issue 198 - August 1989
directed by David Jones
The new Robert DeNiro film is a sign that Hollywood is capable of breaking its addiction to chase scenes and infantry assaults. David Jones' movie is on one level a sensitive exploration of the psychic fallout of the Vietnam War. But it is also a compellingly honest love story, as amiable loser Megs (played by DeNiro) and cautious biology teacher Martha (Kathy Baker) move together. The film is prepared to take its time, drawing you gently into these two characters and that of Martha's depressed brother David (Ed Harris) who, like Megs. is struggling to come to terms with his post-war life.
This is a far cry from the larger-than-life battlefield action of Full Metal Jacket or Platoon, as it homes in on the internal struggle of two gruff working-class men to come to terms with their own weaknesses. Megs and David, like many men, are used to hiding their frustrations and fears in antisocial behaviour, but as they grope clumsily towards self-awareness we come to care about them. And there is no simple diagnosis or cliched ending. The Vietnam experience is not an excuse but rather a catalyst that brings to the surface the kinds of personal crises we all have to face.
The emotional nerves of all three characters are gradually laid bare by superlative acting. Megs, Martha and David are forced to work out their own forms of caring in a society that was never sure why it had to fight a war in far-off Asia and now wants to forget and deny the experience. One can't help but wonder what the emotional hangover of the war is like for those who farm the paddyfields of the Mekong Delta or run the market stalls of Ho Chi Minh City. On this Hollywood remains silent. But go and see Jacknife - its simple humanism rings true.
Waiting for the Redbird
by Bruce Cockburn
These are attempts from both sides of the Atlantic to make committed political music. How to package the 'message' is a constant source of angst for the Left. Easterhouse faced the classic dilemma: remain pure and overflowing with street credibility or else brave the cries of sell-out in order to reach a wider audience. In 1986 they were raw in sound and uncompromising in stance, singing in support of British miners on strike and Irish Republicans on hunger strike. Since then the band has disintegrated leaving only singer-songwriter Andy Perry to carry the name and flame. Waiting for the Redbird sees him opting for mid-Atlantic smoothness on the musical front.
Ultimately the test is simply whether the songs work on their new territory. Here they do. And while Perry confesses to having avoided tackling some of the most contentious issues it is still fairly clear where he stands. On Hope and Glory and This Country he 'spits in the eye' of the 'enterprise culture' of the 1980s. But he can be more effective in a gentler mood, as with the haunting Stay With Me (Death on the Dole), the best track here.
The Canadian singer Bruce Cockburn made the NI's 1986 album of the year in World of Wonders. Since then he has continued to use his music as a platform for his activism. On Stealing Fire he concentrated on the horrors of US intervention in Central America. Big Circumstance is wider-ranging but no less determined to stick with 'unmarketable' political issues.
There is (almost inevitably) a song about the destruction of the rainforest in South America: 'the climate control centre of the world,' he calls it and asks 'If a tree falls in the forest, does anybody hear?' Just as inevitably, there is a song about Christianity. God is not on the side that equates might with right, he says - Cockburn's is a radical, almost prophetic Christianity which doesn't sit easily alongside the materialistic complacency exhibited by the 'faithful' among the New Right.
The Chinese resistance to Tibetan autonomy also rates a mention, as does the effect of Western tourism on the Third World. And there is a return to Central America, Where the Death Squad Lives and 'where they cut down people like they cut down trees'. As a package of international issues, this would not look amiss as a schedule of the NI's issues for the next year.
But for all the fervour and the musical diversity (everything from country to Tibetan tinges) the album is slightly disappointing by Cockburn's own high standards. And amid the generally disconsolate mood, the musical and lyrical optimism of The Gift is very welcome. 'Love is stronger than dardness, stronger than death' he sings, holding out his hope for our decaying and corrupt world.
NI rating for both
Pillars of Society
by Kev Carmody
Kev Carmody's debut album is an energetic tribute to contemporary Aboriginal music, which has long been searching for an authentic voice amongst reggae. rock and country. Pillars of Society moves between these traditions while also tapping into the black American traditions of gospel and blues. Yet it is the 'outback' campfire tradition of no-holds-barred political broadsides which Carmody uses to best effect. He attacks the hypocrisy of the present system and acknowledges in the title track the common ground shared by all victims of the politics of greed.
Key Carmody has worked as a shearer, a rural labourer and a welder and might have been an international rugby union player had he not refused to play against the touring South African Springboks. He is currently expected to become the first Aborigine to gain a doctorate in Australian colonial history. He is stoical about the likely commercial 'failure' of his album: 'Once you start talking about why the system's wrong, you don't get much of a chance commercially'.
Certainly songs like Black deaths in custody pull no punches. And another recurring theme, contrasting the justice of Christ with the injustice of New Right Christianity, won't make him many friends. But Carmody's talent is to show the universal truths in what might be dismissed as purely Aboriginal problems.
by Isabel Allende
Isabel Allende used to translate Barbara Cartland novels, subversively rewriting them to make the heroines stronger. Perhaps she was slightly corrupted in the process. In Eva Luna. chilling fact and swooning fantasy co-exist, and rapturous sentiment pulsates through the narrative.
Contrast has always been one of Allende's gifts: she daubs the realities of South American politics with the enticing colours of magic realism, places butchery and romance, wealth and poverty side by side. But whereas in her two brilliant previous novels (House of the Spirits and Of Love and Shadows) the balance between actuality and marvel is precariously maintained, in Eva Luna Allende sometimes flounders in a boggy rapture.
Eva Luna is a born storyteller who narrates to us her own strange tale. The book's structure is built in a ramshackle and random way around the characters who pass through her life, from her rum-addled godmother through the transsexual entertainer to the street urchin turned guerrilla leader. Larger than life but less interesting, these strange people turn this into something like a picaresque novel - rambling, unlikely and disarming.
Nevertheless this is an immensely likeable book, more interesting in its failure than many books are in their success. Allende writes in prose that is unashamedly purple. She favours sentimentality over cynicism and dares to be happy. Such large-heartedness drives Eva Luna into fairytale simplicity, novelettish palpitations, cliché and clumsiness, but also gives it the moral force to irradiate squalid contemporary vistas.
Reviews editor: Chris Brazier
News from Nowhere
.being the book that prophesied a socialist future
I first read News from Nowhere because I had to sit a university exam on Victorian English Literature. I had been told by a tutor that any student who wrote on something a bit out of the ordinary would probably score plus points with the examiner as a reward for sheer novelty. He gave me a list of several scholarly books about nineteenth-century fictional utopias. In case I should actually find time to read the original novels themselves, he told me the titles of four or five.
He didn't mention William Morris at all. I came across News from Nowhere by accident in a second-hand bookshop a few days later. I duly skimmed through three Victorian utopias in two days, largely to reassure myself that they were, as the tutor had said, very dull. I memorized a model exam answer in advance, interpreted a general question in a way that suited my particular answer, and wrote it out. I passed with flying colours.
I should say in my defence that there are several features of News from Nowhere which combine to make it seem uninspiring reading. The plot, if one can call it that, concerns a nameless member of Morris's own political formation, the Socialist League (in whose journal, Commonweal, the book was first serialized in 1890). This Morris figure goes home one winter night after a speculative League discussion about post-revolutionary society and awakes next morning (now curiously summer) in the same place but transported, either by vision or dream, to the twenty-first century. He is astonished to find that all signs of Victorian industrialism have been swept off the face of the earth, that he is among a people who wear fourteenth-century clothes, look uncannily young for their age, and see work as a delight rather than a compulsion.
Socialism has advanced beyond anything Karl Marx ever described. English citizens no longer, for instance, understand what money is, have almost no sense of history, observe nothing that could be called a legal system, and continuously celebrate an essentially practical, non-intellectual life. The sojourn lasts for a few days, during which the hero is given a guided tour of an unrecognizable London (the Houses of Parliament have been preserved, but only as a storage place for manure); is introduced to an aged historian who explains how the revolution happened in 1952; and then goes on a rowboat cruise up the Thames to see what's become of the Home Counties. The hero is then delivered back to 1890s London, ready to prophesy to others the possible future he has glimpsed.
Problems inevitably arise in reading a novel about a world in which there is virtually no conflict. It is frustrating to witness Morris's prose slowly running aground on long stretches of eventlessness, buoyed up by a thesaurus-load of positive adjectives applied to almost everything his hero sees. It is embarrassing to have to pull him up for his incompleteness. He tells us, for instance, that 'all work which would be irksome to do by hand is done by immensely improved machinery'. But where is all this machinery, how is it made and organized, and who is working it? I feel frustration and embarrassment, of course, because I have a gut reaction of sympathy for Morris's political intentions and views.
But are these problems really in the book, or in the expectations about books which we are educated to have? A literature exam is not held to allow us to express our gut reactions. Most of the time what is being tested is our capacity for insincerity, usually presented as our ability to talk or write in a 'disinterested' way. I've managed to gain several certificates in this sort of insincerity in my time, with the help of many literary figures like Morris. It would have been suicidal in the exam to excuse News from Nowhere its artistic faults on account of my merely personal agreement with the challenge it issued to the social order of its (and our) day. Indeed, it was very generous of me to point out that the book retained a certain curiosity value as an 'early popularization of Marx'. I thus demonstrated that I could write in a peculiarly 'neutral', 'objective', 'balanced' way. In short, in a way which would offend no one, even about political revolution in England.
Part of the point of this particular column in the NI is, as I see it, to change our ideas about books, to use them for alternative purposes to those pursued by more humdrum institutions, to mobilize them as tools for opposing the status quo. In short, we want to do more than just celebrate old classics - we want actively to re-read them and show why they matter to us now. What matters most now, for me, about News from Nowhere is the fact that it does fail by the prevailing standards of literary realism of both the 1890s and the 1980s. For it to have succeeded on the terms of past and latterday preachers of 'the realistic' would have disappointed its author in the extreme. Like the socialism it describes, Morris could legitimately claim that the book's day will eventually come. Nevertheless, with the benefit of hindsight, we can all agree that his optimism overwhelmed his prophetic accuracy. 1952!
News from Nowhere by William Morris