Monthly Archives: April 2007

  • Bamako – Abderrahmane Sissako – 2006 – Mali France Belgium

    There is an Africa of anger and an Africa of surfacesBamako – Abderrahmane Sissako – 2006 – Mali France Belgium
    Viewed Star and Shadow Newcastle – 22 April 07 Ticket price £4-00

    There is an Africa of anger and an Africa of surfaces

    The setting for Bamako, also the capital city of Mali, is a humble domestic courtyard where people get on with the business of living; within this courtyard Western economic institutions are on trial for their amoral business dealings with Africa.  The business of the trial and a business of life proceed interpenetrating and weaving through each other. Both present a surface to the viewer, but the nature of the surfaces presented by the trial and by life are different.

    In the expressive setting for Bamako Sissako has invented a kind of visual pun, in that a court of law is contained within a courtyard( the pun also works in French which is the vehicular language of the film) And of course this pun also points to Bamako’s playful cosmological inversion in which the lesser contains the greater so that the majesty of the law in all its vastness can be folded into the smallness of a Bamako back court in all its nominal insignificance.   It a sort of quantum Carolean logic which Alice would understand.   All the grand institutions – the World Bank – corporate capitalism – globalisation –  amount to so much the less than the lives contained in this ordinary domestic backyard.   However much these lives are exploited by the workings of corporate greed and Western avarice there is not one iota of doubt that the dignity and worth of the lives in the yard have more value than the absent and abstract forces that seek to rob them.  And that the values they represent of humanity life and warmth will outlive the cold meanness of those who would deprive them of the means to live their lives.  

     Bamako works on the senses and on the intellect using the sound and picture inputs as different strata within the film. The trial with all its accounts represents a surface of reality, what is seen when anger and the consequences of Western economic policies finally come to the surface: after the shipwreck the bodies and the flotsam and jetsam. Intellectually Sissako conducts the trial in the form of summoned voices that detail the disasters that the last 20 years of Reagonite driven aid and global financial ideologies have visited upon almost the whole of Africa.  The words are those of ordinary Africans and despite the formal nature of their utterance the voices in their warmth and urgency tell us directly why Africans are being driven from Africa:  it’s the economy stupid.  The Europeans or rather ordinary European citizens whether in Spain France Italy or the UK stand first aghast and then with anger and resentment at what they see as the unstoppable tide of economic migrants flowing across the Atlantic and the Med towards the chimera of European employment and riches.  What we don’t comprehend or perhaps don’t want to comprehend are the forces that have been unleashed in Africa that have brought about this situation.  It was not always like this.  The implementation of a World Bank lending regime that links loans to the opening up of markets and infrastructure services (water transport education) to predatory globalisation practices of private enterprise and corporate capitalism;  the debt burden, from unequal and often leveraged loan agreements,  despite Geldoff and Blair, Africa still repays a huge proportion of its income to the West.  The consequence is a continent that is impoverished,  an impoverishment that is growing, a tragedy that is deepening.  The migrants who turn up on our doorsteps are there because of us, what is done by the economic systems that give us our daily bread and feed our desire.   So in Bamako it’s Africans themselves who tell it as it is; it’s their story and we should listen shouldn’t we don’t we do we?

    If it’s the everyday quality of the African witnesses that make the audio stratum more than a polemic, the picture stratum of Bamako comprises an altogether other dimension of the film creating a specifically optical experience.  What we see is primarily the surface of Africa:  like the surface of the moon beautiful.   Western filmmakers don’t  film this face of Africa; they usually shoot Africa as a colourful exotic backdrop to their action image movies.  To film surface you need a camera that is not restless; a camera that is allowed to stop and observe what is there accessible to the eye.  In Bamako Sissoko is not particularly interested in what lies under the surface.  There are enough pictures of suffering Africa; there is enough soap opera grimacing.  Sissoko avoids images that make immediate direct appeal to the emotions that create a world of feeling with which the viewer would be called to empathise.   Images used in this way would have been crude reinforcers of the audio stratum.  There are in Bamako some strips of action: about a man in the courtyard dwellings who is very ill, the club singer, but they are shot as part of the ongoing stream of life, they are observed from the outside with no permission implied to come inside these stories; no affective invitation.  The visual stratum of the film is filled out with attention to surfaces and textures that are filmed with a primal protean sensuality.  This is Africa!  This is Africa! Not America nor Europe: only in Africa these surfaces across which I take you as across a continent of light texture and touch.  Africa that is most vibrantly warm and whose energy vibrates through light.   Sissoko composes his visual stratum  out of texture and surface:  painted walls – the walls saturated colours that bleed onto the screen;  adobe interiors – dark spaces built from the earth of the continent; black skin –  silken voluptuous absorbing human; textiles – patterns colours alive as animals or plants.  Take the surface that’s what’s here.

    This is Africa its surface is as real a statement as the surface of the earth seen from space.  It tells its own story.  In one sense there is only surface in life: the rest is supposition or projection.  It’s a philosophical proposition.   As are the final verdicts of the trial:  that it is not Africa that owes to the West and its financial institutions, but these institutions that owe something to humanity.
    adrin neatrour

  • All you need to know about golf

    Were an uninitiated observer – say from the planet Mars –to watch a round of golf being played by two men at the Masters, would that observer understand that what he was watching was in fact a sporting contest? To judge by the intoned whispered BBC commentary you might think that what was taking place was some kind of religious ceremony.

    The Masters Golf from Augusta – BBC – 6-9 April 2007

    Were an uninitiated observer – say from the planet Mars –to watch a round of golf being played by two men at the Masters, would that observer understand that what he was watching was in fact a sporting contest?  To judge by the intoned whispered BBC commentary you might think that what was taking place was some kind of religious ceremony.

    After watching some play at the Masters 07 on TV I thought a little about what I had observed.  Looking at the golf on TV with a naïve eye what seems to be happening is that small groups of men are walking round a large park.  Sometimes large crowds are watching them. The men are not in any particular hurry. They stroll over the ground never breaking out of a certain relaxed stride.  They are all smartly dressed in the sort of casual clothes you buy at a shopping mall.  Some of the men carry large bags full of clubs; the men who use the clubs walk unencumbered. They stop from time to time and take a golf club out of its bag and strike a small white ball lying on the ground.  They keep hitting their ball until they eventually get it into a little hole that has been drilled into a very smooth sward of grass.   At this point they collect the ball and begin the process all over again. 

    Looked at from a certain point of view golf seems not so much a sport as rather a particular sort of statement endorsing a particular sort of life style: the suburban life style.  It comes across as a ritualised expression of suburban etiquette, a carefully played out enactment of how suburban people should interact with each other.
    Sport(in the modern sense of the word) is something else.

    Sport is an activity in which individuals engage in rule bound opposition and competition. What is striking about golf is that these characteristics are minimalised.  The players are not in head to head contest as in running or swimming events: the players do not square up to each other like gladiators such as wrestlers or tennis players or the team games such a football and cricket: the players do not contest for mastery of a bounded terrain – in the sense that they can manipulate the play area aggressively to the disadvantage of their opponent – as witness sports such as snooker or croquet.  Golf might be thought to resemble field sports or gymnastics where opponents neither contest shoulder to shoulder nor face to face.  But these sort of sports are characterised by taking place in a closely contained area, a pit, where all the contestants are bound together within a circle of competitive intensity.  These sports also in general are characterised by explosive action of short duration.  Golf shares few of these qualities.

    In golf the action, the execution of a shot may be explosive (or not as the case may be – putting is a gentle touch stroke).  But the game is a series of events taking place over the duration of about three hours during which the men walk through 18 holes laid out in a park, which is a diligently maintained space that represents the triumph of land management – landscape – over nature.  The characteristic feature of the sport is that the contestants spend most of their time within the bounds of the game simply strolling engaging each other in occasional pleasantries and always behaving towards each other with the utmost decorum,

    On the surface there are few signs that this is a contest – even at the top level of the professional game. The men walk from hole to hole: each plays his own game and tries to get his own ball home.  There is little sense of urgency or of competition. You might if you did not know better suppose that what you were watching was some sort of charming male ritual, perhaps connected with fertility or even the church…..

    At this point we have to take account of the suburban housing estate.  In England and the US it is probably no accident that golf courses and the game itself developed and increased in popularity with the spread of suburbia.   In the typical well to do suburban estate the houses are ideally all detached, set back from the street and fronted by tidy manicured gardens whose characteristic feature is either a smooth sward of lawn or gravel, bordered with flower or herbaceous beds.  Where the houses face each other there is a broad road between them, or where, as in modern developments broad roads are too much a luxury even for the upper middle income brackets, the houses are set at angle to each other so that none directly overlooks another.  To the untrained uninitiated eye the houses all look somewhat similar.  The cars parked in the drives mostly look new and gleaming and if you catch the dwellers on their non work days they wear smart casual clothes purchased at the a local shopping mall.  You might think that was it. Groups of similar looking structures occupied by groups of similar looking people who are minding their own business.   The estate design minimises sound spill between the units and sight lines between the houses do not facilitate easy visual monitoring between the units.  This isn’t a community in the traditional sense but community in its modern incarnation: a group of people brought together because they all share a defining trait in common: in this case the people are brought into community by their shared ability to buy into a neighbourhood that has a high price tag.  A community that has as a consequence of its elective nature, an innate sense of social status.

    But these status conscious inhabitants are generally highly intra competitive.  Underneath the surface of the monochrome estate there are often intense rivalries  taking place between individual units for  claims to public acknowledgment of status within the community.  Competition in suburban communities tends to be understated – barely admitted to.  Victory does not go to those who flaunt conspicuous consumption or their wealth.  Victory goes to the understated display related to life style.  Ostentation and vulgar symbols of wealth earn fewer status points than having the right expensive but conservative car, holiday in the right places, send children to the right schools, belong to the right clubs.  Nothing announces these signifiers as competition, but covertly (occasionally overtly) there is a competing ethos once you live there and understand what is going on.    

    Seen in the context of the suburban life style I begin to understand golf as a sporting contest, understated in form but real in substance.  Golf is an extension of the suburban estate ethos, a  life style that has adopted golf as its preferred form of sporting expression.  From the outside of the estate you really see very little, what is happening is a closed off utterance.  You see a group of unexceptional large brick houses, you see two guys watering the lawn. On the golf course the competition is not face to face, there is no overt agonistic display. no triumphant rictus or fist, no verbal aggression.  It is closed utterance.  But competitive it is, as two men walk a golf course in each others affective company, interacting politely and each taking it turn to play their ball. Just as competition exists on the suburban estate across all sorts muted indicators that are  familiar and accessible to the urban anthropologist rather than to the sport’s fan. 

    What we have on the estate is a situation in which competition is incorporated into the life style itself, unstated but always present to the extent that it is a constant frame of reference for the inhabitants who have deeply internalised the rules of their status competition. By extension there is a similar ethos in golf as the preferred form of recreation of suburbia. It embodies a form of competition that is not directly visible, being a product of a lifestyle that in itself is intensely competitive whilst at the same time taking pains to deny that there is any competition (We’re all very friendly here!)  In golf with its handicap system everyone should end up with more or less the same score; the real competition is mediated through a series of social and individual testings which coalesce into pressure situations in which the individual has to demonstrate to his opponent that he can pass muster.  Golf is not so much won or lost as a match but as a test of character, a test of showing that you are a person of sufficient self control to be a worthy game playing inhabitant of suburbia.  It’s a pressure thing about control under pressure.

    Even at the pro level golf is not a game played with a raw visceral self.  Its played with a mask.  Sports often reveal the undisguised and naked aspect or face of the individual.   Defeat and victory release strong emotive forces that tear the social mask away from the individual.  In golf the test seems to be whether one can keep the mask on all the time.  To walk from tee to tee from ball to ball from green to green as if nothing very much was happening.  To stroll across the park exchanging pleasantries and coded barbed comments without reacting to being in the game.  Golf mimics the rituals of the estates from which it recruits.  At the barb-b-q or Christmas party the overriding concern in interaction is with face.  To grin smile and nod and laugh at the right cues and to be prepared to defend one’s status with appropriate gesture or form of words should it be subtly threatened undermining of one’s status.  Golf like suburban life is played with a false self.  A self that is construct of status and the primacy of self image.  A round of golf like the company dinner party is ultimately a test of the robust nature of this false self, and the true object of the game as it has developed in its suburban ritual, even at the highest professional level, is to maintain this false self at a high level of operative efficiency.

    This analysis shows golf to be a highly unusual sport in particular at the professional level where code of conduct is highly enforced (other sports of course have this – snooker for instance, but snooker players operate in a pit where the competition is direct and aggressively intended towards the opponent and where interaction with the opponent is not a necessary feature of the competition). The professional golfers are all very nice people who would be welcome as residents in any up market suburban housing enclave.  For the professionals the self of emotions fears and desires is reined in and kept under control. They play with the mask an idealised self constructed out of suburban norms and value systems and this self, regimented in the etiquette of middle class niceties is what we see in professional competition on the golf course.
    It is no surprise then to understand that the golf course is also a special type of recruiting environment, able to inform the examiners if the applicant is one of us – able to sustain appearances under pressure able to perform with a false constructed self.

    At this point I haven’t mentioned that the TV coverage of the Masters, which like all  golf coverage fully accords with the mores of the game.  The live commentary is delivered hushed tones in the reassuring rounded tones of middle England.  The voices are respectful of everyone: the players, the organisation, the spectators and comply fully with the etiquette of  the formal  dinner party.  The coverage and commentary are in relation to current TV and media norms in a sort of time warp, adopting a style and tone of reverence that are of an era when the media knew its place – as servants.  It is interesting that the anchor studio role of Gary Lineker was criticised in many quarters – in particular it is said by the Masters organisers who didn’t like his style.  Lineker’s attitude was in fact entirely traditional. His problem both in accent and tone was that he looks and sounds like that phenomenon known to all exclusive estates, an arrivist who didn’t make the appropriate expressive moves and gestures to disguise his provenance.  His crime was the old fashioned social faux pas of not having the decency to cover up or at least make his origins (working class footballer) unobtrusive. 

    As a final note on a point already alluded to, the golf course is a certain type of park.  It is a high maintenance environment (one that is increasingly perceived in arid regions as destructive of environment on account of its demand for copious quantities of water) that is a faithful reflection of the idealised suburban world which supports it.  It reflects a suburban view of nature: it has all the constituent parts of the natural world: shrubs, trees, plants, flowers and grasses(of which few people know the names).  But this swath of nature is benignly ordered trimmed strimmed and managed. It is a non threatening environment and is part of the  order of things that exist for the enjoyment of life style. 
    adrin neatrour

  • Sunshine – Danny Boyle – UK – 2006 – Ensemble caste.

    Watching Sunshine was a detached experience. I felt remote and uninvolved with anything happening on the screen. The crew seemed to have been beamed up from an episode of ‘Friends’ and were going through the motions of pretending to be in a space ship. All around them techni-wizards organising the CGI , were busy making the futurist wallpaper.

    Sunshine – Directed Danny Boyle – UK – 2006 – Ensemble caste.
    Viewed: 14 April 07 – Empire Screen 6 – Newcastle.  Ticket price £6-50
    ‘Friends’ in space

    Watching Sunshine was a detached experience. I felt remote and uninvolved with anything happening on the screen.  The crew seemed to have been beamed up from an episode of ‘Friends’ and were going through the motions of pretending to be in a space ship.  All around them techni-wizards organising the CGI ,  were busy making the futurist wallpaper. 

    There is deadness the core of Sunshine that pervades the script, the acting the art direction camera and the direction.   The deadness is I think the consequence of Boyle and his collaborators having nothing of substance to say.  They appear to believe that computer imagery combined with stylistic homage to Kubrick Tankovski and Scott  would be enough to carry this movie.  It’s evident that this mimicking of style increasingly cramps and stifles Sunshine.  Finding itself chained to and boxed in by  expectations which it  cannot deliver, Sunshine becomes a chaotic exercise in stylistic vacuity.   

    2001 the Alien cycle and Solaris all mapped out ideas about journies undertaken by men and women in space.  Although projecting onto the space mission the concerns and anxieties of their times they succeed through their filmic expression in creatively developing and refining their core ideas.  They all took on the sci-fi genre with some ambition and used film to shape define and respond to particular worlds of concern.   Boyle and his writer are unable to do this. 

    In his direction of  Sunshine Boyle lacks vision.  I  can see a couple of incipient notions in the material: the primal environmental quest;  the notion of the sun as a landscape-becoming-state-of-mind which interpenetrates the waking and sleeping hours of the crew (James Ballard territory), the sun as a deluding deity.   None of these ideas is allowed any obstetric freedom either in the script or the camera.  They are aborted still born.   Boyle without confidence in any of the possibilities that were obviously alive at some stage early drafting of the script defaults Sunshine  to a banal action thriller dominated by CGI.   In consequence both players and his camera are reduced to ciphers, pawns in the game of meeting the technical requirements of complex digital mattes.

    Neither the players nor the camera created any forms to which I could relate either emotionally psychically or visually.  The overall affect was a feeling of  disengagement from fom the film which was almost completely without tensions.  There was no tension either its plot or in its acting out, or in way the film was the visually structured through the camera.  Visually what I watched was a series of complex orchestrations between camera and digital effects. The camera work was uninformed by any other intention than to mesh with its digital matte and achieve a certain competence of fusion.  The camera is employed simply a mechanical device for recording the image making process,  and is unable to disguise its studio provenance.  The acting like the camera work was without point or conviction.  Amongst the ensemble group of actors, it was difficult to tell one role player from another and Boyle, asks of them no more than to go through the motions the gestures and expressive range  familiar in sit com formats.

    As a film Sunshine is a descent into incoherence with little integrity either of plot or the internal devices adopted to carry the film.  The robot that controls the space ship, Icasus ll all is a lacklustre cloned version of HAL.  The distinguishing feature of HAL  is that his identity emerges as a centre about which the film orbits both visually and psychically.  The on board computer of Icarus ll is not permitted to develop any personality: she ( it has a female voice) exists purely as a function of the plot that requires that she be turned off or overridden from time to time purely to facilitate the action.  Sunshine is not even able to sustain itself within the sci-fi genre and the final section of the with the introduction of the bogey man on to the ship, sees it segue into another genre – old fashioned gothic horror. 

    Sci –fi is a tough genre : at one end of the spectrum there are the films of Kubrick and Tarkovski;  but  at the other end of the spectrum there is spoofland  Red Dwarf, and the Hitchiker’s Guide.  To cut it in sci-fi you can’t borrow other people’s clothes.  You have to make your own path and succeed or fail on your own terms mapping out response and answers to the challenges that you set yourself within the genre. 
    adrin neatrour

  • La Quai des Brumes – Marcel Carne Fr 1938 – Jean Gabin, Michele Morgan

    Jean Paul Sartre probably saw this film when it opened in 1938. Did he go with Simone de Beauvoir? Did they identify with Gabin and Morgan?FilmcritQuai des Brumes – Marcel Carne Fr 1938 – Jean Gabin, Michele Morgan
    Screened Star and Shadow Newcastle UK; 1st April 2007; ticket price £4-00

    Retrocrit:  Jean Paul Sartre probably saw this film when it opened in 1938.
               Did he go with Simone de Beauvoir? Did they identify with Gabin                      and Morgan?

    Viewed today La Quai des Brumes looks like it has been premised on an existential text in set in the fog of the pre-World War ll era.   It’s made in France in 1938 at the time of the publication of Sartre’s first novel La Nausee (of which the Penguin edition was a common accessory to 60’s black garbed angst) which developed Heidigger’s philosophical ideas about the nature of existence into a literary form.  Quai des Brumes(QdB) lays out a similar philosophical agenda in an era where sick Europe gazing into the rise of absurd murderous atavistic politics and the abyss of nazi terror found itself unable to respond.  It’s an era of moral equivalence and inability to act in response to evil.  An era in which society in a state of entropy was just passing the time sipping and supping, waiting for the inevitable cataclysm and the final render of accounts. Bit like today maybe.   In 1938 existentialism with its emphasis on existing now, the absurd, perception and the failure of reason wasn’t something that people had to be taught: it was out on the streets.  In the air, the cafes bars and clubs, the music – mainly jazz and the movies.  An attitude for living through the times and like the smoke from the cigarettes, deeply internalised. 

    The core of the film is the performance of Jean Gabin, the deserting soldier on a line of flight a journey from nowhere to nowhere or anywhere.  His presence pervades the moral heart of the film – with similar power but different effect to his contemporary Bogart.  Bogart is an agent of a judgemental system usually based on an outsider’s idea of justice. Gabin is moral in the sense of not being judgmental, of being true to the imperatives of his existence distrusting all judgemental systems whatever their rationality.

    Gabin’s acting style tends towards doing little. In QdB his minimal gestural language is central to the moulding of the film as a  contemporary state of mind.  His  face and eyes are perfectly tuned in QdB as a certain kind of statement in time.  I think that the elemental mode of Gabin’s face in QdB is ‘seeing’.   The seeing eyes.   Gabin does not employ expressive or emotive mode.  Compared to today’s pouting grimacing gurning acting crowd, or to the one dimensional fixed faciality adopted by players to get them through feature films, Gabin’s non movement is a revelation.  Aided by Carne’s direction Gabin sees into every situation that he encounters – perhaps like the café people seeing what was happening to the Jews in Germany – but is not inclined to take action except to communicate that he has seen.  Action of course he does take when the events provoke.  The action sequences as conceived in QdB  are cursory anticlimactic and mechanically choreographed, in effect down played: things that have to be done in order to get back to the film.  The film is not the action. The action events – fights etc – are shot in a naturalistic rather than realistic register.  They are simply devices for moving on from one situation to another.

    QdB is all shot on sets.  The design of settings is such that they could be anywhere.  There are few overt signs that point to specificity of place whether it’s the hotel rooms, the domestic interiors, the bars or the quayside.   They have an intrinsic nowhere feel, they are nondescript borders.  This is a conceptual idea that is developed by filmmakers in the ‘40s and 50’s who take states of consciousness as a central concern. The unity and fixation of purpose is no less evident in Carne’s film hence the primacy of the idea of fog, a weather condition that makes everything look the same.  Out of the mist which is both real and moral Gabon and Morgan step out in clear definition towards the absurd but unsurprising ending.

    Two final points about QdB.  First: the coat worn by Michelle Morgan as Nellie is quite amazing. I think it’s made from some kind of transparent plastic material and to me it seems disarmingly modern or perhaps timeless.  Transparency can serve many different purposes. I think it’s point here is to say: I have nothing to hide: my existence is bared to your gaze but  beyond what you see, there lies something you can know.   Second: Jean Gabin has in the film a sort of alter ego in the form of a dog.  The incident in the opening sequence whereby the dog attaches itself to him triggers the focal concerns of the film. When asked why he put his own life at risk to save the dog’s life Gabin responds that a life is a life.  The relationship between Gabin and the dog is totally unsentimental but it runs the duration of the film and then some, leaving you with an idea.
    adrin neatrour

  • The Hive of Liberty: the Life and Work of Thomas Spence (ed. Keith Armstrong)

    Pearls Before Swine, by Tom Jennings. Review of The Hive of Liberty: The Life and Work of Thomas Spence (edited by Keith Armstrong), published in Freedom magazine, Vol. 68, No. 6, March 2007Pearls Before Swine  by Tom Jennings 
     [published in Freedom magazine, Vol. 68, No. 6, March 2007]
    Tom Jennings welcomes renewed interest in 18th century Tyneside radical Thomas Spence 
    Newcastle in the late 18th century was a hotbed of radical political associations (e.g. Constitutional Club, Independent Club) and dissenting church sects. It was also a thriving centre for printing (French revolutionary Jean-Paul Marat visited regularly and launched The Chains of Slavery there) and grassroots education. One notable beneficiary of and contributor to this climate of ferment and potential was Thomas Spence (1750-1814), an indefatigable enemy of exploitation and oppression who expounded lower-class insurrection and seizure of the land. The newly-formed Thomas Spence Trust’s The Hive of Liberty introduces his life and work; with the latter scarcely in print over two centuries but now largely reproduced on their website. The pamphlet includes various perspectives on the man, his ideas and their significance – including his virtual disappearance from history and patronising appropriation by authoritarian Marxism – together with extracts from his writing and the responses of others over the years.
    One of nineteen children, Spence’s self-education started with his Glassite (dissident Presbyterian) parents,  impoverished Scottish immigrant netmakers. Characteristically ahead of his time, he published an educational tract with a new phonetic alphabet to encourage literacy among the poor while working as a teacher on the Quayside. Active in local debating clubs, he gave a talk (later called ‘The Real Rights of Man’ or ‘Spence’s Plan’) to the Newcastle Philosophical Society after the colonial war in America started in 1775, having been the first to use the term ‘the rights of man’ (in a 1782 tribute to Jack the Blaster, an ex-miner cave-squatting at Marsden Rocks, South Shields). He later distributed Thomas Paine’s book of that title, stressing its flaws concerning the private ownership of land – the abolition of which he asserted was fundamental. Regrettably, the Newcastle freethinkers were intransigent in supporting bourgeois property rights; Spence even being cudgelled by his friend, engraver Thomas Bewick, over the issue.
    Unable to make headway up north, Spence moved to London and by the time of the 1789 French revolution was busy agitating, educating and organising – though again too extreme for groups such as the London Corresponding Society. Travestying conservative Edmund Burke’s characterisation of ordinary people as ‘the swinish multitude’, Spence called his regular broadsheet Pigs Meat. He also minted hundreds of coins and tokens bearing cartoons, attacks on politicians of the day and general radical mottoes. This propaganda method combined with bill-posting and wall-slogan blitzes proved much more difficult for the authorities to quell than his stream of books and pamphlets, which included The End of Oppression, the proto-feminist The Rights of Infants, and several works about fictional utopias  ‘Spensonia’ and ‘Crusonia’ – sequelising Defoe’s popular Robinson Crusoe in revolutionary directions.
    Paranoia about the English masses emulating their French counterparts yielded many Acts of Parliament suppressing freedom of speech from the 1990s onwards, when Spence endured severe beatings from government agents and periods of imprisonment, with or without trial, on charges of seditious libel and high treason for distributing his own and Paine’s work. When at large he ran a bookshop (‘The Hive of Liberty’ in Holborn) and stalls selling printed matter along with the drink ‘saloup’. Affinity groups and their missionary work disseminating Spence’s Plan organised via ‘free and easy’ pub gatherings to avoid surveillance, with lectures, debates, songs and poetry. After his death in penury in 1815, supporters expanded their grassroots activity despite relentless suppression – a law even being deemed necessary in 1817 to explicitly prohibit “societies or clubs calling themselves Spencean or Spencean Philanthropists”.
    Of course Spence (and most early agrarian socialists) could not tackle questions of industrial development and capital accumulation in complex societies. Static universal principles ignoring historical process in the oppositional politics of the time usually derived from millenarian religious traditions, overcompensating for feudal ideologies of ‘divine rights’ with naïve redemptive faith in rationalist enlightenment. Nevertheless the pragmatic emphases on local, bottom-up control, federalism and direct democracy resonated loudly among the rabble but appalled the contemporary great and good and later leftist intellectual aristocrats alike – who were naturally also contemptuous of his trust in the potential integrity of the common people. The sensitivity to issues of colonial encroachment, land use and ecology, and the social positions of women and children similarly resonates across the centuries; while the perennially unhelpful unhinging of righteous idealism from concrete struggle haunts us still.
    Purportedly bringing The Hive of Liberty “up to date”, Newcastle artist George French concludes that: “the Spencean project has failed … we can no longer rely on solidarity, association or community action … The only oppositional space left to exist is in our own heads and … personal action”. Oh, really? Presumably intended to provoke debate, such defeatist sophistry would certainly have Spence spinning in his grave. Whereas the refusal of elitism, twisting of popular culture, and enthusiasm for grass-roots intercourse and the irrepressible anti-hierarchical power of dialogue, humour, and shared enjoyment in spaces collectively created amidst worldly misery remain indispensable – but only given the humility and empathy to resist jaded delusions of intellectual grandeur. As he put it: ‘Can tyrants hinder people from singing at their work, or in their families? Sing and meet and meet and sing and your chains will drop off like burnt thread.’
    The Hive of Liberty: The Life and Work of Thomas Spence (edited by Keith Armstrong, with introduction by Joan Beal; 40pp, ISBN 1 871536 15 4) is available priced £5 (+£1.50 p+p) from the Thomas Spence Trust, 93 Woodburn Square, Whitley Lodge, Whitley Bay, Tyne & Wear NE26 3JD; see also:

  • Ossessione – Luchino Visconti

    I had never realised that Visconti’s first film, his adaptation of the James M Cain novel the Postman always rings Twice preceded Tay Garnett’s Hollywood version with Lana Turner and John Garfield by some 4 years. The manner in which the two protagonists eye each other for the first time highlights the ambition scope and styles of the two films. Ossessione – Luchino Visconti – 1942 – Italy : Clara Calamae; Massimo Girotti
    Viewed Star and Shadow Jan 2007.  Ticket price £3-50

    I prefers the woman with a basket full of eggs to the woman with lipstick

    I had never realised that Visconti’s first film, his adaptation of the James M Cain novel the Postman always rings Twice preceded Tay Garnett’s Hollywood version with Lana Turner and John Garfield by some 4 years.

    The manner in which the two protagonists eye each other for the first time highlights the ambition scope and styles of the two films.  Garnett introduces them using a cute gimmick: Lana Turner drops her lipstick case across the diner floor to where Garfield sits.  The lipstick a snare like device catches in its traces both Garfield and the audience initiating a film of  relationship intensities that are self referential, plot bound and plot driven.  The audience is carried from the lipstick to the Chair subject to two judgmental systems: the internalised voice over delivered by Garfield and the externalised justice system that represents the accounting of the second half of the movie.  In short the connections that Hollywood asks both the players and the audience to make are in the main mechanical linkages of the action – the plot.  

    In Ossessione the eyeball scene has the drifter sitting at the back of the empty bar look up – his eye catching a peripheral movement – and see the owner’s wife facing him from behind the bar holding before her an immense basket of eggs.  She turns and goes into the kitchen.
    The image is both natural in the sense the eggs are supplies for the kitchen and powerfully suggestive of multiple latent possibilities.  The lipstick is a simple signifier, a mask of sexuality which can only point to what it is an intensifier of desire.   The egg is primary and hence ambiguous – containing within its the form ideas of sex and fertility, and also within its form strongly implying the creation of new life.  Eggs also suggest comfort ingestion and sensuality of texture and colour.  They are fragile and can break easily.  In short eggs are a world.  And it is with the idea of self contained but open worlds that Visconti opens up the dynamics of  Ossessione.  Visconti, who had before the war been working with Renoir is about worlds and domains and the states of mind that they evince.  Hollywood  is about plot  and stars.

    Osessione not only contains within itself multiple worlds and domains but it is also in itself contained and held within the world of rural Italy.  Garnett’s Postman takes place in a bubble (a bubble beside the road but the highway intrudes hardly at all).  Ossessione is not just located in the countryside it is part of the countryside.  The eggs, the food the country activities and the work of fields in which the workers are winnowing.  Ossessione is located in the calendar and rhythm of the seasons of which it is both a part and an  aberration like unseasonal weather.

    Visconti’s drifter moves from world to world.  The opening is a long tracking shot, the point of view of the drifter from the cab of a lorry, in which we see the road open out and then rush past us.   The lorry stops at the first world – the bar – which contains the dissatisfied wife of its owner.  The shots that comprise this first sequence, composed still images and tracks create a world of potential destinies: but not a world of overdeterminations. It seems to me it is a world that in the main is constituted out of the state of mind of the drifter who is both attracted and repelled by its inherent possibilities.  In the course of the film the drifter explores at least two other worlds.  The world of travelling entertainer whose invitation to accompany him is accepted.  This world contains within itself  a different sexual domain:   homosexuality with its implied less onerous and lighter form of commitment – no eggs.  The world is experienced as floating ever changing and without a centre.    The world of the prostitute is encapsulated within her room which is an extraordinary assemblage of wallpaper and objects calling up  mood identity and memory that overwhelms the emotions both of the drifter and the viewer. State of mind takes the drifter back to the bar and the world, now darker in which it is contained, though by now it become a multi faceted world each returning an altered reflection back to the viewer.  The bar the kitchen the bedroom the wardrobe containing the murdered husband’s clothes all trigger a different understanding of what is happening.   

    Visconti closes his film by transposing the action to a world characterised by undifferentiated space, shots that are set in unreferenced locations. The drifter and the wife float in a world that is comprised of the consequences of the decisions that have been made.   The woman is pregnant as they try to escape, one of her eggs has been fertilised.  The final sequences in the scrub by the river and in the car squeeze the two lovers together, and in a way the little car is like an egg in which they are both contained.  An egg that will crack.  The final playing out of plot which always remains a background feature of the film has nothing to do with the judgemental system but everything to do with human fragility.
    adrin neatrour