New Internationalist

Reviews

Issue 269

Reviews

The NI Star rating system. Film

Ermo
directed by Zhou Xiaowen

Ermo Set in contemporary China, this story of a rural woman’s attempts to make some changes in her life is a smart comment on the transformations that the country is going through as it catapults into the late twentieth century. The fact that Xiaowen has been able to make and distribute the gently satirical film is also indicative of change. In the past his work has been banned and at one point he had to resort to making mainstream ‘action’ films. The protagonist of the story is the feisty Ermo who supports her veteran husband and little boy by making and selling ‘twisty noodles’ in the local city. Trudging between her village and the market every day, she is joined in her monotonous routine by a good-looking neighbour who goes by the puzzling name of Blindman. Soon she finds herself tempted not only by the various goodies on sale in the city shops – which include a magnificently large TV set that she has her eyes on – but by him as well.

At its most basic, Ermo is a film about belongings and longing. It is clear that Ermo is sexually frustrated as much as anything else – and the film is groundbreaking for Chinese cinema in that it deals with a woman’s desires. But it falls foul of Western sensibilities about sexist stereotyping: Blindman is attracted to Ermo because he is fed up with his plump and ‘nagging’ wife. Eventually the two women are prompted to lash out at each other in cat-fight style. The director’s intention might have been to inject a bit of knockabout humour but the scene fractures the film. Such stereotypical moments need an ironic twist – something Xiaowen is clearly capable of doing but has failed to do in this instance. The film, otherwise, works brilliantly as an indictment of capitalist values: Ermo literally gives blood so that she and her family can be the envy of the village with their monumental TV set. As, finally, she scans for meaning in her own exhausting scams, the film tunes into the disconcerting consequences of the changes around her.

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Music

Blood and Mud
by Rhythm Activism

Blood and Mud by Rhythm Activism From out of Montreal’s lively, artistic, anarchist underground comes Blood and Mud. Inspired by the Zapatista uprising, it’s a stunning mix of violins, grating guitars, quirky sound effects and humour. Norman Nawrocki’s growl-speak (he isn’t a great singer) is just right for tracks about the life in the free zone and does a nice tongue-in-cheek advertisement for jobs in the NAFTA-inspired maquiladoras as well. The CD runs from lush stylized ballads to what Rhythm Activism calls ‘gypsy grunge’. This is the band’s twelfth release since 1986 when they came on the scene with their unique brand of rock-’n’-roll cabaret, targeting male machismo and supporting Canadian native struggles by the Mohawks (Oka) and the Innu (Labrador).

This album is coloured by the dark humour of the oppressed, familiar to readers of B Traven or viewers of the mural art of Sequires and Rivera. When on stage Rhythm Activism are likely to appear dressed as anything from cockroaches to skeletons and their audiences and venues are far from the usual concert circuit. ‘We did the underground cabaret scene in Poland; we played squats in France; we played anti-apartheid demonstrations in Holland; we came back to Canada and did the Canadian Labour Congress convention in Montreal and a wedding in Vancouver.’ If you are interested in this quirky mix of Latin American styles arid lively politics, have a listen to Blood and Mud. Available from Les Pages Noires, PO Box 391, Desjardins Station, Montreal, PQ, H5B 1B9 at $12 plus $2 for postage and handling.

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Books

Funny Boy
by Shyam Selvadurai
(Jonathan Cape ISBN 0771079508)

This is an engaging book by a young Sri Lankan author now living in Toronto. Shyam Selvadurai offers us a set of simply-crafted stories portraying the coming-of-age of Arjie Chelvaratnam, a sensitive boy growing up in a typical upper-middle-class Tamil family in Colombo from the late 1960s to the 1983 riots. The escalating political tensions on the island impinge upon the personal turbulence of the boy as he struggles with his sexuality, authority structures, and his relationship with his family. The author does not set out to put a ‘human face’ on the everyday victims of the conflict, but that is what his stories do.

Funny Boy has no particular political axe to grind. Ethnic tensions weave through the lives of the characters in this book the same way as they weave through the lives of those who live on the island.

And as you read between the lines you can discern all those structures and processes that keep up inter-group tensions. The reality – and unreality – of ethnic violence is vividly seen through the eyes of the boy: ‘Our daily routine had been cast away, while the rest of the world was going on as usual. A man I had known – a man who was my mother’s lover – was now dead. I was aware that it was a significant thing, but like a newspaper report on an earthquake or a volcanic eruption, it seemed something that happened outside my reality, my world.’

Though rich in political subtext Funny Boy stands as literature in its own right. If you know something about Sri Lanka, you will enjoy it. If you don’t, chances are you will enjoy it just as much!

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Reviews by Richard Swift, Lizzie Francke and Kenneth d Bush.
Reviews Editor: Vanessa Baird.

T H E[image, unknown] C L A S S I C
The City in History
...being the book that explains the rise and fall of the metropolis.

Did you know that what is currently the world’s third most populous city is a mere 30 miles from the ruins of what used to be the world’s sixth largest? I didn’t myself until I recently made the one-hour bus trip from Mexico City to Teotihuacán. From the vantage point of the Pyramid of the Sun I was able to look over the hot, mountain-encircled valley which houses what was once the capital of Mexico’s biggest pre-Hispanic empire. My Lonely Planet guide book told me that Teotihuacán, constructed between 150 and 600 AD, was ‘a true city in that many classes of people lived and worked in it’. At its height, in the sixth century, its population is thought to have been 200,000. The people were literate, used the bar-and-dot number system, and observed the 260-day sacred year. The city’s political, economic, religious and cultural influence on pre-Hispanic Central America was enormous. But in the seventh century it was fired, plundered and abandoned. What remains and what has been reconstructed of its awesome, forbidding architecture only emphasizes the fact that it is a city no longer. For a city isn’t a city without people, and visiting day-trippers don’t make it one.

Lewis Mumford’s The City in History, published in 1961, doesn’t mention Teotihuacán even once. It’s not that Mumford was remiss or culturally blind in overlooking it – his massive book has a truly global range of reference. But Teotihuacán’s narrative of urban emergence, eminence and collapse can be told of hundreds of other long-forgotten cities. Mumford tells of this rise and fall most fully and most frighteningly in a chapter on ancient Rome entitled ‘From Megalopolis to Necropolis’. Here, Mumford wants us to know that ‘Rome remains a significant lesson of what to avoid’. He is insistent that an historical understanding of the processes of urban dissolution is a truly practical knowledge, and his chapter ends with an inventory of ‘danger signals’, of ‘symptoms of the end’. These include overcrowding, high rents, poor housing, dependence on distant territories for key resources, roads designed primarily for vehicles, the ubiquity of sex, alcohol and violence, and ‘above all, the massive collective concentration on glib ephemeralities of all kinds’. It reads ominously like a list of dominant trends in urban development of the last half century. ‘When these signs multiply, Necropolis is near, though not a stone has yet crumbled.’ There is more than a touch of the apocalyptic in The City in History. Mumford, who died in 1990, was writing at the absolute height of the Cold War, when the prospect of entire cities being eradicated by single nuclear strikes often seemed likely.

Illustration by DIEGO RIVERA

Mumford was no enemy of cities. The book is not a critique of urban living, but of the failure to develop a political system to ensure that the technological advance that makes large cities possible does not become the technological anarchy which causes their destruction. Ultimately it diagnoses monumental deficiencies in economic organization. Mumford was quick to express the view that the impressive post-war reconstruction of cities could be further enriched where ‘the economy was directly oriented to human needs and... the major part of the national income was not diverted to... studious consumptive dissipations and planned destructions’.

But it was precisely these commercial and military excesses – Mumford is memorably bitter about nuclear weapons – which he witnessed reasserting themselves throughout the 1950s. The City in History was undoubtedly conceived by its author partly as a political intervention against this trend. The book is as much polemic as it is treatise. Its rhetoric is peculiarly, though not relentlessly, pessimistic. Mumford’s concluding plea is for ‘the development of a more organic world picture, which shall do justice to all the dimensions of living organisms and human personalities’.

I can’t say I felt much more optimistic than Mumford, as my bus hummed and chugged its way back from Teotihuacán to the pollution-engulfed, congested and inflation-beset Mexico City. A few days later I was reminded that mere affluence isn’t a solution. On my way to Britain I stopped off in Houston, a huge metropolis whose downtown – its skyscrapers throwing permanent shadows over silent and evacuated streets – reminded me eerily of Teotihuacán. I recalled the phrase ‘magnifications of demoralized power, minifications of life’ with which Mumford describes the decadent signs of a city on the verge of collapse. And on the plane to London, when I found myself staring in incredulity at newspaper photographs of the recently destroyed Grozny, I imagined that those who executed that needless spoliation must have twisted this phrase into an imperative: ‘Magnify demoralized power! Minify life!’ At moments like these you wish The City in History were more widely read.

Macdonald Daly

The City in History: its Origins, its Transformations, and its Prospects by Lewis Mumford is published by Secker & Warburg, 1961.

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