Far from Heaven
Kathy is a good person. When her husband works late at the office, she takes him his evening meal. When she learns that her black gardener's father has died, she commiserates - genuinely. She has a dream home, a fashionable wardrobe, two loving and obedient children and an executive hubby - Frank. Her life - as a woman in Hartford, Connecticut in the late 1950s - is perfect.
Or so it seems. Until one evening Cathy discovers Frank kissing and caressing. a man. Caring and liberal-minded, Cathy supports him, suggesting psychiatric treatment for his homosexual urges. Frank withdraws into booze and violence - Cathy finds solace in a growing friendship with Raymond, the gardener.
It's difficult for us, nearly 50 years on, not to be knowing, even superior, about such things. We know better. But Far from Heaven is a film of great emotional resonance precisely because it hasn't a trace of irony or knowingness. Director Haynes and leads Julianne Moore, Dennis Haysbert and Dennis Quaid, play it dead straight. Its lush colours, detailed domestic interiors, fashion-plate costumes and Elmer Bernstein score look, sound and feel like the 1950s. Haynes hermetically seals us in a time and place - with the knowledge and the limited choices of that place and era.
His loyalty to type and period is a great strength; so is his avoidance of camp. Yet, for a radical gay filmmaker, it's oddly limiting. Haynes gives Frank little interior life and casts him into the darkness, trapped in a life of secrecy. The 1950s studio melodrama, after all, predates gay liberation. As a woman's story, this is very fine indeed. But it's not the whole story.
So is this the end of the line, to paraphrase Jarvis Cocker in 'This is Hardcore'? And, as Hits very probably is, it's time to honour the Sheffield band whose subtle, often sour, assault on British mores made politics and passion a bestseller. It took Pulp years to make any impact - their first album, It, was released 10 years before they gained a mass audience - but when they did, their aim was savage.
A pop band that took its musical influences from Phil Spector's wall of sound and its attitude from playwright Alan Bennett's sly observations of Englishness, Pulp's currency was class culture. Above all, they'll be remembered for their 1995 anthem 'Common People', a song that still blazes with rage for the voiceless and the written-off. Released in the last years of Tory rule and anticipating the conceit that characterizes Britain's current rulers, it's a song that captured a mood. There are many reasons to cherish Pulp, but let's remember them for their ability to seek and destroy pomposity.
A Little Deeper
Something interesting is happening in the world of British hiphop, and much of it has to do with one 21-year old Londoner. Better known to the prize juries and rap fans alike as Ms Dynamite, Niomi McLean-Daley has been turning the genre on its head. And not just for the music. One big reason that she has been noticed is for her unequivocal stance on gun-crime and the macho posturing that permeates much rap. In the wake of two particularly brutal drive-by killings in Birmingham, England, more interest - and hope - is concentrated on her than before.
Let's hope that the youngster can sustain the pressure, because this début album has unusual depth. The music is beautifully positioned, hiphop with a slight reggae lilt (well, its producers include the Fugees' Salaam Demi and Jamaican legends Tony and Dave Kelly) and Ms Dynamite's voice can reach the same tingling timbre as Nina Simone on songs like 'Natural High'. But for the first time there's a writer with the guts and aptitude to tackle real issues seriously: guns, drugs, feckless guys, the bling-bling culture of instant gratification. It's true that some lyrics may be written in the language of text-messaging ('Girl u got 2 put him out/Take the time 2 love urself' on 'Put Him Out'), but that doesn't detract from their impact. A lyric like 'How many Africans died 4 the baguettes on ur Rolex?' ('It Takes More') hits its target.
The trouble is, when it comes to biological and chemical weapons of mass destruction the US knows what it is talking about. This book isn't about Iraq, though, or North Korea. It's about the US itself - that great stockpiler, developer and user of chemical and biological weapons. And the only nation in the world to have deployed the most lethal 'weapon of mass destruction' - the nuclear bomb.
Edited by the co-founders of the US-based and multiple award-winning CovertAction Monthly, Bioterror pulls together articles detailing the US's long term commitment to chemical-biological weapons. Historical examples include the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam. But there are other less well-known claims, such as the introduction of dengue fever into Cuba and Nicaragua or anthrax into Zimbabwe during its independence struggle.
The role of pharmaceutical companies such as Pfizer in providing viruses for the US army biological warfare programme is another factor. Pharmaceutical companies are out to make a killing from both ends of bioterror: the US Bioterrorism Preparedness act of June 2002 allocates more than $600 million to produce and stockpile vaccines.
Who knows exactly what the US is up to now? We are unlikely to find out. While declaring Iraq part of the 'Axis of Evil' because of its supposed weapons programme, the Bush administration has abandoned an international effort to strengthen the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention on the grounds that it would grant foreign inspectors 'too much access to US installations and companies'. The hypocrisy is simply stunning - and Bioterror is a timely spotlight on it.
The action in this sprightly novel by Angolan-born writer José Eduardo Agualusa occurs in the triangle set by the slave trade plying between Africa, Europe and Brazil. The book opens by plunging us into the evocative sights, sounds and smells of Angola's colonial capital Luanda, in the 1860s. Freshly arrived in the town is the gentleman adventurer, Fradique Mendes. Through his letters home we see the larger-than-life characters whose stories, sometimes magical, sometimes tragic, are at the heart of the narrative.
Luanda, built on the profits of the slave trade, is a place of indolence and intrigue - something Fradique quickly discovers as plots and counter-plots are spun around him. Everyone, from the charismatic deformed priest Fra Nicolau dos Anjos to the beautiful ex-slave girl Aná Olímpia, requires him to serve their obscure purposes.
Following a bizarre series of events, including a murder on an alligator hunt, Fradique is forced to flee with Aná Olímpia on a slave ship to Brazil. Here he lives through slave revolts and emancipation before coming to a final realization of the corrupt nature of the colonial system in which he lives.
This is a splendid novel of high adventure, and the epistolary style, never an easy narrative form, is handled with confidence. Beyond the swashbuckling, though, Agualusa's purpose is to examine a society on the cusp of change, as a system built on slavery gives way to something more humane but also more uncertain. Using a structure of immediacy and drama, Agualusa has built a book that is both thought-provoking and highly enjoyable.
The independent satellite television network Al-Jazeera sprang to world attention following the 11 September attacks and the US bombing of Afghanistan. The rather lengthy subtitle to this book accurately summarizes its history; 'How the Free Arab News Network Scooped the World and Changed the Middle East'.
Al-Jazeera, which means 'the Island' or 'the Peninsula', is based in Doha and was set up in 1996 by Qatar's progressive Emir, Sheikh Hamad, who continues to provide a subsidy of $100 million per year. The channel, modelled on the BBC, has gained a reputation for being first with breaking news and for providing an unprecedented forum for wide-ranging and unfettered debate. It concentrates on serious news, documentaries and discussion programmes, in sharp contrast with the vapid entertainment and misinformation purveyed by official channels and compliant media outlets in the Arab world. The remark by Egyptian President Mubarak, on a visit to the Al-Jazeera studios is revealing: 'All this trouble from a matchbox like this.' The channel's audience, delighted at the open dialogue on such issues as corruption, women's civil rights and fundamentalism, would beg to differ.
This is a fascinating and timely study of a network which has, in its short life attracted both high praise and strong criticism. Al-Jazeera is not perfect - and it has been accused of everything from aiding terrorism to a tabloid mentality - but it has opened up an invaluable space for democratic exchange. That has to be good news.
© Copyright 2003 New Internationalist
Publications Ltd. All rights reserved.
This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7