New Internationalist

Reviews

Issue 245

new internationalist
issue 245 - July 1993

Reviews

STAR RATING Film

Falling Down
directed by Joel Schumacher

Culture clash: Michael Douglas' American Dream is Falling Down. Falling Down follows the fraying of a white-collar man as the American Dream is unravelled for him. In one of his most intense performances yet, Michael Douglas plays an aggrieved former defence worker who goes AWOL one blistering June day. Abandoning his traffic-jammed car, he treks across a worn-down and smog-wan LA in search of his estranged wife and child, causing mayhem on the way.

Despised by some critics in the US who view it as nothing more than a flashily directed vigilante movie, Falling Down is actually far more complicated – a picaresque tale richly littered with conflicting allusions.

The scenes most often cited follow Douglas – nicknamed ‘D-Fens’ after his license plate – as he trespasses into South Central and confronts first a Korean store owner, then some gang members. It is here that D-Fens’ racism is most apparent – ‘Speak English’ is his battle cry. These are uncomfortable moments that give the film its nervy edge. But as his quest goes on it becomes clear that D-Fens’ targets are much more diverse. Indeed he finds himself identifying with a smartly dressed black guy hauling a placard inscribed ‘Not economically viable’.

This is the problem – the Depression has caught up with the ‘respectable’ class and so the backbone of America is finally cracking under the burden of its own expectations. This ordinary Joe is to Uncle Sam what the Fool is to King Lear, speaking his mind about flabby fast-food chains, about rich plastic surgeons installed in extravagant mansions.

But when he finally confronts a ranting neo-Nazi who has been building up his own arsenal, he is shocked to find that the pugnacious fascist identifies with him. ‘I am an American,’ he protests. ‘In America we have the right to freedom of speech.’ Freedom if you speak in English, that is.

Falling Down is not an elegy to D-Fens and his dying breed. Rather it provocatively unpacks his character with all its attend-ant, often ugly fears and lays them bare. It is an honest film that suggests just how unstable the US is – a country whose d-fenses are falling down.

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Music

Bang!
by World Party
(Ensign/Chrysalis)

The articulate Karl Wallinger. World Party’s last album was Goodbye Jumbo – an eco-friendly soft-rock affair, delicately set with Beatlesque harmonies. Now Karl Wallinger and his two collaborators have come up with Bang! – possibly about the end of the world; certainly about conversations with God, lassitude and a strange feeling of going under. Somehow it feels more significant than surprising that the bang in question – featured at the end of the single Is It Like Today? – is a whispered, plosive syllable.

For all the sensationalism of World Party’s subject-matter, Bang! is actually a highly approachable album. It casts an uncomprehending eye at a world which in song after song poisons both natural and personal environments. There’s one track – mocked up to resemble a Bach oratorio – that has just two lines: ‘And God said “Look after the planet!”/ But man said “Fuck you!”’ Which is one way of expressing a succinct exasperation at the state of the globe.

But for all its hair-tearing, Bang! is also a classic album with an adventurous attitude towards musical sources. Producer Steve Lillywhite (of U2 and Pogues fame) has given enormous space for diverse textures. If the Neil Young-ish strummers and Beatles orchestrations remain familiar, then the big funk sounds and the sampling of voices (from Sir John Gielgud to Bertrand Russell) are defiantly new. So too is Give It All Away’s reprise: a 30-minute journey that starts with thrash metal, has a funky segué into 24 seconds of silence (John Cage lives!), before ending in a deliciously black-humoured Beach Boys pastiche with the singalong chorus line ‘There ain’t no sun in Kuwait City’.

World Party occupy the same restless space as outfits like Talking Heads and REM – rock bands gifted with the confidence and competence to stray from the genre and embrace big concepts. Wallinger, World Party’s principal writer, is an impassioned communicator who preaches gracefully through a collusion of images which speak for themselves – surfing songs and oil slicks or a dreamy Hollywood where the enchantment of the movie lot saps all individual will.

Bang! steps back, looks at the world and, with the benefit of music that’s above all witty, succeeds in personalizing the issues it addresses. And that, given the vacuity of most rock, is some achievement.

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Books

The Fire This Time
by Ramsey Clark
(Thunder’s Mouth)

The Fire This Time Ramsey Clark is a remarkable man. US Attorney-General in the 1960s, he has devoted himself since to some straightforward principles of international justice and applied them without fear or favour to his former chums in the US political establishment.

After events like the US invasion of Panama or the 1992 Los Angeles riots he assembles a ‘tribunal’, collects evidence and publishes a testament that historians will doubtless come to find more reliable than anything served up by official propaganda.

So now we have chapter and verse on the Gulf War, the formative event of a proposed New World Order. Those of you whose interest was aroused by NI 236 (The Gulf in Flames) should do your best to read this, for all that the prose is rather heavy going. Clark argues that the War was far more shameful – and shameless – than we suggested. ‘As the evidence proves beyond reasonable doubt,’ he writes, ‘the United States planned its assault on Iraq for years, and provoked Iraq to invade Kuwait to justify a US reaction.’ The purpose was to secure US control over Gulf oil.

Clark’s tribunal of 22 judges from 18 nations found that in the process the US and its principal officers committed war crimes on 19 different counts, including genocide. For the record, a quarter of a million Iraqis were slaughtered. Large parts of their country were rendered uninhabitable. Environmental imperatives were blithely brushed aside. To this day the US Government and its cronies persecute the Iraqi people with a blockade that denies them the most basic necessities of life.

Clark is no armchair moralist: he went into Iraq to collect evidence on the US bombing while it was at its most intense. The book opens with a moving account of what he found. No doubt he is reviled by the robotic power-brokers of Washington. But he has done the rest of us, and indeed the country he evidently loves with a sorrowful passion, a great service. He reminds us of a nobler America, of other Americans who share with him a radical, humane tradition and a keen perception of the wider world over which the US – for the moment – holds sway unopposed.

The book ends with proposals for world peace that ten years ago would have read like fantasy. Now they have an urgent relevance: ‘so that those who care’, he writes, ‘can light a candle rather than curse the darkness.’ An illuminating fire this time. Forget the entertainment, read the politics. You won’t be disappointed.

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State of the World 1993
by Lester R Brown and others
(Worldwatch Institute/Earthscan)

Has the world a future? Can it survive the use to which we, the five billion or more of humankind, are subjecting it? The first step towards finding some sort of answer is to study the many environmental issues that this deceptively simple question subsumes.

That is the task which the staff of the Worldwatch Institute in Washington have set themselves. For ten years they have published the State of the World report. It is now printed in 27 languages and can fairly claim to have won semi-official status.

‘One of these years we would like to write an upbeat State of the World,’ says the foreword. But they go on to lament that even though more and more people are becoming concerned about the environment, too few are working yet to reverse the trends of decline. As Lester R Brown writes at the end of a comprehensive introductory review, ‘We know what we have to do. If our generation does not turn things around, our children may not have the option of doing so.’

This is an important book, but do not take ‘important’ as meaning tedious, or written in pompous internationalese. Facts and figures are given in plenty but they are marshalled and illuminated in a way that carries the reader along. And if you have an appetite for facts, you should perhaps also take a look at the Worldwatch Institute’s latest venture, Vital Signs 1992-1993, which, in bite-sized chunks, summarizes global trends across the board from grain stocks to military expenditure, from cig-arette smoking to oil production.

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T H E[image, unknown] C L A S S I C
A Guest of Honour
... being the book that brought Africa’s turbulent politics alive

A Guest of Honour. When I first read Nadine Gordimer’s A Guest of Honour in the early 1980s, its themes of ideals subverted and trust betrayed struck me as painfully relevant to the upheavals in newly independent Zimbabwe. A decade on and the parallels have widened beyond Africa, hope decaying into cynicism in the infant nations of Eastern Europe and the fragments of the Soviet Union. While this continuing topicality reveals the limits of our capacity to learn from past mistakes, it says much for the talents of an author able to maintain such freshness while telling a story rooted in its own time and place.

The novel focuses on James Bray, who was once expelled from a British Central African colony for supporting the nationalist struggle and now returns soon after independence. Unsure of his motives for coming back – torn between a desire to ‘be useful’ and a feeling that he has no right to intervene in this developing country – he embarks on his allotted task of touring the country in order to prepare a blueprint for a new education system.

His travels involve him in the escalating power struggle between Adamson Mweta, the reformist President and Edward Shinza, father- figure to the independence movement but, as a leftist, out of favour in the pragmatic, Western-leaning state. Bray’s inclination is to attempt to act as a bridge between the two opposing camps; he is sure that it is possible to synthesize the best qualities of each. However, he is not naive about the difficulties involved. A Guest of Honour has many strands and can be read on many levels; as a well-paced political thriller, a novel of ideas, a plea for tolerance and as a particularly poignant love story. It never descends into simplistic denunciation of the evils of colonialism and development economics, preferring to allow the picture to emerge from the details of the story – Bray’s education reforms, for instance, have almost nothing on which to build, the colonial administration having developed no school system for ‘the natives’. Our empathy is engaged by the actions of realistic, rounded characters and, like Bray, we wish the Government to succeed. Our disillusionment with the creeping corruption and violence comes gradually, as does his, and when, late in the novel, Bray abandons his increasingly impossible balancing act and throws in his lot with Shinza, we applaud the decision, despite the hopeless nature of the cause and the violence that comes in its wake. Gordimer brilliantly depicts the fragmentation of society, rapidly intercutting between characters with differing views of the chaos, and conveys the horrific ease with which the unthinkable becomes ‘normalized’ into everyday life.

It may seem that this is a particularly gloomy and negative book to present as a classic. But it engages the reader in a debate about morality and idealism that is all too rare in these materialist, ‘greed is good’ times; and it brings alive the sheer excitement of involvement in the making of history. Gordimer presents the case as it is rather than how we would like it to be. The only comparable recent novel is Thomas Keneally’s Towards Asmara, which made no bones about its partisan support for the Eritrean people’s struggle.

Events in Africa and the rest of the world both before and, unfortunately, since the publication of the book bear out its prognosis that high hopes and good will are not enough. If we are to learn from mistakes then the message from this wise and sadly prophetic book should be trumpeted loud and clear. At one point Shinza recommends to Bray that he read a particular passage of Frantz Fanon. It runs: ‘...everything seemed to be so simple before: the bad people were on one side, and the good on the other. The clear, the unreal, the idyllic light of the beginning is followed by a semi-darkness that bewilders the senses. The people find that the iniquitous fact of exploitation can wear a black face, or an Arab one; and they raise the cry of “Treason!” But the cry is mistaken; and the mistake must be corrected. The treason is not national, it is social. The people must be taught to cry “Stop thief!” In their weary road towards rational knowledge the people must also give up their too-simple conception of their overlords.’

A Guest of Honour is about the choices we make and the sides we take. In the end, like Bray, we may find that reasonable, rational decisions lead to uncomfortable or calamitous outcomes. There are no easy answers or glib solutions here, just the conviction that an honest search for understanding by fallible human beings can lead to an impartial, distanced view becoming an unsustainable luxury.

Peter Whittaker

A Guest of Honour by Nadine Gordimer

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