issue 176 - October 1987
Full Metal Jacket
directed by Stanley Kubrick
The final scene of Stanley Kubrick's contribution to the Hollywood view of the Vietnam war is a harrowing one. Full Metal Jacket closes with a platoon of US marines silhouetted against the night-time sky by the blazing city of Hue - the ancient capital of Vietnam. The marines sing the theme song from Mickey Mouse as they march off. 'Who's the leader of the club that's made for you and me? MICKEY MOUSE!'
Who indeed? Lyndon Johnson? Richard Nixon? Ollie North? The scene, like many in the movie, is suggestive of the corruption and brutality of the US's anti-communist crusade in Vietnam. But suggestion is all you get. Full Metal Jacket avoids pointing the finger at the cynical power brokers who continue to shape US military adventures.
Instead the film is about the grunts - the ordinary boys from Kansas and Mississippi who have to do the fighting and the dying for the military machine. It follows them through indoctrination at the marine training camp in South Carolina. Here they are subjected to a vicious marine sergeant-major who makes crystal clear the connections between militarism and sexism. Trainees are disdainfully called 'ladies' until they are tough enough to be called marines.
In what almost seems like another movie, the scene shifts to Vietnam. Here nothing is the way it's supposed to be, from the lies in the military newspaper Stars and Stripes to the chaos and cruelty of the Tet offensive. For the grunts, and one suspects for Kubrick as well, the Vietnam experience is confusing and contradictory.
Days later your mind is still turning over the film's many powerful scenes, finding them pregnant with meaning. But you are left with the nagging feeling that something more needed to be said. Somehow after all these years confusion is not an adequate response to the Vietnam War. Perhaps the problem is that in this glut of films about the American trauma in South-East Asia, the Vietnamese trauma is always left out. Maybe Warner Brothers should turn over its production facilities to the Vietnamese so we can complete the historical circle.
But go and see Full Metal Jacket anyhow. You may be offended but you won't be bored.
The Witches of Eastwick
directed by George Miller
'Women are the source - the only powers, says Jack Nicholson in this gothic exploration of sexual politics
The potent women in his sights are three New England divorcees given to jaundiced discussions of the local men ('I hope his dick is bigger than his IQ'). They discover, for example, that by using their combined wills they can bring down thunderstorms at convenient moments - during boring speeches by low-IQ males.
Then they meet the seductive Nicholson, giving a virtuoso performance as 'just your average horny little devil,' and driven by his impish impulses their ménage á quatre starts to work its mayhem. The result is a superior comic-horror immorality tale.
Its sexual politics can charitably be described as ambiguous There is much liberated dialogue: Nicholson explains that witches were just medieval midwives, who were burned by men scared of losing power to them. These women of 1980s Eastwick, however, do seem to have most of the traditional witchly attributes short of broomstick transport. And though they are strong characters, with Cher taking a forceful leading role, most of the strings are pulled by a masculine devil.
The Hunger Crop
by Belinda Coote
Caries affect 95 per cent of 'dentate' adults Apart from knowing that your rotting teeth are in such crowded company you now know (or can guess) what 'dentate' means Belinda Coote's book on the sugar industry is full of such detailed asides and they add immensely to the value of this excellent little book on the sugar industry.
For such a pleasant product, sugar has a lot to answer for, It is attacked by the medical profession for perforating the dentate. But it is also criticized for offering its cane plantation workers starvation wages.
Too much sugar is being grown: the good old European Community overproduces sugar beet and then sells it dirt cheap on the open market leaving cane producers in the lurch. Add to this the increasing competition from artificial sweeteners (Coke and Pepsi no longer contain sugar) and you have a crop that most countries would do well to avoid.
This is not a simple story. And one of the virtues of this book is that it ducks none of the complexities It shows precisely how all the forces of change interact - from policies of land reform in developing countries to the new technology that we in the West are now unconsciously swallowing.
If you want to know more about where the Third World fits into the international trading system this is a good place to start.
The Ballad of the Yorkshire Ripper
by Blake Morrison
(Chatto & Windus)
It's not often that the NI reviews poetry. But then it's not often that we come across a poem quite like this one. The centrepiece of Blake Morrison's latest poetry collection is a remarkable long piece which is extraordinarily powerful not just for its language but also for the disturbing issues it throws up.
It is written in the voice of an ordinary man speaking in the dialect of the English North East This is no less strange for British readers than for Canadians or Australians, since few of the local words have found their way into standard English. He meditates on the case of Peter Sutcliffe, the most infamous British mass murderer of recent times, who killed 13 women and terrorized millions more, believing he had a calling from God to clean up the streets.
To the narrator there is a clear connection between the misogynist masculine culture around him and the mentality of the Ripper: It's then I think on t'Ripper/ an what e did an why/ an ow mi mates 'ate women/ an ow Pete med em die. He goes on to talk about his own friends' attitude to women, runs through Sutcliffe's terrible life history and concludes: No, Pete weren't drove by vengeance/ rountwistedness or ale/ but to show isen a baufy (strong) man. In the end, Sutcliffe is in prison and the fuss has died down, but the narrator is left tormented by the knowledge that men's attitudes haven't changed and by dreams of the dead woman. It's a terrifying, thought-provoking poem which makes it impossible to see Sutcliffe and all the other less publicized rapists and murderers as simply insane and disconnected from the rest of us. Even if you never read poetry, keep your eyes open for this.
She was only a Grocer's Daughter
by the Blow Monkeys
by That Petrol Emotion
Belated acknowledgement of two very different approaches to the difficult art of agit-pop In these dark days when every one of our readers' countries has a government converted to right-wing policies (even if two of them still bear the name 'Labour'), almost any approach to politicized culture is welcome. Both these bands - one British, the other an Irish-North American alliance - released albums just before Britain's disastrous election in June.
The Blow Monkeys, who are reputed to be one of Princess Diana's fave raves, are overtly anti-Thatcher - Pacific Rim readers may not have realized the identity of the grocer's daughter in the title. Dr Robert's lyrics ponder 'how long can a bad thing last?' and how people can 'behave so graciously after 'eight long years in the wilderness'. These are questions rattling around the depressed minds of more than Dr Robert and this reviewer, and his conclusion is the same as it must always be, wherever we live - 'Got to educate and activate'.
The politics comes in a pretty polished package - with its perfect haircuts, smooth sound and coffee-table design this might be prototypical designer socialist music. And the effect is probably bland in large doses, better absorbed in single form. But the grasp of the white soul idiom is genuine and there is enough range here to suggest that the Blow Monkeys might still be around when Thatcher finally departs.
In contrast to this sophisticated late Eighties product, That Petrol Emotion are determinedly in another rebel tradition entirely, with a punkish sleeve and frill-free aura. Their protest has a distinctly Irish slant, as you might expect, but they are also part of the resistance to computerized soul, and it's sign of how far the ground has shifted that this fiery guitar sound could be so refreshing. At their best they fit their name well and can ignite even a reflective song. Interestingly, their politics issue from the same place as the Monkeys' - ' Got to activate, educate, organize'.
Potential rather than present power from both quarters - but then you could say the same about current radical politics.
The Village Cycle Plays
...being the plays that presaged the pain of the Spanish Civil War
The war in Spain is a legend for the Western Left. It brought together sympathizers from all over the world to fight alongside each other with passion and courage for a cause which their governments would not support it seemed like the last bulwark against fascism.
`The Spanish Republican experience of the 1930s meant a mass politicization, and this was evident in the art of the time. Spain was culturally richer in the first half of the twentieth century than it had been for 300 years. The intellectual revival, represented by names such as Picasso, Dali, Miro, Machado, Baroja, Bunuel, Casals, Ortega and Lorca, clashed with old and outworn structures. And the gifted poets of 'the generation of 1927' deserted the ivory tower of 'art for art's sake'; their work became socially and politically conscious. As Garcia Lorca wrote: 'We must leave the lilies and jump into the mud up to our waists'.
Lorca's poetry and drama is among the best and most popular that Spain has ever produced. He was born in Granada in 1898 and it was to there that he fled on the eve of the war - his views and his connections with left-wing intellectuals were widely known, while his homosexual sympathies were anathema to the adherents of the cult of virility (one of his assassins boasted of firing 'two bullets into his bottom for being a queer'). His flight was to no avail: he was captured by the right-wing cedista in the autumn of 1936 and executed on a hillside outside Granada. His body, as he prophetically foresaw, was never found:
'I realized I had been murdered. They searched cafes and cemeteries and churches, they opened barrels and cupboards, they plundered three skeletons to remove their gold teeth. They did not find me.'
Lorca was a populist. He believed that art should be socially useful, and that it should be 'for the people' ('the poet, in this dramatic moment of the world, has to laugh and cry with the people'). As his brother has written, 'he addressed himself to simple people, or to what there can be of simplicity in people who are not simple.' He wished to touch not what he called the 'chord of reason' in his audience, but their common traditions, their turbulent collective emotions and their Spanish heritage - hence he wrote ballads, songs, lyrics, chants.
The Village Cycle Plays were written towards the end of his tragically short life and show his powers both as a poetic dramatist and as a passionate political figure. They were written between 1932 and 1936, at a time when all the hard-won progress made by the Left was under threat from the growth of fascism. The plays are deeply compassionate studies of the desolation caused by traditional sexual oppression. In them the constricted, suffering lives of the women become metaphors for the tyranny of Nationalist Spain. They are all steeped in a deep and yet fateful understanding of the connection between power and sexuality. And the tyranny, brutality and greed that were soon to ravage Spain are compressed into their wildly claustrophobic worlds.
Blood Wedding is a drama of vengeance that focuses on the issues of marriage, sexuality and community, and in which the characters are ciphers of intense and chaotic emotions. The play presents marriage as a social contract and the village as a sealed world which promotes and represses romantic love at the same time. Against such a background passionate desire is shocking and dangerous; it can only grow and fulfil itself in twisted forms. Yerma continues the theme of unfulfilled desires. It is ostensibly about a woman who cannot bear children, but really she is racked with desire for another way of life. Yerma lives in a society where 'a childless woman is like a bunch of thistles - fit only for God's rubbish heap.'
The House of Bernarda Alba is Lorca's final play, completed as Spain flared into its messy and tragic war. In it, the action takes place entirely within a household of women where sexuality and death saturate the air but never become visible. The mother, Bernarda Alba, rules over the house and, by denying all emotions, she suppresses and eventually destroys her five grown daughters. The house of Bernarda has thick walls - it is the daughters' prison, and its atmosphere becomes foul with unspoken desires. But they never spill out onto the unseen street. Tragedy does not explode; it implodes, liberating nothing, not even the gagged desires of its victims.
Lorca's life was cut short at the height of his artistic and political development. His work and his Republicanism are inseparable. His death was not just an individual tragedy: it was a great loss to the cultural world. It marks a shameful point in Spanish history.
The Village Cycle Plays by Garcia Lorca.