new internationalist
issue 185 - July 1988


Star rating system. Film reviews

Wall Street
directed by Oliver Stone

The Devil in pinstripes: Michael Douglas in Wall Street. Movies have a head start when they tackle war and repression in some exotic location as Oliver Stone did with his first two features, Platoon and Salvador (the latter an NI Film of the Year). Enthralling a viewer with the sight of men in pinstripe suits staring at computer screens or talking about company balance sheets is rather more difficult

That Stone pulls it off is partly because of his own sharp script and partly because we cannot help but be aware that these concrete canyons of Manhattan harbour even more power in the world than the military forces of the previous films.

This is a simple morality play: a young innocent is drawn into corruption by a modern Mephistopheles. Ultimately he comes to his humanistic senses - though not in time to avert a fall. We ride with Buddy up through the frantic wheeler-dealing and share his fascination with Gordon Gekko, the ruthless asset stripper who 'had an ethical bypass at birth' and who grooms him for the penthouse. Michael Douglas won an Oscar for playing Gekko though, as usual, it was the part as much as the acting which was rewarded. Like Ivan Boesky, on whom he was possibly modelled, Gekko is both the incarnation of 1980s Market Man and the reincarnation of a Medieval Deadly Sin. 'Greed is right, greed is good,' he says in one of a series of utterly quotable lines:

'It's all about bucks - the rest is conversation'; 'if you need a friend get a dog - it's trench warfare out there'.

Stone continues to make radical films that reach a mass audience through the force of his wit, style and populist acumen. Where else in Hollywood would you hear the NI-type observation that the richest one percent in the US own half the wealth? More power to his heart.

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Cannibal Tours
directed by Dennis O'Rourke

This is a didactic film - but one with a generous helping of humour. One of Australia's foremost radical film-makers, O'Rourke's witty perception of tourism is also a solid treatise on cultural difference and the legacy of Western social 'advancement'. He has a long-standing commitment to the native peoples of the Pacific region and is far kinder to them than to the European and North American tourists who make the journey to the Sepik River in New Guinea.

The tourists are cast as the bizarre invaders and their destination, in O'Rourke's words, is a 'packaged version of a Heart of Darkness'. This is the first journey to be chronicled. The second is a more metaphysical one, 'an attempt to discover the place of 'the Other' in the popular imagination'. It therefore offers suggestions as to why 'civilized' people strive to encounter the 'primitive'.

The local tribespeople seem bemused by the visitors but are resilient enough to withstand the lure of capitalism. Yet they are still generous towards this 'civilized tribe', and it is through this openness that the humour works so well.

One elder recalls the arrival of the first Europeans, when he had cried out 'Our dead ancestors have returned!' When they see tourists today, they again say 'The dead have comeback'... but with a rather different meaning.

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Book reviews

False Hope, False Freedom
by James Painter
(Latin America Bureau)

[image, unknown] It's business as usual in Guatemala. The country's rich volcanic soil continues to produce mountains of coffee, sugar and cotton for Western consumption while most Guatemalans cannot afford an adequate diet. A tiny elite continues to control the economy and the army. The death squads continue to mete out the traditional medicine.

James Painter's book argues that Vinicio Cerezo, the Christian Democrat elected Guatemalan President in January 1986, has brought no real changes. Internationally he presents himself as a man of moderation. Yet internally his policies of the 'respectable right' aim to defend the power and wealth of the ruling elite. The army continues to wield the real power. Killings may have declined but there are still 60 murders a month. And Guatemalans feel the army's restraint may only be temporary. As one trade unionist said: 'They allow the leaders to stick their heads up so they'll know whose to cut off when the time comes'.

Cerezo dismisses land reform, increased taxes for the rich and minimum wages as Marxist. Yet two percent of the population still own almost 70 per cent of the land, and three quarters of Guatemala's people live below the poverty line. False Hope, False Freedom is eloquent in its condemnation of the current 'circus democracy' and its call for radical reform of a corrupt and violent society.

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The Stones Cry Out
by Molyda Szymusiak

Autobiographical tales of terror under the Khmer Rouge in Kampuchea are becoming a heart-rending literary genre in themselves. In the latest of them Szymusiak describes her life after the change of government in 1975, which was to result in the death of almost one third of her country's population at the hands of the military.

She tells of becoming a nomad in the land which was once her home. To avoid death, she and her family had to feign illiteracy to indicate that they had no connection with the bourgeoisie. The disease and famine which spread throughout the countryside, however, soon claimed the life of every member of her family. Through all the personal tragedies it records the ultimate sense is of the buoyancy of humanity and community amid a flood of despair.

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The Songlines
by Bruce Chatwin

[image, unknown] In the beginning were the Ancestors. On the morning of Creation they burst from their mud wombs and, travelling across the land, sang the world into existence. Each Ancestor scattered a trail of words and musical notes along the line of their footprints. Now these 'songlines' lie all over Australia as ways of communication between the most far-flung Aboriginal tribes.

The Songlines documents Bruce Chatwin's own journey around Australia seeking their meaning as he hopes to answer his own questions about human restlessness. Why is it that wandering people conceive the world as perfect whilst sedentary ones are forever trying to change it?

Like a journey itself, the book explores ideas about human origins that lead Chatwin to suggest that all humans were originally migratory. The urge to travel is instinctive, he argues, and the frustration of that instinct creates a conflict within 'civilized' people which is the source of our aggression and the reason we seek consolation in material things

'Yea, though I walk through
The Valley of the Shadow of Death
I will fear no Evil
For I, Bruce, am
The Meanest Son of a Bitch in the Valley.'

Thus reads a notice in a bar, epitomizing for Chatwin the arrogance, brutality and ignorance of racist white Australia. In this context the Aboriginal philosophy shines out: beautiful and stunningly sophisticated.

Despite the book's marginalization of women - especially Aboriginal women and their culture - this is a fascinating account populated by extraordinary characters. And the map which Chatwin draws of Aboriginal culture leads us to some uncomfortable conclusions about the impoverishment of our own.

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Music reviews

39 Minutes
by Microdisney

Microdisney: bitterness more apparent than dancing shoes. The fourth album from this most uncompromising and thought-provoking of groups comes for the first time without a lyric sheet. This is a shame, not least because the vocals often retreat in the mix, but as usual hiding behind the well-crafted melodies is the most pointed political comment.

Musically it is reminiscent of early XTC. But gentle appearances are deceptive, as with Blue Rings, where a passive arrangement carries along a truly vicious lyric. Elsewhere Cathal Coughlan tackles the perennial favourite of British imperialism in the roaring funk of Send Herman Home and flings further vitriol at the Hollywood star system in Herr Direktor. While in the single Singer's Hampstead Home we are reminded of the destruction and subsequent canonization of Boy George by the British tabloid press And if the bitterness of all this is too much for you - yes, you can dance to it.

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Reviews editor: Chris Brazier

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The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born
... being the book that evoked the corruption of newly independent Ghana

In the darkness of early morning in Accra, a bus driver is counting the money he has made from short-changing passengers. He assumes he's alone but someone is watching him, a passenger who remained on the bus after everyone left. He walks towards the passenger holding out a pack of cigarettes as a bribe for his silence, but his fear turns to indignation when he realizes that the man is sleeping with his eyes open. The vigilant sleeper is the hero of the novel; known to us only as 'The Man' he wakes to the curses of the driver, to the recurring nightmare of life in Ghana.

It is 1966, nine years after Nkrumah became leader of a newly independent Ghana, and just days before his government is toppled, Ayi Kwei Armah describes a fragmented, chaotic country; a society depleted by corruption. Everyone from the lowly allocations clerk in the railways office to The Man's friend Koomson, a minister in the Government, is intent on cheating, bribery and stealing. Western materialism and capitalism, a legacy of the colonial days, is infectious; The Man acknowledges that he too is lured by the gleam of the automobile, the television and the power that these things symbolize, a power based on the jealousy and admiration of others. But something holds him back from 'getting and spending', makes him refuse bribes and turn away from his friend's unscrupulous plans for making money. He wonders if he isn't a hypocrite and a coward, a man who puts his scruples before the well-being of his family. His wife compares him to the chichidodo bird who 'hates excrement with all its soul' yet feeds on the maggots that grow best inside the lavatory. Or does he have an honesty which cannot be shaken? In the end his friend Koomson emerges a pathetic figure who must flee in the face of a coup. The Man's integrity remains intact but so does the pattern of corruption and exploitation. Armah implies that the coup has simply brought new thieves to power.

This is a bitter, pessimistic book, darkly comic, at times utterly despairing in its view not just of Ghana, where cynicism and greed have replaced the socialist ideal of the early days of independence, but of human nature everywhere. The corruption Armah depicts is never abstract, nor is it limited to the taking of bribes, embezzlement and the like. Instead it is a pervasive atmosphere, a stench of decaying rubbish, of toilet walls smeared with faeces, of wood rotting. There is no escape for The Man from the filth of others. Armah is not only criticizing Nkrumah's government and the Ghanaian elite; he is pointing to the deep-seated nature of corruption, the unequal struggle between selfless idealism and the desire for power and money.

But Armah is no cynic, and this is a deeply idealistic book. The integrity of Armah's vision - his almost obsessive attention to detail, his righteous anger - give the novel its power and make it an enduring protest against political hypocrisy. It is also a lyrical and beautifully written work, with a chorus of memorable images contrasting filth and decay with the purity of the sea and the song of the unknown bird.

Armah's style is provocative, and his book raises uncomfortable moral and political questions. When does compromise become betrayal? Can self-interest ever be reconciled with the needs of the community? Is the true image of revolution 'the beggar on horseback whipping the beggar on foot?' How should we live in a world where corruption and greed seem the norm?

Armah holds out a small hope for the future, one tinged with irony and sadness. 'The Beautyful Ones are not yet Born' says a mis-spelt sign at the back of a bus whose conductor has just bribed a police officer. But this promise of a generation which would remain just and pure is 'unexplained'. The mysterious words and the image of the flower alongside it are soon replaced in The Man's mind by 'the eyes of the children after six o'clock, the office and every day, and above all the never-ending knowledge that this aching emptiness would be all that the remainder of his own life could offer him.'

Wendy Brandmark
The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born
by Ayi Kwei Armah
(Heinemann Educational 1969)

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