issue 218 - April 1991
Dances With Wolves
directed by Kevin Costner
Those few Westerns which have been made since the official death of the genre in the 1970s have dealt exclusively with the problems of white civilization on the frontier. When making a Western at all is an achievement, to make a three-hour film about Indians, with half the dialogue in the Lakota language, and then see it score massively at the US box office, is little short of a miracle.
Directed, co-produced by and starring Kevin Costner, Dances With Wolves tells the familiar story of the white man who leaves 'civilization' behind and finds himself while living with the Sioux. But what sets this apart from earlier films like Little Big Man or A Man Called Horse is its painstaking quest for ethnographic authenticity in depicting the Lakota/Sioux lifestyle and its exclusive use of Native American actors in Indian roles.
Visually magnificent, the film offers a deeply romantic view of the freedom and camaraderie of life on the Great Plains. The Lakota are individually honourable and unpretentious, run their affairs democratically in a tribal council and live in harmony with each other and with nature - unlike the white hunters who massacre buffalo herds simply for their hides.
Bearing in mind their subsequent fate at the hands of the whites, it's fair to contrast the uniformly good Sioux with the degraded, brutish soldiers who eventually disrupt Costner's idyll. But double standards do emerge in the film's treatment of the Sioux's rivals, the Pawnee, who are depicted like the traditional bad Indians of an old-fashioned Western - they steal, take scalps, kill women and children and even sell out to the whites by working as Cavalry scouts. Another slight reservation applies to the film's love interest: shying away from miscegenation, Costner marries a white woman who's lived with the tribe since childhood.
Ultimately though, at a time of resurgent pride in Native American culture and politics, Costner deserves enormous credit for presenting such positive images and for weaving them seamlessly into a film as epic and involving as any of the great Westerns.
The Russia House
directed by Fred Schepisi
The post-glasnost film finally arrives. Only last year Sean Connery appeared in The Hunt for Red October as a Soviet naval captain whose whole complement of officers were defecting to the US to drive pick-up trucks in Montana. Here he returns in a unique US/USSR joint venture, filmed in Leningrad, Moscow and Peredelkino (site of Soviet writers dachas) and casting a sympathetic eye on the country.
John le Carré's novel had a print-run of 100,000 in the USSR, that most book-hungry of countries. As adapted by Ciech-born playwright Tom Stoppard, the script seeks neither to venerate nor condemn but to portray Soviet life with affinity and deft humour. It is still a spy story but one with a difference. A high-ranking Soviet scientist tries to smuggle a manuscript to a British publisher who has attracted him by his internationalist leanings. Both men share a love of Russia which goes beyond the inflexible dogmas of either country and there is an instant rapport between them. But the manuscript falls into the hands of British intelligence and the CIA, two agencies with more to gain by maintaining Cold War antipathy than by seeking out the truth.
While hardly a Reds or a Battleship Potemkin, The Russia House is a fine spy thriller which is helpful in capturing the warmth and humanity of the Russian people and will make its own contribution to the Great Thaw.
by Tom Zé
Anglo-American pop has long plundered the world for influences but few mainstream artists take the trouble to pay back their sources, either in royalties or with anything more than fleeting acknowledgement. David Byrne, however, is an exception. His own recorded homage to Latin American music Re Momo may have been less than convincing but he's certainly been scrupulous in agitating for Brazilian music with his series of 'Brazil Classics' compilations. So far we've had Volume One on the Tropicalista movement and Volume Two on the samba. This volume, meanwhile, singles out the peculiar talents of Antonio Martens, alias Tom Zé.
Zé emerged in the 1960s as a member of the Tropicalista movement which aimed to forge a new Brazilian cultural identity in all fields of the arts, meshing together European, American and Afro-Brazilian elements.
The movement was hardly congenial to the military dictatorship of the 1960s and 1970s and many artists, whether or not their songs were explicitly political, were forced into exile or even in the case of leading lights Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso - jailed.
Even within this dissenting culture, Tom Zé inhabits an extra level of dissent. Where fellow Tropicalista artists like Gil and Jorge Ben achieved national and international renown, Zé courted obscurity (the title Massive Hits is ironic), moving increasingly away from the mainstream song style to produce an experimental, flexible form that verges on the avant-garde in its looseness.
The music collected here was recorded between 1973 and 1979 but, as Byrne's sleeve notes point out, it sounds as if it could have emerged from New York's contemporary downtown scene. All manner of disorientating effects are to be found here - disjointed percussion, extreme vocal mannerisms and unidentifiable sounds that outdo today's most radical sampling for sheer incongruity.
His work seems to contain as many styles within it as does Brazilian music as a whole and its power to demystify itself as well as the culture that produced it is one of its greatest and most subversive assets.
Spider Woman's Granddaughters
edited by Paula Gunn Allen
(Women's Press UK)
According to Cherokee legend, Grandmother Spider brought the light of intelligence and experience to the people; in this collection the voices of her spiritual granddaughters remain strong and passionate. Sit and listen: this cycle of traditional tales and contemporary writing by Native American women will hold you entranced as it draws you close and weaves around you a tapestry of images and emotions.
The contemporary writings here are told-to-the-page stories, inspired by the old oral traditions. Modern allegories reflect the powerlessness and anguish caused by the intrusion of the whites who, in the guises of missionaries and social workers, abduct babies as did the witches of the old story-cycles. In one story child abuse is symbolic of the way the whites have tampered with Indian culture.
Bringing together the old and new traditions of storytelling in this way makes for a valuable contribution to contemporary literature - which tends to favour straightforward narrative styles over the surreal kaleidoscope of time, place and transmogrifying characters which abound in both Latin and Native American tales.
The authority of experience and quality of the writing in Spider Woman's Granddaughters is impressive. This is a collection to read through and savour, whose individual pieces crystallize in the mind long after the last page is turned and the book put down.
by Matthew Fox
(Bear & Ca)
Drawing upon his experience as a Dominican priest and Director of the portentous-sounding Institute in Culture and Creation Spirituality, Matthew Fox is deeply critical of the traditional Christian theology of the West, based on original sin. 'It does not teach believers about the New Creation or creativity, about justice making, and social transformation, about Eros, play, pleasure, and the God of delight. It fails to teach love of the earth or care for the cosmos... This tradition has not proven friendly to artists or prophets or women.'
Fox introduces instead four paths of spirituality which represent less dominant aspects of the Christian tradition. These 'interconnecting spirals' relate to ecological concerns, personal concerns, creativity and social transformation. Each draws upon insights and quotes extensively from a wide range of sources: mysticism, feminism, new-age spirituality, ecology, politics. At the end of each section Fox relates his thinking to the life and challenge of Jesus. He presents a theology grounded in original blessing, in the goodness of creation, in 'Eros, love of life and... the love of others' lives'.
Fox's style and star ratings may irritate but this reviews section could hardly complain on that count. His book is worth reflecting on.
The Quiet American
...being the book that prophesied the Vietnam War
How much damage can you do by being innocent, ignorant or just plain idealistic? An infinite amount, suggests Graham Greene in this book which - written in (he early 1950s, while the French were fighting a rearguard action in Indo-China - was eerily prophetic of the horrors of US involvement in Vietnam.
The Quiet American is no lecture. Even on fifth reading, it makes a rattling good read - the sort of book you can't put down, while reading more and more slowly to savour the careful cleverness of every detail.
This is the story of a set of national stereotypes: a grown-up American schoolboy; a world-weary and repressed English hack; and a mysteriously beautiful Vietnamese woman whom no-one understands. The American Pyle and the English narrator fight a war of words over Phuong as real war rages around them and as each gets drawn into the killing.
Who murdered Pyle? Why was he killed? The police officer Vigot suspects the narrator and the action of the book all takes place after Pyle has been bayonetted one dark night and when Phuong has quietly slipped back into life with the narrator.
Although the concerns are huge - love, war, death, conscience - most of the action centres on the emotional life of the characters and their relation to the violence around them. In particular, The Quiet American shows how the unassuming, sincere and idealistic Pyle turns himself into a monstrously unabashed perpetrator of violence.
Pyle arrives with a set of preconceived ideas, a bag of books and an elaborate mass of theories on how the French war against the Vietnamese nationalists should be ran. 'I never knew a man who had better motives for all the trouble he caused,' comments the narrator sourly. But despite the trouble he creates, Pyle could never be accused of wanting to take the easy way out: punting through the war zone to explain his motives to the narrator, he shows no fear.
'He was as incapable of imagining pain or danger to himself as he was incapable of conceiving the pain he might cause Others... Yet he was sincere in his way: it was coincidence that the sacrifices were all paid by others, until that final night under the bridge to Dakow.'
Pyle moves from the ruthless rationality of making the narrator translate his marriage proposal to Phuong (complete with statement of income and expectations and a consideration of the compatibility of their blood groups) to a deadly involvement with the killers lie sees as part of 'The Third Force'. At the book's climax, when a bomb misses a parade of soldiers and kills civilians, Pyle deals swiftly with the devastation he has helped to cause:
'The legless torso at the edge of the garden still twitched, like a chicken which has lost its head. From the man's shirt, he had probably been a trishaw-driver,
'Pyle said, "It's awful", He looked at the wet on his shoes and said in a sick voice "What's that?"
'"Blood," I said. "Haven't you ever seen it before?"
'He said, "I must get them cleaned before I see the Minister..."
'He looked white and beaten and ready to faint, and I thought, "What's the good? He'll always be innocent, you can't blame the innocent, they are always guiltless, All you can do is control them or eliminate them. Innocence is a kind of insanity."'
Should the narrator begin to play a part? With the cynicism of an ageing journalist from an old colonial power, he has always chosen to stay quietly neutral: but now? Pyle's own words betray him: 'It was a terrible shock today, Thomas, but in a week, you'LL see, we'LL have forgotten it.'
The Quiet American has all the classic Graham Greene themes: guilt, repentance, atonement, conscience, belief and the question of a higher authority. Like many of Greene's most powerful characters, the narrator is a man who desperately needs to believe in something but doesn't. A few pipes of opium are his means of escape.
Without much hope, the narrator tries to make the self-satisfied Pyle see the truth. 'You and your like are trying to make a war with the help of people who just aren't interested.'
'They don't want Communism,' replies Pyle,
'They want enough rice. They don't want to be shot at. They want one day to be much the same as another. They don't want our white skins around telling them what they want'
From the vague promises the two men make to Phuong through to the wordy official briefings of French soldiers who declare only victories, this book undertakes a minute examination of disinformation and its consequences. What makes it such fun to read is that in the end the greatest master of disinformation is that apparent believer in the truth the narrator himself.
The Quiet American by Graham Greene (first published in 1955).
This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7