Monthly Archives: October 2006

  • Book review of Hollywood’s New Radicalism, by Ben Dickenson

    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.

  • V for Vendetta, dir. James McTeigue (2006)

    V Signs and Simulations, by Tom Jennings. Short review published in Freedom, Vol. 67, No. 7, April 2006.‘V’ Signs and Simulations by Tom Jennings 
    [published in Freedom, Vol. 67, No. 7, April 2006]
    V for Vendetta, dir. James McTeigue
    This hopelessly incoherent mish-mash of random elements from comic book superhero back catalogues – combined with various soundbites from and random references to recent and contemporary political fiction and real-world circumstances – is stitched together with the most superficial philosophical musings about freedom and justice. Writers Larry and Andy Wachowski were also responsible for the trivial pursuits of The Matrix, with similarly absurd pretensions of reflecting on media-saturated culture, but at least faithfully following its computer-game logic. Whereas in V for Vendetta the narrative demands of blockbuster oversimplification are met by making complete nonsense of history. So freedom fighter Guy Fawkes rounds off his four centuries-old project in blowing up the Old Bailey and Houses of Parliament  (now redundant symbols in a near-future police state) and assassinating a sample of political figureheads and functionaries – justified with a jumble of pompous platitudes wrenched from literary sources and thrown together to resemble sophistication.
    On one level an enjoyably daft and meaningless cartoon mess, the film nevertheless purports to smuggle salient social questions – of violence, terrorism, and the passivity of populations cowering in complicity with fascism – into the consciousnesses of millions of multiplex punters. And that doesn’t happen every day, even if these filmmakers lost the plot in mistaking an avalanche of disconnected details for complexity. Such hysterical postmodern pastiche can be a strength, if the ensuing indecisive open-endedness prompts exploratory interpretation among viewers. Unfortunately Vendetta’s recuperation of its chaotic impulses reproduces, rather than subverts, the authoritarian strategies supposedly subject to critique. A graphic novel’s fractured format forces readers to elaborate its story in a manner film rarely matches (an honourable exception being Robert Rodriguez’ uncanny translation of Frank Miller’s noir nightmare, Sin City). Here, the seamless cinematic flow merely encourages submission to lazy, careless, dishonest (dis)simulation in celebrating the superiority of cynical quietism.
    Most disgracefully, the glossy fantasy aesthetic obliterates material and economic degradation or struggle, leaving for motivation only a tawdry bourgeois Oedipal Stockholm Syndrome between aristocratic (anti)hero and nubile middle class disciple. Although an amusingly gratuitous insult to leninist vanguard vanity, this corresponds to the depressing representation of a passive (and strangely lilywhite) multitude of couch potatoes confronting the military in the finale. With no grievances beyond dissatisfaction with spin, the zombies march in uniform desire for better media and ringside seats at the spectacle. Given the volume of explosives trundling towards Whitehall along the disused underground, all that awaits them is ecstatic annihilation along with most of central London. Any remaining quibbles about the nobility of revolutionary idealism are therefore ultimately superfluous in V for Vendetta’s utter contempt for its audience. After all, the mischievous potential of trash lies in travestying – not reinforcing – the delusions of grandeur of power.

  • London Counterculture and People Power of the 90s, by Stefan Szczelkun

    Documents of Dissentiment, by Tom Jennings. DVD review published in Freedom, Vol. 67, No. 12, June 2006.Documents of Dissentiment by Tom Jennings 
    [published in Freedom, Vol. 67, No. 12, June 2006]
    London Counterculture and People Power of the Nineties, by Stefan Szczelkun, Redz under Bedz DVDs, Nos. 1 and 2
    These skilfully shot and assembled video documents each contain two short films depicting important events and grass-roots protests and campaigns from the last decade. DVD 1 starts with a digital video record of “J18: the post modern revival of Stop the City, enacted on the streets of the City of London, 1999. The experience of one person with a camera at this historical and unique protest against global capital. The closest thing to being there yourself”. Mixing impressionistic still images with an evocative soundtrack and direct point-of-view edited footage as the day progresses, moments of celebration increasingly overlap scenes of confrontation with police, hinting at the darkening mood which characteristically accompanies carnival’s tendency to overflow the limits set for it by power. The second film, shot on Hi-8 and entitled ‘Memorials to Diana: spontaneous popular expressions of loss and treason in Hyde Park, September 1997′, is a contemplative forty minutes with Szczelkun’s camera roaming in a leisurely fashion among acres of floral tributes and scrawled doggerel dedicated to the maverick so-called ‘people’s princess’.
    DVD 2 includes a short edited Hi-8 video (shot with Thomas Zagrosek) at a South London eco-warrior camp in 1998/99, including on-site interviews with two of the protesters. This was a successful action against the development of a multiplex cinema on a wild corner of Crystal Palace park, showing how dedicated determination – especially given widespread local support and suitably imaginative tactics – is capable of warding off the depradations of capitalism in its ongoing global quest to enclose the commons for primitive accumulation. Then, ‘Reclaim the Streets and the Liverpool Dockers’ (April 1997) celebrates the first large-scale example of the spectacular demo technique which emerged in 1990s Britain from a resurgent class awareness among newly-politicised younger generations, allied with the traditionally radical communal militancy of this locked-out workforce in “the temporary occupation of urban areas by huge playful crowds – a  kind of instant carnival that came out of the eco road protest movement”.
    Subjects of forthcoming DVDs include campaigns around disability activism and inclusive education, grass-roots film group Exploding Cinema, the Sharsted Street shared ownership self-build co-op, and archives from Kennington Park – along with a new series of digital video artworks by Szczelkun starting with Housework X, a project in which a plywood shed on wheels was dragged across South London in an exploration of second generation immigrant loss and relocation, continuing with an archive of self-produced t-shirts hinting at the creation of culture through the social production, negotiation and recognition of meaning and difference. This impressive breadth and depth of coverage shows the general significance of work such as the Redz Under Bedz project in supplementing the negligible inclusion in the existing historical record of self-produced representations of working-class experience, struggle and cultural expression – where the scant information that can be gleaned is typically framed within the agendas, tastes and structures of knowledge of middle-class disciplinary interests.
    Stefan’s website ( explicitly deals with these larger philosophical questions as well as containing a wealth of texts and images enlarging on some of the themes tackled in the DVDs – employing throughout his enjoyably down-to-earth practical utopianism which, combined with serious theoretical ambitions, always avoids patronisation or academic obfuscation. Of particular interest here is the fascinating short essay on Diana, which explores the ambivalent and contradictory significance of the strong feelings generated among ordinary people. This really ought to be included with its DVD – in fact both would benefit from extra material aimed at viewers unfamiliar with thinking seriously about the kind of collective action portrayed. The films do stand up by themselves as effective physical records, supplementing the memories of those involved and interested which might otherwise fade in these times of incessant mediated novelty trivia. However, their utility in encouraging the potential for future activism might be enhanced with carefully chosen text and images –  within the DVDs and/or as printed inserts.
                    The website is packed with various highly original and thought-provoking reviews and short essays on art and folk expression, discussions contrasting popular and high culture, taste and aesthetics, and a history of Working Press –  a working-class writers and artists self-publishing group responsible for unique and valuable output which would otherwise never have reached the public domain. In line with the author’s emphases on grass-roots self-organisation and on the production of culture as well as its consumption and policing, there is also a comprehensive account (also submitted as a PhD thesis) of his own involvement in umpteen local artistic collectives in the 1980s and 1990s. And, contextualising these recent narratives with those from earlier in the twentieth century, there are links to his documentation of self-build shanty communities, including images of surviving examples at Shepperton-on-Thames, near Edinburgh, in the Tyne Valley, and on the Gower peninsula.
    The most substantial and important contribution to the site, however, is the revised version of his book ‘Conspiracy of Good Taste: Class Oppression and Culture’ (Working Press, 1993; with a new Conclusion added in 2001), laying bare the role of professional arbiters of artistic value in modern Western society – dictating from above acceptable forms of expression and lifestyle, thereby disallowing the creation of culture and the material lifeworld by ordinary people from the bottom-up, and consequently softening us up for the intimate government of everyday life. The British examples of William Morris and the Arts & Crafts proto-fascist purification of vernacular design, Cecil Sharp’s sad evisceratation of folk culture, and Clough Williams-Ellis’ bureaucratic wage-slave housing plantations illustrate the early tactics used – firstly to tame the rebellious dispositions perenially rooted in working-class culture; then as templates for the more sophisticated imposition of consumerism to short-circuit the re-emergence of its autonomy. Stefan Szczelkun’s multi-faceted deconstructions, reclamations, celebrations and exhortations to sociable human imagination represent a thoroughgoing and effective corrective to the inhuman consequences of class elitism and state prescription.

  • Political Themes in Recent Mainstream Cinema

    Rose-Coloured Spectacles, by Tom Jennings. Essay published in Variant, No. 27, October 2006Rose Coloured Spectacles  by Tom Jennings
    [published in Variant, 27, September 2006]
    Jonathan Demme’s anti-Bush broadside The Manchurian Candidate (2004) effectively updates John Frankenheimer’s classic 1962 conspiracy thriller – with Iraq rather than Korean War veterans brainwashed into becoming political moles and assassins by corporate, not KGB, agents. Given our familiarity with the amoral criminality of the military-industrial complex and government via mythology, mystification and spin, these revisions seem highly appropriate. The unfolding plot shows Army bureaucrat (Denzel Washington in Frank Sinatra’s role) and Vice Presidential candidate (Liev Shrieber for Laurence Harvey) grappling with Gulf War Syndrome zombification amid manipulation by Shreiber’s Senator mother (Meryl Streep instead of Angela Lansbury) and sundry electoral, big business and media masterminds, crooks, lobbyists, lackeys and lickspittles.
    However, despite a very neat new denouement, much of the political sharpness of the source novel by Richard Condon is lost, wherein McCarthyism succeeded thanks to Kremlin plotters finding it thoroughly congenial to their authoritarian aims – a fascinating, if muddled, disentangling of the contradictions of Cold War politics. Unfortunately, the supposedly liberal-left Demme substitutes benign intelligence agencies which only ever use dirty tricks to foil the multinational menace, plus honourable old-school patriotic patricians who have for years fought Party takeover bids by tycoons. In other words, the radical potential of a critique of the interdependency of the state and capitalism is squandered in favour of regressive conservative recuperation – much like, in fact, the 2004 Democratic presidential campaign itself.
    The changing contours of cinematic conspiracies can thus be interpreted as adjustments to what filmmakers and studios understand ‘politics’ to mean (to themselves and viewers) in these cynical postmodern times – in a trajectory from stark Orwellian paranoia through nihilistic neo-noir to recent efforts such as Demme’s glossy pastiche, Traffic, The Quiet American, Silver City, The Constant Gardener and Syriana. Moreover, the last few years have seen a growing tendency for supposedly progressive themes to be explicitly tackled in big-budget Hollywood fictions in most other film genres too, along with the incorporation of originally marginal aesthetic and stylistic choices and strategies in the production of cinematic blockbusters, brands and franchises. The brief survey below describes some of these rather surprising phenomena and the critical response to them, and discusses their ambivalent implications and limitations.
    Shifting Perspective 
    In A World in Chaos, Carl Boggs and Thomas Pollard match recent developments in cinema to the lived experiences of its audiences in the “globalizing, consumer-oriented capitalist order: gross material inequalities, social polarization, possessive individualism, civic fragmentation, and impending chaos”.1 Elements of classic Hollywood genres are combined and attenuated in many recent films so that their narratives depict incomprehensible and corrupt worlds where conventional rational understanding, collective organisation and public action have lost the capacity to offer explanations or effect political change – thanks in no small part to the saturation of our psyches with corporate media trivia. And although the book’s overly loose definition of postmodernism in films encompasses many long-established forms and styles, its proposition is surely plausible that earlier representations of brutal, miserable, hopeless and confused lives in specific marginal, urban, criminal and/or nightmare milieux have been increasingly glossed and generalised to apply to society as a whole.
                    Other treatments of significant trends in contemporary American films have no patience with such pessimistic and totalising assessments of the sector’s long-range value and significance. Bucking the tendency of major studio output in the 1990s converging towards ever more inflated and repetitious replicas with little more than special effects enhancements and celebrity presence to recommend them, a diverse collection of creative film-making talents brought instead the sensitivities and dynamism of subcultural and cult media and genres to bear. The achievements of some of these in persuading major studios to part with substantial production budgets are celebrated by James Mottram in The Sundance Kids.2 This title furnishes a spurious collectivity – when many, such as Soderbergh and Tarantino, had little or no truck with Robert Redford’s nursery and showcase at the Sundance Institute. It also encourages a strained intergenerational comparison with the 1970s New Hollywood of Scorcese, Spielberg and Coppola et al, who rose to prominence from the sixties countercultural demolition of outdated industry practices before subsequently finding themselves thoroughly tamed by what replaced them. Sharon Waxman’s anecdotal Rebels On The Backlot3 at least concentrates on detailing insider gossip and dissecting networking patterns in showing how an arbitrary selection of younger independent directors have combined personal entrepreneurial prowess and self-promotion with genuine artistic flair in advancing their careers.
    Conversely, rather than translating cinematic texts as sociocultural reflections, and with a much less sanguine approach to cultural commerce, Ben Dickenson’s Hollywood’s New Radicalism4 charts the changing structure of an industry whose consolidation and profit-seeking agendas fluctuate according to wider political and economic trends, focusing on the efforts of liberals and leftists involved in film production to reflect their social awareness in their work. Recent generations of independent innovators gained arthouse footholds with regular box-office hits refreshing moribund blockbuster formulae – and now that niche marketing and diversification are prominent megastudio strategies, successful Hollywood progressives can juggle mainstream fare with personal commitment to lower-budget releases paid for with its proceeds. Moreover, after Clinton’s neoliberalism, Seattle’s protest revival and post-9/11 Bush barbarism, many also vociferously criticise orthodox politics, publicly supporting grass-roots campaigns instead. By this account, subversive hope unexpectedly supplants cynical despair.
    Focusing on Power
    Obvious manifestations of these phenomena may be sought in film treatments of formal political processes themselves. Conventional 1990s satires centralised the network of PR spin and corporate and media influence on dodgy leaders, from the Machiavellian machinations of Bob Roberts (1992) to more sympathetic power-seekers led astray both by their own narcissism and the electoral farce. Primary Colors and Wag the Dog (both 1998) were comically pertinent to the Clinton regime’s practice, but said nothing about either political consequences or ordinary viewers/voters beyond them being suckered (which might apply more to liberal filmmakers falling for Clinton’s progressive rhetoric). Meanwhile the historical revisionism of JFK (1991) and LA Confidential (1997) had already applied film noir devices to national and local institutional and governmental structures, implying their utter moral bankruptcy. More complex and less conventional narratives followed suit, exploiting the flexibility of genre crossover to link the lives of the citizenry into the degradations of politics.
                    Most trenchantly, elite Democrat Senator Bulworth (1999) goes AWOL in South Central LA after a nervous breakdown on the campaign trail, emerging as a champion of the underclasses. Borrowing elements of 90s ‘hood film’ style works here thanks to immense respect shown for ghetto philosophy, intelligence and creativity, counterposed by Warren Beatty’s hysterical vanity and, crucially, laughably incompetent rapping.5 Other recent films also bridge the gap between culture and politics, in diverse ways and with varying degrees of success. However, apart from Bamboozled’s (2001) exposure of corporate media’s racism in colonising Black traditions, all invoke heroic individualism to drive history: Cradle Will Rock (2000) revisits the political context of the 1930s US Federal Theatre Project in a musical celebration of proletarian art served up by elite intellectuals like Orson Welles and John Housman; Good Night & Good Luck’s (2005) implied critique of modern media requires merely journalistic integrity to scupper McCarthyism; and 8 Mile (2003) and Erin Brockovich (2000) connect uplift from the constraints of working class culture only with personal success in music and law respectively – reducing those represented (whether in the hip-hop or legal senses) to passivity.
    More ambitious is Silver City’s (2004) bitter denunciation of prevailing power. This crime thriller-cum-political conspiracy follows an ex-crusading journalist (Danny Huston) grappling with environmental destruction and the exploitation of migrant workers perpetrated by corporate greed – all fronted by cretinous mouthpieces elected through omnipresent soundbites and photo-ops. Although crippled by annoyingly patronising expositions (when the message emerges more effectively from the narrative), the film is effective in critiquing left, right and centre while still hinting at hope. So the right-on countercultural veteran does eventually uncover the ‘truth’ – but to no effect other than his own satisfaction (signalled by a successful romantic denouement); while his ‘concern’ for the plight of immigrants doesn’t extend to any regard for their welfare as he exploits their goodwill in helping him. The self-obsession of the sixties generation thus neatly trashed, potential is nonetheless glimpsed in the lead character’s former associates – still committed, but now engaged in muckraking internet activism.
    Treatments of transnational political and corporate conspiracies themselves adopt more complex narratives – The Quiet American (2002) and The Constant Gardener (2005) show middle-ranking professional protagonists nudging toward an appreciation of the dirty institutional deeds they’re implicated in, and that they’ve somehow hitherto avoided awareness of – but they are helpless given their isolation. Traffic (2001) and Syriana (2005) claim to represent a global range of ‘stakeholder’ perspectives on the wars on drugs and terror respectively. But although no one sees the bigger picture, and all subplots end more or less tragically, characters are given more depth the higher their social status – reflecting the possibility of meaningful agency, and hence some kind of redemption if only in noble failure. In the process, hierarchies are meticulously preserved along with the identification with middle class pathos required by the stereotypical rendering of everyone else. Even Lord of War’s (2005) attempt to stitch together personal deployments of national mythology with the globalising sociopathy of capitalism (via the evils of the international arms trade) only acquires narrative drive – and thus purchase as metaphor – by shadowing Nicolas Cage’s crazed Ukrainian-American entrepreneur with Ethan Hawke’s ineptly idealistic Interpol authority-figure.
    The comforting banality of simple-minded redemptive (an)aesthetics is taken to extremes in the treatment of war itself. Continuing Sam Mendes’ generic deconstructions of inadequate US existential masculinity begun in American Beauty (2000) and The Road to Perdition (2002), Jarhead (2005) demonstrates the hysterical convolutions of redundant macho among marines in the desert of the 1991 Gulf War. Unfortunately the film adopts the perspective of Jake Gyllenhaal’s pretentious nerd frustrated by the military’s failure to resolve his dysfunctional family coming-of-age drama – while most army recruits must rationalise their positions after joining up to give their lives income, rather than meaning. At least here the adolescent ‘philosophising’ is bracketed as defensive response to insane reality; whereas in Spielberg’s odious Munich (2005) it is privileged as ideological support for Israeli state terrorism.6 Much more interesting is the postmodern playfulness of Three Kings (1998), with the first Iraq war cast as heist movie where heartfelt solidarity replaces the cynical self-interest of an American platoon once the malevolence of official policy becomes clearer during a surreal excursion in pursuit of buried treasure. Jarhead and Three Kings are also saturated with reference to cinematic precursors – in style, structure and the social and internal intercourse of their characters – and precisely such dissolving of boundaries seems to give these films more chance of saying something interesting and original.
    Blurred Vision
    The mixing of genres resonates with viewers’ media and cultural biography and literacy, while simultaneously questioning the reliability of conventional patterns of knowledge and understanding of our own lives and the world.7 The apparently apolitical nihilism of postmodern cinema, especially in its treatment of transgression and excess – violence, crime, sexual and social – began to extend in the 90s away from the virtual solipsism of Lynchian fantasy, yuppie nightmares and neo-noir, as narratives became fractured in time and space as well as according to character psychodynamics. Tarantino’s exuberant comic book capers and Natural Born Killer’s (1995) venom against media opiates reflect the mundane madness and horror visible in contemporary society, finding echoes in later films tackling similar themes in highly original ways. Now it is commonplace for skewed perceptions and private fantasies to overflow and reverberate among participants in social networks, influencing or overdetermining prospects for the future of the self and others.
    In particular, the status of the ‘reality’ presented to viewers is unsettled when visual design and cinematography confuse perspective; with subjective states no longer conveniently tagged as ‘flashback’, ‘daydream’, ‘nightmare’, etc. Together with the unpredictable vicissitudes of the external world, its implacable material force and proclivity for coincidence, this hints at the open-endedness of history rather than closure – modulating the emotional rush traditional denouements aim for as ‘entertainment’. Then, when the juggling of genres leaves a narrative no single obvious outcome, dissonant resolutions may be tacked on whatever the thrust of the foregoing would conventionally suggest. You’d think the indie rebels and radical mavericks purportedly populating Hollywood could exploit these profitable fashions as golden opportunities to represent political struggle in their work. But only very few films have shown public, collective action and conflicts of interest – involving varying forms and levels of explicit political ideology and motivation – to be suffused and surrounded with, and energised and confounded by, the misrecognition and desire both practical and cinematic experience suggest are inevitable.
    Based on the iconoclastic cult novel by Chuck Palahniuk, David Fincher’s Fight Club drips with comic invective concerning the comfortable alienations of commodity fetishism and managed misery. Corporate bureaucrat Jack (Edward Norton) has a solipsistic private life of Ikea catalogue completism, filling the resulting spiritual vacuum with self-pitying voyeurism at self-help groups for cancer sufferers. This pathetic existence is blighted by escalating narcissistic insults and material disasters, until libidinal nihilist Tyler (Brad Pitt) rekindles his anguished masculinity in regular bareknuckle fistfights on city backstreets. Fascinated onlookers from all walks of life join in, mushrooming and coalescing as an underground movement to overthrow consumer society via unspoken male solidarity. Their plan to blow up finance companies’ headquarters proves too much for Jack, who shoots himself in the head – merely wounding himself physically but killing Tyler (revealed as schizoid personification of suppressed desire) – and the newly-integrated Jack finds heterosexual love as the bombs detonate.
    Even if dismissed as hermetic schoolboy fantasy – or worse, flirting with the fascistic appeal of cult violence powered by psychotic charisma – Fight Club at least foregrounds passionate bodily yearning as potential antidote to the poison of capitalism.8 David O. Russell’s I [Heart] Huckabees follows the more unthreatening route of surrrealism-lite (as favoured by global brand advertisers), sacrificing the urgency and emotional desperation conjured by Fincher. The gentler, screwball farce comedy is likewise enervating rather than energising – but both choices suit the film’s theme of the New Age reduction of politics to personal morality and lifestyle marketing. Here, Jason Schwartzman’s earnest environmentalist agonises over the ethics and efficacy of single issue campaign compromises with corporate interests. So troubled that he fears for his sanity, various counsellors and consultants are invited to compete in obsessing over his sense of identity, making suitably shallow interventions in his social and activist circle. ‘Finding himself’ quickly takes precedence over preserving wilderness – implying that the previous concern for ‘real’ nature merely externalised anxieties concerning his own self-indulgent whingeing human nature.
    Crowd Scenes
    Fight Club and Huckabees are unquestionably highly original films, with wildly inventive camerawork, editing and plotting, and complex characterisations and cultural reference points. And despite their considerable limitations – for instance depicting political action as, at best, misguided – both complicate the striving for commonality with the difficulties inherent in the uncertain status of knowledge and interpretation experienced by characters and viewers. More conventional ensemble dramas also emphasise the influence of randomness, shared fantasy, flashbacks and alternative versions in shaping local social contexts. The fractured stories and multiple perspectives pioneered by Robert Altman have been very influential among independent filmmakers –  though rarely exploited to illuminate political themes.9 Moreover, other groundbreaking work – such as the ghettocentric cycle initiated by Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing, films directed by Sean Penn (The Indian Runner, The Crossing Guard, The Pledge) and those written by Guillermo Arriaga (Amores Perros, 21 Grams, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada) – locate agency and potential most firmly within individual protagonists, but these are always flawed, damaged and disruptive of simplistic solutions, and the ramifications of their normal or abnormal pathology ripple out into their social environments to highlight collective implications.
    Paul Haggis’ Crash focuses on the sickness of racism infecting all levels of American society in a tapestry of neatly  interlocking and sharply scripted vignettes featuring a dozen-and-a half characters crossing fractious paths over two days in Los Angeles. Its manipulative conceit is to include only occasions dominated by racialising attributions, with scant contextualisation in  deeper backstories and a fuller range of interactions. Despite consequently actively stereotyping those it accuses, the scenarios frequently overflow this constraint to reveal the bases of conflict in class distinction and economic inequality – with particularly acute detailing of the complicit hypocrisy of liberal elites and the fatal delusions of political correctness. But with the redress to racial prejudice artificially overdetermining the narrative ebbs and flows, acts of humility and humanity on the part of those towards the bottom of the cosmopolitan heap are isolated as exceptions to the rule rather than countervailing force. Crash thus embodies and exemplifies the organising power of racism yet, paradoxically, was lauded and awarded best film Oscar for its bravery in exposing it. But the film is much less honest than Short Cuts’ pinpointing of the bitter pressure-points of the city’s downwardly-mobile trajectory, ultimately being just as distanced and melancholic as Magnolia’s meandering meditation on the ineffable strangeness of LA life.
                     Refusing the panoramic omnipotence of such efforts, Kathryn Bigelow’s magnificent Strange Days experiments viscerally with the phenomenology of simulation offered by new media, gradually expanding the significance of their alienating distraction for confused thrill-seekers out into the seething public sphere of a chaotic neo-noir 1999 LA under brutal martial law. The troubled pairing of ex-vice squad porn merchant Ralph Fiennes and streetwise action heroine Angela Bassett tangle with corrupt entrepreneurs and lowlives in a decadent cross-fertilising cultural milieu of hip-hop punk, blundering into a conspiracy to assassinate a Black revolutionary leader which threatens to tip the civic millennium festivities over the brink into grass-roots insurrection. Through an unprecedented synthesis of film and psychoanalytic theory, exploitation of cinema traditions and bravura design, editing and photography, it is far more nuanced than Crash in tackling the subjective and social significance of race, as well as of gender and class.10 The film also works hard to specify its historical contingency in the best traditions of science fiction as speculation on the present (for example by Stanislaw Lem, William Burroughs or Philip K. Dick) – rather than hysterical inflation into universal values, or the fashionably subversive adolescent hype which passes for philosophical resonance in the Wachowski brothers-produced V for Vendetta (as in The Matrix series).11 Strange Days even excuses its major flaws (such as a deliberately implausible, if arguably utopian, central relationship) by managing to render its politically ultra-conservative resolution as dystopian recuperation – a final knowing flourish on the role of mass entertainment in taming desire in labyrinths of repressive desublimation.
    Changing Lenses
    The general timidity of dream factory visionaries in tackling political change may, then, be best conceived in terms of a wider disillusionment among the middle classes with social democracy as the handmaiden of capitalist progress in our strange days, given their failure to predict or comprehend the unravelling liberal consensus. 1980s and 90s neo-noir, postmodern and ‘slacker’ stories appeal for their thoroughgoing refusal of traditional disciplines and delusions, which is partly also what makes new forms of collective mobilisation such as anti-globalization possible among those growing up without the benefits of 1960s naiveté and aristocratic modernist optimism. However, the recent spate of films translating oppositional attitudes into populist cinema use largely retrograde narrative conventions and characters, without the stylistic and technical experimentation elsewhere employed to reflect underlying malaises in Western society. The most obvious symptoms of war and corporate excess are thus presented as ultimate causes, to be adjusted by enlightened reform. Similarly, whereas the deeper colonisation of intimate life by the instrumental logic of commodification ironically has Hollywood at its vanguard, any cinematic response more robust than trivial lifestyle tinkering leads to shattered identities or social breakdown which only the desperate reassertion of established authority can resolve.
    While at least 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 the big screen, merely updating clichéd film formulae reproduces traditional resolutions revolving around heroes and leaders. The corresponding notion that suitably nimble strategies among liberal filmmakers guarantees progressive content does justice neither to contemporary political circumstances – where the intentions and interests of professional elites are so widely, thoroughly and understandably distrusted – nor to a media culture in which superficial appearance is fetishised to mask the depressing difficulties of real life. 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 latters’ rich social dynamic is usually homogenised into frozen victimised masses – either destined to be thawed by personal heroics and histrionics, or simply functioning as a reactive backdrop against which the stars shine.
    Conspiracy theories have long been fertile territory for cinema, with political thrillers sensing the world’s complexity while rendering historical phenomena in simplistically individual terms. Action films hysterically mobilise adolescent masculinist muscle in desperate response and, given that paranoia represents the psychotic underbelly of individualism, parapolitics likewise seductively suggests that humanity’s ills result from the hidden agendas of evil elites. Of course the latter exist, and create havoc, but the more difficult truth is that domination is sedimented into the routine material of institutions, discourses, bodies, societies and economies – conditioning the patterns of stratification, distinction and difference which constitute the texture of everyday life irrespective of whose interests can be said to be ultimately served. This is precisely the terrain which postmodern existential nightmares effectively excavate, albeit usually inside single isolated and tortured psyches. Furthermore, expansive dramas of community life are eminently capable of depicting the ways in which the interests, beliefs, actions and affiliations of friends and neighbours, lovers and strangers mingle subjectively and socially. When parallel storylines and biographies clash and intersect, this is as likely to yield collective synergy as the familiar cinematic staples of destructive conflict or sterile equilibrium.
                    These tentative and emergent representational paradigms seem to offer the possibility of providing visions of the grounds for genuine solidarity and the pursuit of shared purpose in circumstances in which business as usual is decisively threatened. However, it would be necessary to acknowledge the central role here of autonomous grass-roots activity or expression outside of the boundaries, preoccupations, conceptual frameworks, guidance and control of middle class mediators. But this would entail the latter surrendering their recuperative power, and accordingly the privileged positions granted for loyal opposition to the status quo. Even the more challenging of the films referred to above can therefore be interpreted in terms of a reluctance to tackle such suffocating restraints in their makers’ own cultural practice – amounting to a wholesale failure of nerve as well as self-censorship. This helps explain why manifestations of conscious struggle, collective public dissent or mass action are so rarely properly explored, and certainly not celebrated – and, especially when their subjects lack social status, hasty negation and patronising contempt are the order of the day. Instead a regular refrain of self-important gestures by and about special ones creating history emanates from aspiring or actual cinema industry heavyweights and their (un)critical cheerleaders – whose rose-coloured spectacles conceal an inability to conceive of alternatives to the political coordinates of Tweedledum and Tweedledee.
    Notes1. Carl Boggs & Thomas Pollard, A World in Chaos: Social Crisis and the Rise of Postmodern Cinema, Rowman & Littlefield, 2003, p.249.
    2. James Mottram, The Sundance Kids: How the Mavericks Took Back Hollywood, Faber & Faber, 2006.
    3. Sharon Waxman, Rebels On The Backlot: Six Maverick Directors and How They Conquered the Hollywood Studio System, HarperCollins, 2005.
    4. Ben Dickenson, Hollywood’s New Radicalism: War, Globalisation and the Movies from Reagan to George W. Bush, I.B. Tauris, 2006.
    5. see Paula J. Masood, ‘Ghetto Supastar: Warren Beatty’s Bulworth and the Politics of Race and Space’, Literature/Film Quarterly, Vol. 30, No.4, 2002, pp.287-293.
    6. the grounds for which, in this case, are presented as neutral historical record rather than falsified propaganda; for a corrective, see As’ad Abu-Khalil, ‘Spielberg on Munich: the Humanization of Israeli Killers, and the Dehumanization of Palestinian Civilians’, 2005, For a relevant discussion of the deeper relationship between media images and contemporary international government, see: Retort [Iain Boal, T. J. Clark, Joseph Matthews & Michael Watts], Afflicted Powers: Capital and Spectacle in a New Age of War, 2nd edition, Verso, 2006.
    7. see my ‘Class-ifying Contemporary Cinema’, Variant, No. 10, 2000, pp.16-19.
    8. as, in various contexts, Slavoj Žižek concludes re: Fight Club: “Liberation Hurts!” (Eric Dean Rasmussen, 2003, See also Žižek: ‘I am a Fighting Atheist: Interview with Doug Henwood’, Bad Subjects, No. 59, 2002, (and in Joel Schalit, ed., The Anti-Capitalism Reader: Imagining a Geography of Opposition, Akashic Books, 2002); and ‘Art: The Talking Heads’, in Organs Without Bodies: Deleuze and Consequences, Routledge, 2004. For the director’s take on his film, and the controversy it spawned, see: James Swallow, ‘Hit Me’, in Dark Eye: The Films of David Fincher, Reynolds & Hearn, 2003.
    9. significant exceptions being City of Hope, Lone Star and Sunshine State – like Silver City, financed by John Sayles’ journeyman scriptwriting and independently produced and distributed by his and partner Maggie Renzi’s company, The Anarchists’ Convention.
    10. see: Christina Lane, ‘The Strange Days of Kathryn Bigelow and James Cameron’; and Steven Shaviro, ‘“Straight from the Cerebral Cortex”: Vision and Affect in Strange Days’; both in: Deborah Jermyn & Sean Redmond (eds.) The Cinema of Kathryn Bigelow: Hollywood Transgressor, Wallflower Press, 2003.
    11. see Robert Allen’s and my comments on V For Vendetta in Freedom magazine, Vol. 67, No. 7, April 2006.
    Films Cited
    American Beauty (dir. Sam Mendes, 2000)
    Amores Perros (dir. Alejandro Gonzáles Iñárritu, 2001)
    Bamboozled (dir. Spike Lee, 2001)
    Bob Roberts (dir. Tim Robbins, 1992)
    Bulworth (dir. Warren Beatty, 1999)
    City Of Hope (dir. John Sayles, 1991)
    The Constant Gardener (dir. Fernando Mereilles, 2005)
    Cradle Will Rock (dir. Tim Robbins, 2000)
    Crash (dir. Paul Haggis, 2005)
    The Crossing Guard (dir. Sean Penn, 1995)
    Do The Right Thing (dir. Spike Lee, 1990)
    8 Mile (dir. Curtis Hanson, 2003)
    Erin Brockovich (dir. Steven Soderbergh, 2000)
    Fight Club (dir. David Fincher, 1999)Good Night and Good Luck (dir. George Clooney, 2005)
    I Love Huckabees (dir. David O. Russell, 2005)
    The Indian Runner (dir. Sean Penn, 1991)
    Jarhead (dir. Sam Mendes, 2005)
    JFK (dir. Oliver Stone, 1991)
    LA Confidential (dir. Curtis Hanson, 1997)
    Lone Star (dir. John Sayles, 1996)
    Lord of War (dir. Andrew Niccol, 2005)
    Magnolia (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson, 1999)
    The Manchurian Candidate (dir. John Frankenheimer, 1962)
    The Manchurian Candidate (dir. Jonathan Demme, 2004)
    The Matrix (dir. Andy & Larry Wachowski, 1999)
    Munich (dir. Stephen Spielberg, 2006)
    Natural Born Killers (dir. Oliver Stone, 1994)
    The Pledge (dir. Sean Penn, 2001)
    Primary Colors (dir. Mike Nichols, 1998)
    The Quiet American (dir. Philip Noyce, 2002)
    The Road To Perdition (dir. Sam Mendes, 2002)
    Short Cuts (dir. Robert Altman, 1993)
    Silver City (dir. John Sayles, 2004)
    Strange Days (dir. Kathryn Bigelow, 1995)
    Sunshine State (dir. John Sayles, 2002)
    Syriana (dir. Andrew Gaghan, 2005)
    The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (dir. Tommy Lee Jones, 2006)
    Three Kings (dir. David O. Russell, 1998)
    Traffic (dir. Steven Soderbergh, 2001)
    21 Grams (dir. Alejandro Gonzáles Iñárritu, 2004)
    V for Vendetta (dir. James McTeigue, 2006)
    Wag the Dog (dir. Barry Levinson, 1998)

  • Küba, by Kutlug Ataman

    Ghetto Fabulous, by Tom Jennings. Art review published in Freedom, Vol. 67, No. 19, October 2006.
    Ghetto Fabulous by Tom Jennings
    [published in Freedom, Vol. 67, No. 19, October 2006]
    Küba’s multitude of screens give a fascinating but flawed portrayal of  community, finds Tom Jennings
    Küba, by Kutlug Ataman, simultaneously telling the stories of forty residents of Istanbul’s most notorious shantytown, showed at the Waygood Gallery/Robert Stephenson Centre, Newcastle, in July-August 2006. Backed by blockbuster commissioners Artangel, the installation has toured galleries and alternative spaces in America, Australia, Europe and the UK, and is due to visit Liverpool and Southampton before returning to Turkey in 2007. The London-based artist was born in Istanbul but left after imprisonment for filming outlawed left-wing militants in the 1980s, since experimenting with cinema (most famous for Lola and Billy the Kid, 1999) and video art portraits of the socially and politically excluded. Access to the ‘closed’ world of Küba, crammed between high-rise blocks near the  airport, was gained via a respected former resident, and the trust to allow interviewing developed over two years – a rare level of involvement mirrored in the commitment required of viewers to do justice to so many hours of minimally-edited footage.
    The subjects are a cross-section of the population willing to testify, of varying degrees of lucidity, and from children to elders. Asked what Küba means to them, some are humble, shy or reflective in talking to camera, others self-serving or effusive, even apparently obsessed; all matter-of-factly confiding the mundane routines of bare existence punctuated by extremes of abuse, suffering and tragedy; or, far less frequently, triumph. There is however an overriding sense of protectiveness of their own (such as it is) in the face of unremitting external hostility and an obstinate pride in collective survival when the converse seems perpetually imminent. On circulating around successive screens, the effect is a strange blend of heightened feeling: moved and then bored; involved and detached. The shabby furniture and battered second-hand television sets hiding the DVD gear help you feel at home, and the flickering images and soundtracks bleed into peripheral perception as in a real social gathering. But of course there’s no interaction, and a mere juxtaposition of individualised accounts loses the intense flesh-and-blood co-presence producing the interpersonal cement of this community – though more suitable, perhaps, for the atomised existences and simulated relationships of Western media-addicts.

    If the installation’s innovative strategies conceal unresolvable contradictions under rhetorics of empowerment, bearing witness and transcending documentary limitations, the waffle of critics and curators goes further. Framed to befit the special status of art, Küba is characterised as uniquely distinct from any other place, diverting attention from parallels with lower-class neighbourhoods across the world and throughout history and favouring fetishistic fascination with personal pathologies, perversions of consciousness and ethnic abjection. Litanies of the exotic grotesque – “drug addicts, criminals, transvestites, prostitutes and the mentally ill, Kurds, former left-wing militants, Islamic fundamentalists and nationalists” – strive to increase distance between marginal lives and some assumed and unquestioned ‘normal’ mainstream, downplaying the shared burden of the impoverished recounted vividly on the DVDs. So, despite geographical and historical specificity and their relative diversity, embattled matriarchs, unrepentant adolescents and dignified losers make sense of their struggles via biographical narratives mobilising wish-fulfilment and fury, wit and pathos, poignant nobility and bluff and bluster – emotive rationales resonating in anyone with the relevant experience and empathy.
    Having pre-empted class recognition with fragmentary identities, the exhibition blurb claims that the settlement is also “quite different from traditional anarchist squats” (whatever they are) “… in the sense that entire families reside in Küba and not just young intellectuals, students or bohemians”. Undoubtedly true for some, this does no justice to many such social experiments whose achievements under harsh pressures of necessity cannot be dismissed so cavalierly as ‘lifestylism’ – especially when feelings of collective sanctuary from state control and bureaucratic conformity are so prominent, and hard-won in being reproduced across generations. Even more specious is the argument that “Küba cannot be compared to the favelas of Latin America because rather than being an easily recognized zone of the city reserved for the poor, Küba is first and foremost a state of mind”. No, the favelas illegally occupy substandard real estate outside of government control – certainly not granted by benevolent authorities – tolerated as reserve armies of labour and the ramifications and practical expense of eviction.
    The Kübans’ anti-state sentiments, nurtured by extreme levels of arbitrary police harassment and detention persisting since the 1980s military dictatorship, are also hardly exceptional – often evolving further. So in El Alto, La Paz, Bolivia, the shanty neighbourhood associations are among the most radical of new political groupings in a country already renowned for insurrectionary tradition. Or, in the Rio favelas – usually dismissed as sunk in the mire of criminal gangsterism – the Afro-Reggae movement hints at inspirational cultural-politics incubating there. A more meaningful contrast is scale, with millions rather than hundreds of people – so that bottom-up organisation would represent a convergence of many thousands of Kübas at once; a quantum-leap in terms of possibilities for resistance. Finally, the megaghettoes of the global south can be seen as a most enduring product of IMF/World Bank structural adjustment programmes, rather than historical anachronisms. This puts into context the insistence that the future of Küba be interpreted as a measure of how ‘modern’ (even ‘humane’) the state of Turkey – and, by implication, the broader fortress EC that country aspires to join – will be.
    Ataman’s motivations included to respect and air his subjects’ reality – rather than any ‘truth’ – in their own words. That their unity seems based on a “generationally-transmitted instinct to defy the forces of law and power rather than through any more observable markers of identity” then contradicts the differentiating presumption in touring the installation around the world of “alien narratives coming into an alien city and mixing with it”. Ultimately, then, this complex and ambiguous artwork raises many intriguing questions which it cannot answer. The mantra of a ‘state of mind’, holding together an otherwise unlikely local society, has no more explanatory power than the ‘imagined community’ of nationhood or the self as a performative personal mythology – though conveniently reinforcing the art consumer’s superior detachment from dirty realities of social and material intensity and threat. A measure of Küba’s success might be how hard the accompanying public discourse has to work in simultaneously hyping up, narrowing down, and generally mystifying its relevance to make it palatable to those more comfortably off in the New World Order.

  • Paradise Now, dir. Hany Abu-Assad (2006)

    Clarifying the Muddle East, by Tom Jennings. Short review published in Freedom, Vol. 67, No. 13, July 2006.Clarifying the Muddle East by Tom Jennings 
    [published in Freedom, Vol. 67, No. 13, July 2006]
    Paradise Now, dir. Hany Abu-Assad
    This outstanding film fictionalises preparations for a Tel Aviv suicide bombing by young Palestinians Said (Kais Nashef) and Khaled (Ali Suliman) from the West Bank – happy-go-lucky car mechanics metamorphosing into deadly serious terror protagonists. Viewer expectations and sympathies are juggled by deploying thriller, comedy, romance and rites of passage narrative conventions – within an overall arc of tragic realism – rendering intelligible the context, conditions and complications accompanying this act of extreme violence. Writers Hany Abu-Assad and Bero Beyer effectively detail the humiliations and hopelessness of everyday life in the colonised territories under Israeli military stranglehold – its victims’ experience blending with their social and cultural history in trying to make sense of an unbearable existence, responding with a complex range of political and personal orientations.
                    An Israeli/European co-production, Paradise Now’s perilous filming in Nablus included the kidnapping of one crew member and the subsequent flight of others, near-miss mortar and missile attacks, and baleful suspicion from both the IDF and local militias. Thereafter completed in the director’s home-town of Nazareth, the traces of conflict in the final cut are far more restrained – subtle indications of the absurdities inherent in maintaining community routines in a ruined war zone being preferred to grandstand posturing. Abu-Assad’s previous features heightened tragicomedy to salute ordinary Palestinians’ courage and persistence. Here it highlights ambivalence in attitudes and preoccupations – for example puncturing the fundamentalist austerity of the martyr video ritual with references to water filters (West Bank water being, in effect, Israeli sewage), malfunctioning cameras and the noisy snacking of bored onlookers.
    Nevertheless, though the fateful mission is finally accomplished despite all the poignant doubts expressed, an inspired move was having  Said’s tentative love interest Suha (Lubna Azabal) – the daughter of a militant hero returning from exile – articulate the hopes for peace, negotiation and co-existence held by many in the ‘West’ (including the film-makers). But after so many broken promises of justice and democracy from privileged outsiders, elements of Islamic fervour do furnish a faltering rationale for atrocity in the brutal isolation of the present; whereas Muslim customs simultaneously facilitate a semblance of dignity amid daily degradation. Even so, more secular personal and collective pursuits of agency and meaning – not to mention various vested interests for control of what little remains – clearly hold sway. After all, as one of the planners shrugs, “If we had airplanes, we wouldn’t need martyrs”.
    Abu-Assad knows that “the system of capitalism … [offers] no solution for the differences between rich and poor”, instead inventing enemies “in order to keep authority, to keep power, and hope that some miracle will happen”.* In tackling its highly-charged themes so effectively, Paradise Now itself represents something of a minor miracle – especially compared with other recent efforts at Middle-East illumination (e.g. Syriana’s patronising parapolitics or Spielberg’s odious Munich**). If his next film – about a Palestinian taxi-driver in L.A. – can successfully bring the same sensibility to bear on contemporary America, it should be well-worth looking out for.
    * quoted in: B. Ruby Rich, ‘Bomb Culture’, Sight & Sound, April 2006, pp.28-30.
    ** As’ad Abu-Khalil’s comprehensive demolition of the latter is at:

  • Help Build the Ruins of Democracy, by Bob & Roberta Smith

    The Art of Brill O’Pads, by Tom Jennings. Art review published in Freedom magazine, Vol. 66, No. 5, February 2005.
    The Art of Brill O’Pads  by Tom Jennings
    [published in Freedom magazine, Vol. 66, No. 5, February 2005]
    Bob & Roberta Smith’s Help Build the Ruins of Democracy (Baltic, Gateshead, November 2004 – April 2005) surrounds a copse of birch trees adorned in sketchpad pages with jumbled banners, plaques and furniture. ‘Degraded’ materials, found objects and amateurish typefaces refuse conventions of beauty or the sublime, and the personal identity of Patrick Brill is effaced by the multiply-gendered open-ended fictional Smiths – an identity supporters are encouraged to inhabit like a “cultural virus”* spreading worldwide.
    Various conceptual art strategies mobilise DIY aesthetics into creative expression as part of everyday life rather than the preserve of elites and genuises, and viewers add their sketches and sayings to the artist’s own texts. The latter – cast in cement or painted on plywood lining walls and sofas – combine the absurd and irrational with bile towards New Labour, the media, celebrities and art heroes. Alongside, a video replays a performance event staged in the parliament of Bremen, Germany, with actresses improvising histrionic debate among Jesus Christ, Mozart, Jacques Tati, Churchill, etc. All of this is mildly amusing, while Eileen – a new commission – clads a shed’s exterior with concretised fragments of a North of Ireland biography beset by communal cleavage, false ethnicity and “the stupidity of prejudice”.
    Unfortunately, history is reduced throughout to mere accumulations of individual attitudes and attributes. The satirical offensiveness and Little England eccentricity therefore resolve the fascination with fame and leadership (in both politics and art) into timid liberal whingeing about today’s “flaws in democracy” – guaranteeing the artist safe passage into globetrotting art stardom and lecturing at fashionable Goldsmiths. No more profound than public opinion surveys sampling the momentary whims of passive publics, the “participation” of viewers amounts to a few hastily-scribbled cartoons and slogans chosen by gallery staff (using criteria of political correctness) – but if punters attempt to remove any they are frogmarched out. Brill will then cannibalise the archive of used and unused contributions for future projects – mirroring his recuperation of utopian Dada, Lettrism and Fluxus desires. Touted as ‘oppositional’ – even “anarchic” – this whole sordid deception is lent populist gloss with mantras like Make Your Own Damn Art (book accompanying the exhibition) and “Create Your Own Reality”. Ultimately, Bob & Roberta Smith practise neither –  instead inoculating a largely contemptuous contemporary art scene against the “catalyst for change” that radical artists hope their germs will mutate into.
    *quotes from exhibition blurb and catalogue.

  • Wall and Piece, by Banksy

    Random Signage and Secret Acts of Beauty, by Tom Jennings. Art / book review published in Freedom, Vol. 66, No. 23, November 2005.

    Random Signage and Secret Acts of Beauty  by Tom Jennings
    [published in Freedom, Vol. 66, No. 23, November 2005]
    Wall and Piece, by Banksy, Century, 2005
    Renowned stencil graffiti exponent and all-round public art prankster Banksy continues his long march into the (anti-) establishment with the publication this month of the glossy coffee-table volume Wall and Piece – a compendium of three previously self-published efforts, Banging Your Head Against a Brick Wall, Existencilism and Cut It Out, plus more recent material from forays into official and unofficial gallery exhibitions in London, New York and Paris and defacing the apartheid wall in Palestine. He’s presented painted farm animals in a warehouse in the fashionable yBa East End, remixed and updated classical and modernist painting and sculpture (for example with 200 live rats as attendants in a posh gallery in the West End), snuck fake artefacts into Tate Britain and other museums, and generally thumbed his nose at the great and the good.
    Despite the necessity of anonymity given media hype, moral panic and police attention to such ‘vandalism’, his prolific, exuberant and subversive street output in Bristol and London for over a decade has generated increasing media celebrity – which has encouraged the entrepreneurial turn. His work now commands respectably high prices when offered for sale as contemporary ‘high-concept’ commodities, such that his proclamations against both the mainstream art market and the ‘brandalism’ of corporate advertising are starting to look somewhat threadbare. But he’s a lot less precious than many adbusting types whose moral superiority about the ‘unfairness’ of capitalism leads them to sneer at the proletarian vulgarity of direct expressions such as tagging (like Dr.D, who nevertheless unfailingly adds her ‘signature’). Whereas Bansky hints far beyond such liberal queasiness in critiquing the control of material, spatial and symbolic resources – plus, being more of an ordinary bloke, he’s not coy about needing to get by.
    Fortunately the substance of Banksy’s project retains its integrity, largely through the wit and warmth of its commonsense anti-authoritarian sensibility and the intelligence of his deconstructions of governmental complacency and corresponding public passivity. Whether images of hip-hop rats and sinister chimps symbolise the lowly masses intimating their impending takeover of urban areas; or when fun is poked at the evil, stupidity, duplicity and arrogance of the police and state violence; or official signage is travestied to encourage other graffitists, harangue touristic attitudes, or highlight the general creeping fascism of the times – the question of who is allowed to occupy, mark their presence and preoccupations upon, and take self-determined action in our shared space remains central.
    “Imagine a city where graffiti wasn’t illegal, a city where everybody could draw whatever they liked. Where every street was awash with a million colours and little phrases. Where standing at a bus stop was never boring. A city that felt like a living breathing thing which belonged to everybody, not just the estate agents and barons of big business.
    Imagine a city like that and stop leaning against the wall – it’s wet”.*
    Most of all, Banksy wants more people – many more – to take up his call. And they are. For this generous spirit and humility I’d forgive a lot – and if he wants to sell his soul for Damien Hirst’s dollars … well, that’s his spiritual funeral.**
    Wall and Piece was published by Century on November 3rd, price £20.
    * text with Rats: see
    ** Hirst is rumoured to be investing in Banksy ‘originals’ at around £25k each.

  • Sound Clash: Jamaican Dancehall Culture at Large, by Carolyn Cooper

    A (New) Message from Rudy, by Tom Jennings. Book /music review published in Freedom, Vol. 66, No. 6, March 2005
    A (New) Message from Rudy  by Tom Jennings 
     [published in Freedom, Vol. 66, No. 6, March 2005]  
    Carolyn Cooper, Sound Clash: Jamaican Dancehall Culture at Large, Palgrave Macmillan, 2004 Carolyn Cooper’s Sound Clash sees contemporary reggae as rebel music, still. Tom Jennings is mightily impressed. 
    Britain, the 1970s: skinheads rocked steady to ska and punks embraced reggae as their dance music of choice. Disaffected white youth across the UK embraced these Jamaican ghetto fables set to irresistibly pulsing beats, primarily due to the resonance they felt with the incendiary politics woven into the lyrics alongside spiritual yearning for unity, love and relief from suffering. Then – after Bob Marley’s international canonisation and the multicultural populisms of two-tone and UB40 – UK roots, dub and lovers rock production, recording and performance thrived for a while among Jamaican diasporans and the new converts. Over time, though, much of the youthful energy dissipated into trip-hop, jungle, bhangra and drum and bass, leaving reggae as another nostalgic niche commodity for collectors …
    … Except in West Indian communities, where the explosive 1980s Kingston dancehall style known as ragga quickly took over – paralleling the rise of hip-hop in America, and sharing its cutting edge minimalist aesthetics, vocal gymnastics and scandalous lower-class content. Largely ignored or dismissed by the commercial mainstream and critics, reggae dancehall is now entrenched in urban club playlists, and strongly influences R&B and rap on both sides of the Atlantic. Even better, like its predecessors, it embeds uncompromisingly radical sentiments in its profane and sensuous sound and fury.1
    Carolyn Cooper’s Sound Clash: Jamaican Dancehall Culture at Large (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004) is the first book-length critical examination of ragga’s ambivalent cultural politics. The social space of the dancehall is contextualised as an authentic and vigorous response of the postcolonial Caribbean urban poor to their repression by vicious governmental gangsterism bolstered by utterly regressive and hypocritical class/race elitism and reactionary official Christianity. The author captures the ways the dancehall vibrates with tensions juggling acceptance of the status quo (such as in scapegoating unacceptable lifestyles or glorifying consumerism) and containment via the safe release of frustration (hedonism and the carnivalesque traducing of authority) – a dialectic common in genuinely grass-roots cultural forms.
    What elevates Sound Clash beyond academic interest, however, is its careful attention to the emancipatory potential arising from this unruly environment. Drawing sustenance from the mismatch between the hatred and disgust shown by their ‘betters’ compared to their own passionate enjoyment, audiences and performers mutually nurture and reinforce each other’s prowess. In the process abolishing boundaries between production and consumption, success is measured concurrently as a dance event for punters and in the lyrical and musical dexterity and creativity of selecters and DJs, so that experimentation, provocation and excess are (within the collectively agreed rules of the sound clash) required on both sides.
    As a scholar of literature, the author carefully inscribes superstars like Marley, Shabba Ranks, Bounty Killer, Capleton and Lady Saw in their backgrounds and milieux rather than the unique creative geniuses preferred in bourgeois worldviews. Their sophisticated poetics evoke and evolve the oral, rhetorical strategies and devices originating in Africa and plantation slavery so as to encapsulate modern versions of impoverishment.2 Dismissing Western politically correct liberal distaste as merely high-and-mighty ignorance echoing Jamaican elite class hatred, Cooper interprets the lyrics’ grounding in Jamaican ghetto life, where even the most troubling themes – such as violent macho, homophobia and misogyny – reflect ‘border clashes’ negotiating the deepening fractures and fissures in the island’s increasingly brutal and desperate body politic.
    The dynamic of border crossing also illuminates the global migration of ragga and its adherents, smuggling its intrinsically oppositional stances into local fusions with rap and Asian styles, for example.3 The metaphorical patois allusions to guns as verbal weaponry, the righteous burning of Babylon merging revolution with hardline Bobo rastafarianism, and, especially, the obscenities of sexual slackness, all serve as ‘hidden transcripts’ defeating the understanding of detached observation – allowing and reinforcing flights of free expression in a heavily policed party scene: “simultaneously resisting and enticing respectable culture” (p.2).
    The close analysis of sexual politics in dancehall lyrics will surprise many readers the most. Despite both forms reserving their harshest critique for middle class morality, classic reggae largely conforms to traditional patriarchal conventions whereas ragga celebrates realistic and egalitarian relations between the sexes. True, male performers seem to gleefully and duplicitously wallow in the objectification of women’s bodies while also urging strength, pride and independence. But the personification of all these traits by hugely popular and immensely powerful women artists like Patra, Tanya Stephens and Lady Saw – who are, if anything, even ruder while fully maintaining integrity and class clarity – demonstrates that the language of display, pleasure and erotic commodification is deployed precisely to subvert the sexual (and the social, economic and political) status quo.
    Of course, formations such as reggae cannot map directly onto political struggle and movement. But whether in Jamaica, the Caribbean diaspora or via wider influences in popular genres and subcultures, the achievements of this music can continue to inspire out of all proportion to the clout of its humble downtown creators. Their exhilarating reformulations of the contradictions inherent in our increasingly polarised world under barbaric 21st century capitalism transform daily life emotional and material agonies into collective imagination and possibility – when the sneering of the superior denies such potential altogether. Respect is due to Carolyn Cooper for going against the prevailing grain, arguing so fiercely and cleverly on behalf of the dispossessed.
    1. see Norman Stolzoff, Wake The Town and Tell the People: Dancehall Culture in Jamaica (Duke University Press, 2000) for a comprehensive history of the dancehall industry. Reggae’s general significance for today’s urban music is discussed in my ‘Dancehall Dreams’, Variant No. 20, 2004 (
    2. the literary angle being fully covered in Cooper’s equally groundbreaking Noises in the Blood: Orality, Gender and the ‘Vulgar’ Body of Jamaican Popular Culture (Macmillan 1993).
    3. and in films such as Dancehall Queen (dirs. Rick Elgood/Don Letts, 1997) and Babymother (dir. Julian Henriques, 1998).

  • Judgement Days, by Ms Dynamite

    MsJudged Blandishments, by Tom Jennings. Music Review published in Freedom, Vol. 66, No. 23, November 2005
    MsJudged Blandishments  by Tom Jennings 
    [published in Freedom, Vol. 66, No. 23, November 2005]
    Ms Dynamite, Judgement Days, Polydor, 2005
    Tom Jennings judges Ms Dynamite’s second album a mismatch of unremarkable smooth music and remarkably self-indulgent rant.
    Exploding out of a vibrant UK Garage underground in 2002 with A Little Deeper, Ms Dynamite injected conscious womanist ire and exuberant streetwise mischief into the ever-moribund mainstream of British popular music, with hit singles like the anti-bling ‘It Takes More’ garnering industry awards and highly creditable sales. Since then, things done changed (slightly) thanks to her success, and record company doors have opened a crack for talented and more-or-less socially-aware British female urban artists: in hip-hop (the superb Estelle, and M.I.A.’s innovative stylistics), the drum-and-bass-derived hardcore of Grime (Shystie, Lady Sovereign), and R&B (Jamelia and Terri Walker in addition to queen Beverley Knight). Now returning after babymother business, Dynamite’s new album is touted as a milestone as significant here as 1998’s magnificent Miseducation of Lauryn Hill was stateside. Sadly, Judgement Days squanders its good intentions and self-righteous fury on what amount politically to little more than lame liberal laments.
    True, the blistering attacks in the album on the state of the world are refreshing compared to the prevailing pop gloss and glitter and ‘indie’ whingeing and posing. The title track opens by juxtaposing the collective abuse perpetrated by the global system on women, children and the poor with that experienced individually in personal relationships. But rather than exploring the connections, the different levels are simple-mindedly equated and those responsible castigated as sinners requiring absolution. And because “in permittin’ greed and violence, then we got blood on our hands too”, the appeal to conscience fatally misinterprets government, religious, corporate and military violence by confusing politics with voluntarist ethics. The obliteration of complexity and refusal to envisage alternatives persist through a withering anti-ode to an absent ‘Father’, the heartfelt ‘Put Your Gun Away’ and unflinching ‘Self Destruct’, culminating in ‘Mr Prime Minister’ – cataloguing the failings of representative democracy before fading into fatalistic whining:
    “How many hundred seats in parliament / It’s so unfair but so clear / Don’t none of them represent me / And ain’t one of them represent my peers / And it don’t matter who we vote for, nor who gets in / The poor keep dyin’ and the rich keep livin’ / … You said things would change when you wanted our vote / But it stays the same, Mr Prime Minister / And we continue to die, Mr Prime Minister / Not a damn thing changed, Mr Prime Minister / Nobody hears our cries …”
    Punctuating the focus on ‘issues’ are more wistful songs of love and loss, representing staple R&B fare. These are pleasant enough but scarcely distinctive, with neither the strength and depth of vocal rendering to convince as soul, nor much correlation with the anger and bombast elsewhere – helping explain why Judgement Days is so disappointing. The formulas of the best black music have been adopted, but to serve such clumsily imposed ‘lessons’ that the unselfconscious energy of the first album disappears. Instead of integrated thematics mingling private and public, hard and soft, love and pain – no doubt crystallised from the dynamic give-and-take of an organic underground scene – we have an awkwardly-assembled commodity.
                     Next time, let’s hope Dynamite returns to biographical reportage emphasising experience rather than cod-ideology, involvement over detachment, and complicity as opposed to priggishness. Thereupon witnessing and testifying to struggle articulates women’s complaints from a sympathetic ‘round-the-way-girl’ perspective rather than generalised feminist dismissal; representing ‘reality’ from the neighbourhood reflects social embedding rather than separation or superiority; spiritual suffering keeps redemptive hope alive for earthly change; and ‘talking to the enemy’ doesn’t just vent moral spleen. As a genuine emissary of your people, the pretence is of engaging with power – but actually you’re reinforcing grass-roots awareness of the pointlessness of the conversation unless it’s on your terms. At all levels, when this rich tricky texture is absent, mimicked or exploited as commercial gambit, hollow gestures result – or smug platitudes, if the arrogance of the artist overshadows immersion in signifyin’ tradition.
    And unfortunately, Judgement Days just plays it straight. The subtly deceptive multiple meanings generated from black culture’s historically-honed rhetoric are squashed flat almost as thoroughly as manufactured stars cluelessly expropriating the artful kudos of blues, soul, funk, reggae and hip-hop. However, even your average NY studio pseudo-gangstas acknowledge the tragedy of selling their souls for the bottom dollar, exemplifying in lyrical lifestyles the all-round damage that’s done. Whereas this album’s simplistic blame-game echoes conventional discourses of the moral inadequacy of the poor, while imploring power to self-reform. Maybe Dynamite has swallowed the style-mag adoration, celebrity hyperbole and promotional  hullabaloo – like Geldof and Bono et al, mistaking maudlin’ sentimentality for analysis, powerful fair-weather friends for influence, self-importance for seriousness, and media presence for strategic action. Hell, her pompous circumstance has even suckered her into corporate charitability and the SWP’s Love Music Hate Racism recruitment drive. Naff or what?
    Further signs of commercial domestication have blunted the sharp edges of a bragging rapper skewering her peers with wit, now replaced by humourless bluster from the pulpit. Sonically, the first album mingled drum-and-bass-tinged urgency with inventive melanges of ragga and hip-hop beats to counterpoint expert rapid-fire lyrics, among which even the mellow cuts sparkled. Here the radio-friendly R&B-lite production from Chink Santana, Bloodshy & Avant and Reza Safinia is slickly competent but won’t light up any party outside suburban teenage bedrooms. In such markets holier-than-thou histrionics might pass for politics, and MTV consumers weaned on pretty vacant pop idols may not register her reedy singing as infinitely weaker than the trickster MCing she’s traded for preaching. Overall, Judgement Days is far too bland to pass muster as action thriller and much too po-faced to inspire. More damp squib than Dyna-mi-tee – despite her potshots at elected leaders – for now she’s lost the gunpowder plot.

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