issue 171 - May 1987
directed by Oliver Stone
Platoon is being touted as the most realistic and honest film about the Vietnam War to come out of Hollywood. Oliver Stone first hit the big time with his script for Midnight Express, about a young American caught smuggling drugs out of Turkey. The film - lacking any sympathetic Turkish character - was racist in its juxtaposition of American innocence and corrupt, swarthy 'foreigners'. Since then Stone has made two strong political films using a taut action style that grabs viewers in the first frames and doesn't let them go until the final credits. His excellent Salvador exposed the underlying brutality of the US client state and the cynical cover-up by politicians and journalists.
Platoon, meanwhile, gives viewers the first realistic sense of how the US army virtually self-destructed under the pressure of fighting a morally bankrupt war against a determined foe.
Stone experienced the Vietnam debacle as a foot soldier and returned to the US wounded, decorated and devastated. In Platoon he was out to create 'the everyday realities of what it was like to be a 19-year-old boy in the bush and at war for the first time'. He succeeds admirably in showing the seamy underside of US military occupation; random killing, brutality against innocent villagers and 'fragging' - the grudge execution of US soldiers by their own compatriots
The film is less successful in explaining why the Vietnam War happened. Stone's gripping action style - particularly the intensity of the final battle scene - tends to obliterate the earlier image of idealistic motives badly deformed. Although ruthlessly critical, the movie is still very much from a US point of view with the Vietnamese as mere backdrops to the drama.
But Platoon remains an important and encouraging film. As Oliver Stone said recently, the film is as much about Central America as it is about South-East Asia and it is a shame Salvador could not have followed it and thus benefitted from its success. As a crafty sergeant says in one of the more reflective moments, 'we've been kicking ass for so long, it's no surprise that we're getting our own kicked'.
Crops and Robbers
by Leeds Animation Workshop
A modest proposal - in 15 minutes of animation this group of feminist artists attempt to sketch out the whole history of capitalism and imperialism and illuminate the politics of food. Inevitably all they can do is chase the striking image, the haunting sound and hope that these add depth to a head-on message. The central metaphor of world history being played as a kind of global Monopoly works quite well and the animated sequences are simply effective.
But the film suffers by its inevitable bluntness - there is no attempt to persuade, only to hammer home a message. As an entertainment for the converted, it is fine. But you sense that it wants to reach beyond that to a wider (though specifically female) public which would surely find its politics too crudely right-on.
by various artists
This is 'Visit Thailand Year'. Not quite as vital, perhaps, as the UN-designated Year of Shelter for the Homeless. But never mind - this eighth volume in a series on traditional Asian music is a good place to start the cultural homework
To unaccustomed Western ears, though, this is not exactly easy listening. Many different musical influences - from Chinese to Indo-Javanese - can be detected beneath the general whine of the four-string violin, the clash of the ching (Chinese cymbals) and penetrating choral lines.
Much of the music is made by hill tribes from the north of Thailand in the Golden Triangle opium region. There are the Karen, Akha and Lahu people with their klong dae drums Meanwhile the Shan, many of whom are refugees from a war of independence inside Burma, contribute a track called In Peace on which children screech 'This is our land and our home'. Elsewhere a military band blunders on, all puff and discord
Faced with such uncompromising noises, the Western listener is reduced to yearning for more of the gently pastoral gourd pipes of the Lisu tribe and to reading the informative sleeve notes. And to being grateful for this record as definitive proof that Western cultural imperialism has not yet conquered all.
Nothing Can Stop the Course of History
by Fidel Castro
Less a book by Castro than one about him, though it is filled with as many of his own words as you could ever wish to read. US Congress member Mervyn Dymally travelled to Cuba with academic Jeffrey Elliot to go through a gruelling 25-hour interview conducted through several nights from eleven until dawn.
The result is a unique insight into one of the most charismatic spokespeople the Third World has ever had. Castro may be less in vogue than he was during the guerilla-chic 1960s, but he is still a potent symbol and an outspoken opponent of the global economic system and particularly of the US's role within it. And it would be difficult to imagine a more impressively articulate interviewee - just feed him the question, whether on the debt crisis or the Olympics, Nicaragua or his favourite novels, and sit back to watch him perform.
There may be a touch of bluster and self-righteousness here but there is also a great deal of good sense. And you can't help but warm to the man, not only for his twinkling humour but also because you feel he cares passionately about injustice. Anyone who has been unable to get past the US stereotype of Castro would do well to flick through this book. His main threat to the US is not his army but his sincerity.
My Name is Today
by David Morley and Hermione Lovel
This is an odd book; but oddly effective. My Name is Today is an offbeat bible on child health that should be scattered liberally around the health ministries and clinics of the Third World Land reform, women's health in pregnancy, the 'disease palace' hospitals of the big cities; anything that impacts on child health comes in for scrutiny. Even the Health Minister's chest pains are covered: they tend to result in the development of coronary care units even if the problem is only indigestion.
Flicking backwards and forwards (it's that kind of book) also produces interesting messages The 'commercio-genic' diseases - financial pressures that lead to salty, alcoholic, cancer-inducing absorption by the body - come in for a broadside. And we are encouraged to excrete stools that float; such buoyancy indicates a healthy quantity of bran and gas.
Since this comes from TALC (Teaching Aids at Low Cost - a name that may well need changing given the latest health hazard) it can be made widely available in developing countries But doctors in the West who want to give their patients something more productive to read than grubby old issues of Time or Punch should also get hold of some copies for their waiting rooms.
Further Information from TALC Box 49, St Albans, Herts AL1 4AX, UK.
World Hunger - Twelve myths
by Frances Moore Lappé and Joseph Collins
Every year 18 to 20 million people die of hunger more than twice the total fatalities of World War II. But numbers numb. What hunger means, Lappé and Collins tell us, is a family in El Salvador whose little boy and little girl have died of diarrhoea Both were lost in years when their parents chose to pay the mortgage on their small holding, half the value of their harvest, rather than keep the money to feed their children. Each year the choice was the same. If they paid, their children's lives were at risk If they didn't, their land could be repossessed
Hunger could be called the ultimate state of powerlessness And the causes? Not the conventional explanations - 'myths' according to the authors - which are demolished with convincing gusto in each of the twelve chapters of this book. The real scarcity, they contend, is that of democracy. By this they mean economic democracy.
The myths they counter state that there is a scarcity of food; that droughts are to blame for famine; that overpopulation is causing hunger and destroying the environment; that the free market or free trade could end starvation; and that more American aid would solve the problem (yes, this is a US publication but with an appeal far wider than national boundaries).
Quotable facts and anecdotes drip from every page. Did you know that India, where 300 million go hungry, is one of the world's biggest agricultural exporters? That in 1985 it agonized over what to do with surpluses of wheat and rice amounting to 24 million tons in 1985 - more than double the world's annual food shipments in a year? This is the sort of thing which is a delight for world development activists - chunky gobbets of information, well indexed in case of challenge and for further research. A convincing, campaigning handbook
...being the book that showed the feminism behind a Victorian fairy story
'It takes a soul
To move a body...
It takes the ideal, to blow an inch inside
The dust of the actual.'
Elizabeth Barrett Browning is best known for her grave and fervent love sonnets and for the fairy tale of her life - thousands of people who have never read a word of her poetry know how she lay on her sofa, an invalid with only her faithful spaniel Flush as a companion; how one September morning she escaped from the dark house in Wimpole Street and from her tyrannical father; how she found health, joy, liberty and love with the publicly adored Robert Browning.
This romanticized and sentimental image of exemplary Victorian womanhood is immediately dispelled by her 'novel in poetry', Aurora Leigh. Elizabeth Barrett Browning is primarily a political poet; her subjects are slavery, suppressed nationality, the plight of the poor and downtrodden and the position of women. She pours all these preoccupations into this ungainly but impetuously radical poem.
Aurora Leigh is a portrait of a fiercely independent woman who throws off comfort and calm for the wild call of poetry and the hard life of a free woman. Its multiplicity, its celebration of female experience, its articulation of what is repressed and forbidden in women's lives - these things make it the feminist poem of our times. Yet hardly anyone reads it today.
When Aurora Leigh was published in 1857 male reviewers were quick to see its subversive elements. They were variously indignant ('what forward familiarity'), threatened ('in the effort to stand, not only on a pedestal beside man, but actually to occupy his place, we see Mrs Browning commit grave errors ... She is coarse in expression and unfeminine in thought') and condemnatory ('we must maintain that woman was created to be dependent of the man. . . the extreme independence of Aurora detracts from the feminine charm and mars the interest'). But even the most chauvinist and negative of reviewers recognized the power of Aurora Leigh. The poem has a speed and a hectic energy that makes it compulsive - I first read it at one dash, tumbling over lines and rhythms, themes and ideas in the excitement of its tale.
The story is like a second-rate rather than first-rate novel, and the convolutions of plot are sometimes uncomfortably squeezed into their confined verse space. Yet the tale of Aurora's life - not to mention the melodramatic sub-plot in which a seamstress is raped, betrayed and finally trapped in a brothel - is less important than the poem's forceful and often painful speculations on a poet's mission and on the position of women in the nineteenth century.
When she focuses on a woman who writes, Elizabeth Barrett Browning opens up a discussion about the relationship between women's experience, politics and creativity. For the right to write is closely connected with all other choices that women might wish to make. Public writing and public speech are, in Aurora Leigh, both real and symbolic acts of defiance and self-determination. There are passages in the poem that become eloquent manifestos of women's rights, shattering in their revolutionary force. And while the epic scope of the poem is dated, many of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's anxieties still touch our contemporary nerves: she rejects conventional Left politics and its attempts to co-opt women into a male-designed version of utopia; rejects men's 'comparative respect which means absolute scorn'; and places a visionary and idealistic poetry in a political context. Rooted in the soil of the time, her song reaches for the stars.
Aurora Leigh is both mystic and coarse, shrewdly satirical and resonant with idealistic intent. Patchy and ragged it may be, but it is scorched with genuine fervour and a liberating defiance of convention. A feverish desire for liberty, and a diffused but powerful lust make the poem very' unfeminine', very 'coarse' and, yes, 'shocking'. But its ardour, anger and disturbing insights - and above all its faith in the radical and transforming power of art - make Aurora Leigh a gloriously flawed triumph.
And I still cannot understand why a poem that gives women such a resounding voice should lie so silent on the library shelves.
Aurora Leigh by Elizabeth Barrett Browning
This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7