New Internationalist

Reviews

Issue 268

Reviews

The NI Star rating system. Film

Hoop Dreams
directed by Steve James, Frederick Marx and Peter Gilbert

Hoop Dreams IT’S NOT often you see a documentary in a commercial movie theatre and don’t even realize that three hours have gone by the time it’s over. It’s not often you can even see a documentary in a commercial theatre at all. That is what makes Hoop Dreams so exceptional. While the film is not destined to be numero uno at the local cinema it is drawing respectable audiences in its North American run.

It traces the lives of two inner-city Chicago kids, William Gates and Arthur Agee, from ages 14 to 19. Both boys dream of playing in the National Basketball Association – their escape out of ‘the projects’ (Chicago’s high-rise slums). The film reveals the workings of the high-powered basketball machine that pulls kids out of the playgrounds and moulds them through pressure-cooker competition to become ‘shooters’, first in high school, then college and finally at the professional level.

Hoop Dreams exposes the racism embedded in a system that treats young black boys as so much meat to serve up at courtside to hungry fans. The cast of characters – condescending school bureaucrats, obsessive coaches and hawk-eyed talent scouts – reveal themselves on camera in ways that actors playing fictional characters could only aspire to. Racism and the ideology of exploitation are always presented as ‘in the boys best interests’. But the film doesn’t stop there – it is also a multi-layered and sensitive portrait of two quite different personalities and the ways in which they each deal with the stressed-out world of high-stakes basketball.

The other thing about Hoop Dreams is that it is exciting. The directors have taken 250 hours of films that span five years and woven them into a compelling mix of life-stories, unforgettable characters and dramatic fast-paced action around the basket. The film ends up giving the viewer that rare sense that they have touched both people’s lives and an important social truth. It is a comment on the present-day obsessions of the US that even liberal Hollywood did not bother to nominate Hoop Dreams for an academy award for the best documentary category this year.

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Music

Clube da Esquina and Clube da Esquina 2
by Milton Nascimento
(Hemisphere /EMI 7243 8 322 59 2 7 and 7243 8 32260 2 3)

The two CD's on review. As international interest in the interface between regional and cross-cultural music grows, these are two timely re-releases from Brazil’s tropicalista master, Milton Nascimento. Tropicalista was a loosely-knit musical force that began in the early 1960s, in the face of increasingly right-wing, repressive and nationalistic Brazilian politics. It looked outwards, combining strong regional influences – in Nascimento’s case from his native state of Minas Gerais – with orchestrations and attitudes taken from Western rock music.

In these two ‘Corner Club’ albums, dating from 1972 and 1978, the streams of folk and indigenous music that flow through Nascimento’s work meet some unusual currents. String arrangements from the George Martin-era Beatles, fuzzy wah-wah guitars and jazzy elements are brought into the mix, making any hard-and-fast classification difficult.

But above all this floats Nascimento’s captivating voice. For the most part he uses a high, lyrical tenor that glides across his melodies and which is warm and emotive. The imagery of his lyrics is densely metaphorical and benefits from his deft ability to turn a light phrase into something far more shadowy.

Nascimento has been a vociferous supporter of those people who are under-represented in his society, particularly Blacks, Indians and the poor. On the second album, the song Casamiento de Negros (Wedding of the Blacks) makes a poetic equation around the colour black, connecting the plight of the Brazilian Blacks with various black objects: hair, earth, charcoal. In Pão e Agua (Bread and Water) the millstone of the granary becomes symbolic of both poverty and the wheel of life. In Canción por la Unidad de Latino America (Song for the Unity of Latin America) he speaks of his subcontinent’s wholeness at the beginning of time and how political and geographic barriers have turned peoples into strangers. Many of the songs have a gently religious dimension and there is a clear dichotomy between what is natural and vital (earth, fire, human beings) and the artificial and deadening (Brazilian politics in the 1970s, for example).

One major source of frustration with these albums, however, is that there are no translations of the lyrics. Even so, there is much to enjoy in Nascimento’s weaving rhythms and his warm and sonorous vocal style.

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Books

Rebel Radio
by José Ignacio López Vigil
(Latin American Bureau ISBN 0 906156 88 2)

The trouble with the written word is that you can get caught in possession of it. If you lived in a place like El Salvador during the 1980s books, pamphlets or leaflets of the wrong kind, found anywhere near you during the military repression, could bring instant arrest or summary execution.

Radio, on the other hand, leaves no apparent trace of what you have heard. The trouble with it is that this is often not worth hearing. Unless, that is, you lived in El Salvador during the 1980s, when the ‘pirate’ station of the resistance, Radio Venceremos, crackled onto the airwaves to bring you programmes that could sound like this:

‘At this very moment we are advancing on Meanguera... It’s five in the morning and it’s barely...’

‘Shhhhh! Shut up! You’re going to give us away.’

‘At this very moment the compañeros ask for silence, because we’re only a few metres from...’

‘Shut your trap, you idiot!’

José Ignacio López Vigil, the narrator of this enchanting tale, originally planned to make films in El Salvador, but he found himself reporting for Radio Venceremos after he helped to smuggle an ancient transmitter into the country from Mexico. He had a tough apprenticeship, trying out the draft script of his first broadcast on compañero Santiago:

‘He read it, crumpled it up and threw it on the ground. “That’s a piece of shit. Start again.”

‘“A piece of shit?”

‘“That’s right. A shit sandwich.”

‘“Why is it no good, might I ask?”

‘“It’s no good because it’s no good... nothing but hot air.”’

What follows is a saga that takes you through some of the cruellest moments of El Salvador’s history. It is told with the zest, humanity and flight of fancy that somehow only Latin American writing at its best seems able to convey – even when, as the fighting stops, Radio Venceremos starts playing Madonna.

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Reviews Editor: Vanessa Baird

T H E[image, unknown] C L A S S I C
Woman on the Edge of Time
...being the book that co-opted for feminism the genre of science fiction.

‘The anger of the weak never goes away... it just gets a little mouldy. It moulds like a beautiful blue cheese in the dark, growing stronger and more interesting. The poor and weak die with all their anger and probably those angers go on growing in the dark of the grave like the hair and the nails.’

These are the thoughts of Connie Ramos, the indomitable heroine of Marge Piercy’s 1976 novel Woman on the Edge of Time. Connie is the epitome of powerlessness. She is beaten up by her husband and her niece’s pimp; the authorities take away her daughter and she is unjustly locked in a mental institution, disbelieved, drugged and degraded. But Connie has an ability that her tormentors cannot begin to imagine: she is a ‘catcher’ who can communicate with the future and is in telepathic contact with the inhabitants of Mattapoisett, Massachusetts, in the year 2137. While her body remains in the asylum, her spirit visits the village and she discovers that twenty-second-century humanity has tackled the root cause of many of society’s ills. People live in close harmony with the natural world, recycle and reuse everything, don’t use money and have changed both their language and their behaviour to eliminate sexist terms and sex discrimination. Children are ‘born’ mechanically and each has ‘three’ mothers who may be male or female and any of them may breastfeed the child.

At first Connie exhibits entirely understandable scepticism at this green-feminist utopia but as she makes more and more visits to Mattapoisett, helped by Luciente, her guide from the future, she begins to realize that this world is not only sane and beautiful – it is also under threat. Potentialities in the past may mean that the revolution that brought about this pastoral and communal way of life never happened and its time will simply ‘wink out’ of existence, to be replaced by a nightmare society in which technology and totalitarianism have triumphed.

Marge Piercy: Woman on the Edge of Time

Connie realizes that she has a part to play in preventing this catastrophe and, despite the overwhelming odds, she makes a declaration of war on all those who have controlled her life. With Luciente’s aid, she escapes and lives wild for a time. When she is recaptured, she is forced into a bizarre and barbaric experiment in which electrodes are implanted in her brain to manage her emotions. Despite this she succeeds in making even more frequent visits to the future and, at the end of the book, inflicts a terrible revenge on her captors.

Marge Piercy was born in Detroit in 1936 and was actively involved in the US Civil Rights and anti-Vietnam War movements. She has long been a feisty and articulate supporter of the women’s movement. Woman on the Edge of Time was her first venture into science fiction. She has since written a technological dystopia novel, Body of Glass, as well as several ‘generational’ sagas dealing with women’s lives. There is also the successful, but to my mind ponderous, Gone to Soldiers – a consideration of the impact of the Second World War on the lives of women. But in Woman on the Edge of Time, her most famous book, she has deftly co-opted the conventions of the SF genre to convey a message about exploitation of women and the possibility for change in the present.

Judged purely as a novel, Woman on the Edge of Time is far from perfect. It is over-didactic, loosely plotted and starkly moralistic. The doctors and nurses in the mental institution are excessively malign and the inhabitants of Mattapoisett infuriatingly balanced and rational. If you aren’t keen on science fiction, you will probably be irritated as much by the invented language of the future as by the whole concept of time-travel. However, Marge Piercy succeeds brilliantly in pitting the imagined idealism of the future against the poisoned and despoiled present – each illuminating the other – and the book stands as one of the classic feminist utopias, alongside Ursula le Guin’s Dispossessed and Always Coming Home and Joanna Russ’s The Female Man. In Connie and Luciente we have two wonderfully rounded characters, fallible, often wrong-headed but brave, full of spirit and immensely life-affirming. Reading Woman on the Edge of Time 20 years after its publication is a little like travelling in time ourselves: it speaks to us from a turbulent, optimistic decade, when the phrase ‘ideological baggage’ wasn’t a term of abuse; a time of hope for feminism, of alternatives, of possibilities. If Connie Ramos, in her asylum bed, battered and abused, can find the resourcefulness and inner strength to fight back against her oppressors then perhaps we too, marooned in the corporate twilight of the late twentieth century, can rediscover both the hope and the wherewithal to begin the fightback.

Peter Whittaker

Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy is published by Alfred Knopf, US, 1976 and The Women’s Press, UK, 1979.

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