without charge in 2004. Dubbed by Dubya as among ‘the worst of the worst’ of global terrorists, the Three come over as completely apolitical, scarcely religious, even clueless fools (to start with), who emerged stronger and wiser thanks to steadfast friendship and the inspirational integrity of fellow Muslim prisoners.
As in other Michael Winterbottom films the visual design, cinematography and editing mesh seamlessly in narrating the characters’ point of view. The juxtaposition of contemporaneous news footage with to-camera commentary by the Three and staged reconstructions of their experiences effectively demonstrates the arrogance, stupidity and dishonesty of the ‘War on Terror’, as well as highlighting the media poodles’ parroting of government propaganda. So despite videotape ‘evidence’ purporting to show them training with Osama bin Laden in 2000, Shafiq Rasul was working in Currys in Birmingham all that year and Rhuhel Ahmed also had cast-iron alibis. Lawyers privy to the evidence against them confirm that the ‘intelligence’ agencies had nothing to dent their story – as with hundreds of other anonymous detainees eventually released from Guantanamo with no media attention. Meanwhile 500 remain there – many with equally strong evidence of innocence.
British nationality led Jack Straw to request our lucky heroes’ release. Ironically, ‘Britishness’ may have contributed to their ordeal, in the form of that particular postcolonial complacency about blundering into other people’s misery (whether for solidarity, charity and/or mundane tourism). Family links with the Subcontinent obviously occasioned this journey, but the narrative tone is equally suggestive of stereotypical Brits abroad – and once the intense anxiety in Karachi for the Afghan people aroused their sympathy, macho overconfidence prompted the pointless jaunt even further out of their depth into the war zone. But in the present intensifying politicisation of space, the wrong body in the wrong place is presumed guilty. At home or abroad, the new world order hysterically redefines the transgression of borders (more generally, failing to fit official requirements) as criminal – and making waves in media space is suspect too. Returning from the Berlin Film Festival (where Road to Guantanamo won an award for direction), Rasul and Ahmed, along with the actors playing them, were detained at Luton Airport and questioned about their politics. Like the ageing heckler at the New Labour Conference arrested under the same anti-terror legislation, you couldn’t make it up …
The Hard Labour of Love, by Tom Jennings. Review published in Freedom, Vol. 67, No. 11, June 2006.The Hard Labour of Love by Tom Jennings
[published in Freedom, Vol. 67, No. 11, June 2006]
Tom Jennings glimpses seeds of hope in Lower City’s vividly lurid portrayal of the seamier side of lowlife.
An impressive first feature by director Sérgio Machado, Lower City strives to express the predicament of the modern Brazilian underclass adrift without social, family or government support, but somehow mustering the motivation to persevere. With its love triangle inspired by Truffaut’s Jules et Jim, the film’s naturalism (spoiled by hamfisted subtitling) avoids ‘state of the nation’ polemics, explicit political commentary and objectifying social realism, with a superb fusion of form and content benefiting from half a century of independent filmmaking alternatives to Hollywood spectacle. Its very rare achievement is to effectively condense the desperation of entire strata into three marginal lives without pathologising, psychologising, moralising, sentimentalising or heroising. Instead, in crystallising self-destructive inadequacy, the energy generated from the collision of passionate affinities is presented as a precious source of shared courage and potential.
The restless, claustrophobic, handheld camerawork, intense colours and low lighting are characteristic of the ghettocentric Latin American new wave (Amores Perros, City of God, etc). The raw immediacy and urgency of lived experience is conveyed by staying close to the actors’ physicality: telephoto lens narrowing perspective; soundtrack accommodating audible breathing; patterns of camera movement matching emotional states; editing synchronised with heartbeats to suit prevailing moods. Very short scenes express realms of subjective meaning: fast and furiously emphasising the pressure of necessity; rarer slow episodes and fleeting static long shots hinting at space for reflection spoiled by the brooding aftermath of biographies full of hassle. The growth of love then symbolises something powerful to hold onto amidst unpredictable flux.
Fiercely loyal childhood friends Deco (Lázaro Ramos) and Naldinho (Wagner Moura) ply a cargo trade along the northeastern coast. Karina (Alice Braga) hitches a lift to Salvador, the provincial capital, paying by having sex with them both. When Naldinho is stabbed protecting Deco from racist attack, her altruism and care adds mutual loving recognition to ecstatic release. The negotiation of this shift means re-evaluating priorities and perspectives on life, and they orient differently to the shared dynamic of yearning. Naldinho is impulsive and reckless, with love representing self-control to be achieved by proxy in looking after Karina. Deco is less patriarchal, seeking reciprocal caring and containment. Karina, meanwhile, insists on autonomy – demanding friendship, sexual satisfaction and sufficient security to relinquish control. Openly acknowledging for the men their and her vulnerability, her refusal to abandon either of them holds the story together while seemingly preventing resolution.
The dilemma is accentuated by untenable economics, which Deco and Naldinho displace onto their relationship with Karina. They consider selling their boat, which like their ‘brotherhood’ no longer sustains them outside of lucrative illegalities. Deco boxes for a local agent, but has to throw prize bouts against lesser talents with better social contacts. Naldinho embarks on small-scale hold-ups, but the risks far outweigh paltry rewards, especially when ripped off by the local godfather. Karina works as a stripper and prostitute, with the most developed sense of community shown among her co-workers in the nightclub. Then, when she becomes pregnant, both men flatter themselves as individual ‘saviours’. Violence ensues as neither can modulate their envious ‘marriage’ fantasies. Deco’s fighting career is an expedient outlet for his frustration at the elusiveness of equilibrium, allowing him to offer Karina tenderness without strings: a heartfelt offer of shared childrearing; the sexual gift of cunnilingus; and consistent concern for her welfare as much as his. Naldinho’s paternalistic bravura, however, crumbles into infantile rage with the collapse of his delusions of criminal grandeur.
The wider social structures enclosing the trio are efficiently sketched in their illicit drudges earning a crust. Karina’s situation is most complex, and the tricky intersection of erotic display, prostitution and sexual romance is cleverly handled without moral judgement. The advising Bahia Association of Sex Workers surely helped sidestep stereotypes of exploitation and abuse, with the prostitutes forging some agency in their work and in the ways it overflows into personal life. As practical economics, any personal degradation is contextualised by the available options – familiar to women everywhere whose only remaining resources reside in their sexualised bodies. Conversely, the clients are pathetically at the mercy of lust covered up, for example, with macho bluff and bluster. Explicitly marked as defensive reactions to vulnerability and neediness, this is alternately tolerated, impatiently dismissed, or reversed in manipulative hustling (most enjoyably in the simulated drug overdose scam). Better-off customers are inadequates to be pandered to, with the hypocrisy of bourgeois mores typified in one client’s impotence and suicide after showing Karina family snapshots.
This episode exemplifies institutional complicity with sexual commerce when the nightclub madam bails Karina out after the local police threaten her with trial for drugs offences. She realises that she is caught in a trap arising from servicing the needs of others. Her ambivalent desires to do this while being looked after as well as valued romantically and sexually – which all seemed conceivable with Deco and Naldinho – are under attack from the diversely intransigent pressures of legal dictate, economic survival, biological reality and social complexity. Her immediate impulse is to flee ‘up north’ to the Amazon – a mythical land of riches (‘gold nuggets for blowjobs’) free from official rule and the law of the father – with colleagues providing solidarity (e.g. abortifacient pills) and companionship, leaving behind men’s fatal inability to relinquish childish self-absorption.
Ultimately, though, this wish-fulfilment dissolves, along with her hard-nosed facade of self-sufficiency, into uncontrollable tears as she tends the wounds from Deco and Naldinho’s mutual battering – they too being unwilling to surrender intimate caring to perpetual paranoia and predation in the war of all against all. By extension, the film also highlights what political philosophy has long ignored or downplayed – the critical role of women in social and cultural (as well as sexual and economic) reproduction – and hence in the prospects for political advance at all levels. The exchanges of sidelong glances in Lower City’s final extreme close-ups then imply a dawning shared understanding that the trio can only move forward together. But rather than the destructively vicious circles of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, or the comfortably pretentious superficiality of Jules et Jim, the social engagement of suffering bodies, minds, hearts and souls might yet generate the synergy necessary for a better life to be wrought from the hard labour of love.
The Empire’s New Clothes, by Tom Jennings. Review published in Freedom, Vol. 67, No. 5, March 2006.
The Empire’s New Clothes by Tom Jennings
[published in Freedom, Vol. 67, No. 5, March 2006]
Hollywood’s New Radicalism, by Ben Dickenson (published by I.B. Tauris, January 2006)
Hollywood’s New Radicalism is a fascinating account of attempts to subvert the film industry from within, according to Tom Jennings
The old-fashioned vertically-integrated movie business, where studio moguls reigned supreme and rigidly controlled all aspects of film production, broke down in the 1960s in the face of the commercial deregulation and restructuring needed to cater to changing cultural and technological landscapes and patterns of consumption. Those inspired by the countercultural and grass-roots energy of the era took advantage, extending the range of material reaching the public in films that were profoundly innovative, politically challenging and often extremely popular. Hollywood’s New Radicalism intelligently documents the subsequent interplay of commercial agendas and American political retrenchment, focusing on the efforts of liberals and leftists involved in film production to reflect their social awareness in their work – eventually culminating in today’s explicitly political mainstream cinema.
Sixties directors harnessed avant-garde art and European film styles and philosophies, taking advantage of the liberal atmosphere to realise freedom of cinematic expression, and their appeal to newly-affluent rebellious youth audiences massively expanded the cultural production sector. Impressive box-office business attracted venture capital throughout the 1970s, which rationalised the industry’s chaotic structure and narrowed content to the most predictably profitable. Previously buccaneering individualist outsiders were absorbed into Hollywood by the 1980s when the enterprise revolution tightened corporate grips and abandoned social commitments. Aristocrats like Oliver Stone screamed betrayal, but younger, more pragmatic independents continued exploring narrative and style on the margins. Many signed with newly consolidating 1990s studios – themselves desperately seeking niche markets – only to encounter the triple whammy of Clinton’s duplicity, Seattle’s protest revival, and the Old Testament logic of 9/11 and its aftermath.
The discomfort of film industry professionals concerning the inability to articulate progressive political change is best conceived in terms of the general disillusionment among the middle classes with social democracy, given their failure to predict or comprehend the unravelling liberal consensus. 1980s and 90s neo-noir, postmodern and ‘slacker’ stories then symbolise thoroughgoing refusals of traditional fallacies (not paranoid detachment or self-indulgence as Dickenson seems to assume) by those growing up without the benefits of 1960s naiveté, making possible new forms of collective mobilisation such as anti-globalization. However, the current Hollywood activism is unfortunately translated onto the screen using largely retrograde narrative conventions, without the stylistic and technical experimentation previously employed to reflect underlying malaises in Western society. The most obvious symptoms of war and corporate excess are thus mistaken for ultimate causes – whereas, ironically, the deeper colonisation of intimate life by the instrumental logic of commodification has Hollywood at its vanguard.
The book’s argument that commercial studio pressures are decisive constraints on the degree of social consciousness allowed into films makes intuitive sense. However, the implication that suitably nimble strategies among liberal filmmakers guarantees progressive content does justice neither to contemporary political circumstances – where the intentions and interests of the intelligentsia are so widely, thoroughly and understandably distrusted – nor to a media culture in which superficial appearance is seductively fetishised to mask the depressing difficulties of real life. It also downplays independent cinema’s diverse and troubled ambivalence. Negotiating prevailing tastes and engaging deeper desires while also offering genuine critique is much trickier than the voluntaristic idealism of celebrities suggests. So radical directors often skilfully portray middle class protagonists striving to maintain their positions entangled in complex local hierarchies and histories, with very mixed consequences for those with less room to manouevre. Regrettably, the latter’s rich social dynamic is often simultaneously homogenised into frozen victimised masses thawed by individual heroics.
Therefore judgements of films like Cradle Will Rock (1999), Erin Brockovitch (2000), or Dogville (2003) as ‘radical’ is highly problematic given their respective nostalgia for elite ‘proletarian art’ when ‘people knew their place’; sanctimonious self-marketing by the diligently aspirational underclass; and patronising contempt for resentful victims of history struggling to maintain humanity. Conversely, Bulworth (1998) transcends charges of cynical fatalism with its respect for ghetto philosophy and disavowal of hope in professional careerism; and Fight Club (1999) is dismissed as reactionary nihilism despite demystifying middle class ‘consumer politics’ – specifically the fascistic appeal of cult violence viscerally countering the sterile slow death offered by corporate and therapeutic lifestyles. In short, political implications surely depend on the responses and subsequent actions of viewers, not simplistic readings of film narratives as realist manifestoes or their makers’ complacencies as gospel.
Hollywood’s New Radicalism is certainly justified in identifying a fresh wave of liberal content – as last year’s I Heart Huckabees, Crash, Lord of War and The Constant Gardener show, and to which a slew of forthcoming films will further testify. The resurgence of cinema documentary also shows the dissatisfaction of sizeable audiences with both blockbuster entertainment and corresponding current affairs spin. But while corruption and malpractice by government and business, environmental damage, and the effects of corporate imperialism on the poor at home and abroad are now gratifyingly familiar on screen, merely updating clichéd cinematic formulae reproduces traditional resolutions revolving around heroes and leaders. As Dickenson emphasizes, prominent figures like Tim Robbins and Sean Penn belatedly realised that mainstream party politics is constitutionally incapable of keeping progressive promises. But then many moviegoers saw through that façade years ago, yet elections are still won by media stars (e.g. Governors Schwarznegger of California and Jesse Ventura of Minnesota) and presidential circuses still distract activists.
Hollywood liberals now initiate and support grass-roots campaigns rather than just cosying up to Democrat stooges. But, as the Live 8 debacle again proved, any ‘anticapitalism’ advocating stronger states, fairer trade and global institutional charity scarcely dents the status quo. Neither will we hold our breaths waiting for serious revolutionary politics from such a notoriously dictatorial and capricious system as the cinema, whose ‘talent’ cherish charisma over depth or substance. Nonetheless, its global output seeps into billions of psyches, spectacularising the obsessions and fantasies of the powerful. Along with this book’s clarity in dissecting the recent history of the entertainment sector, it is most useful for understanding how the more well-meaning creative denizens of tinseltown wrestle with their consciences in Hollywood’s new recuperation. Complementary analysis of how their efforts influence the lives of viewers can then illuminate cultural industry strategies for profiting from 21st century dissent, along with suggesting tactics for resistance for ordinary producers of cultural meaning (on screen and off) which do not depend on enlightenment courtesy of the stars in their firmament.