issue 206 - April 1990
Born on the Fourth of July
directed by Oliver Stone
Oliver Stone has done it again. Born on the Fourth of July, the second Stone entry into the Vietnam War film derby, hits America where it hurts. The movie is based on the life (and autobiography) of Ron Kovic, who founded Vietnam Veterans Against the War. In some ways Kovic's story is typical of the US 'fighting man'. He grew up in a patriotic fog as part of a working-class family on Long Island ruled over by a puritanical mother. This made Ron fertile ground for the Marine Corps recruiting pitch to 'be the best you can be'. For his trouble Kovic spent two tours in Vietnam where he learned to kill and was crippled for life.
The film traces Kovic's gradual and painful awakening to the official deceits of US policy about fighting communism (now read drugs) and defending the 'free' world. Stone's ability as a storyteller and some brilliant camera work give us a sense of the struggle of a generation to overcome their political innocence and challenge a militaristic culture. And Tom Cruise's role helps his own coming of age as an actor after early transgressions like Top Gun.
Still Stone's success is at times marred by emotional manipulation through overstatement. Excess is Hollywood's prime currency and Stone spends it liberally. Scenes such as those in Mexico or in the veteran's hospital in the Bronx seem overdrawn to the point of caricature: he demands and gets our empathy but one can't help recalling that this technique of emotional identification is also used (though not as skilfully) to propagate the Rambo view of the Vietnam War. But if Stone had rejected the tools of Hollywood, Born on the Fourth of July would undoubtedly not be topping the film charts for early 1990.
directed by Richard Martini
A woman frustrated in her career by the sexism at work makes a Faustian pact, trading her soul for a shot at the commercial big time. She becomes a successful futures trader at the stock exchange - but ultimately gives it all up, realizing that she is making money at the expense of the hungry in the Third World.
Sounds promising? We thought so too but unfortunately Limit Up is one of the limpest, most feeble comedies this side of Police Academy 23. Conceived long before the success of Working Girl, this is now being marketed as a 'women's picture' in the same mould. But there is a vital difference between the two: the Melanie Griffiths film had a notably sharp script whereas Nancy Allen, star of Limit Up, has to contend with plot- and dialogue-lines that make you laugh for all the wrong reasons.
There is no critique of the stock exchange or the money-grubbing of the individuals who drive it - its only fault appears to be the male prejudice which excludes women from the money-grubbing. And by the end even that problem is overcome as the heroine is welcomed into the club: thus 'feminism' is hijacked, the hungry are saved, God's in his heaven and all's right with the world. Hallelujah for Hollywood.
by the Christians
The success of the Christians' debut album was staggering, breezing out of nowhere to garner an abundance of hit singles and sell a million. Though the band's title derived from the names of brothers Garry and Russell Christian, it also reflected the overt message of songs like Save a Soul in Every Town and was proof that religious commitment could be seen as hip - something they might thank U2 for.
Colour will have no problem emulating that success - if anything its songs are stronger, its textures even more lush and its performances even more assured. It is less specifically in the soul tradition than the first album - though again the call-and-response vocals are used to stunning effect and the gospel closer In My Hour Of Need (complete with choir) is one of the tracks that lingers longest in the memory.
Two worries. The first is less the Christians' problem than one thrust upon them. Their political conscience has been talked up, even in reviews of this album. But there are here only the blandest generalities: faith can move mountains, the whole world's corrupt, politicians are all talk. This is the perception of the apathetic and apolitical adolescent rather than a worked-out world-view - it can serve in one song but wears pretty thin over a whole album.
Second. the music here is so polished, so apparently effortless, that songs which are individually impressive end up in a package that seems a touch too clean, too seamless. Garry Christian's creamy voice only adds to that impression. But being criticized for being too good will hardly alarm them.
by various authors
Books for children of all ages which have multicultural depth and non-sexist settings are a growth industry - and they need to be, since there are still far too many which revolve around a whiter-than-white nuclear family where mother stays at home and father works. And as the world shrinks and our own horizons lift, there is no reason why our children should not be imbibing a sense of One World from their own literature.
Siyalunga! is produced by a South African group called EDA (P0 Box 62054, Marshal/town 2107, South Africa). Aimed at pre-school ages, it contains no words but rather a set of glossy colour photographs showing the lives of black children in rural South Africa. In contrast to this glossiness, the teacher's notes are contained on a loose photocopy, which is a shame since overseas parents and teachers certainly need them. 'Siyalunga!' means 'We're getting ready!' (for the end of apartheid).
Two recent American books for children under ten aim to convey the richness of the Indian culture that was swamped by white invaders. My Grandmother's Cookie Jar by Montzalee Miller and Katherine Potter (Price Stern Sloan, 360 North La Cienega Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90048) has a girl learning about her heritage through the stories of her grandmother. When the old woman dies, the girl understands the importance of keeping her stories alive - a simple idea well done. Buffalo Woman by Paul Goble (Bradbury Press, 866 Third Ave, New York, NY 10022) presents an ancient legend of the Plains Indians - a love story whose message is the essential union between humans and animals. The stylized illustrations here are genuinely beautiful, as much a pleasure for an adult as for a child.
A much more down-to-earth journey into another culture is provided by a British book for the same age-group, Visiting Junjun and Meimei In China by Janet Whitaker (published by Cambridge University Press in the UK, US and Australia). Through colour photos and detailed, though always accessible, text this gives a full picture of what life is like for children in a typical rural village near Wuhan. Again the adult reading this would discover a great deal about China that they would never get from a newspaper.
And on the anti-sexist front there is the Canadian story for five-to-seven year olds, My Dad Takes Care Of Me by Patricia Quinlan and Vlasta van Kampen (Firefly Books, 3520 Pharmacy Aye, Unit 1-C, Scarborough, Ont M1W 2T8). Here a boy learns to come to terms with his father's unemployment: 'I don't like my dad to be sad,' he says, 'so I hope he gets a job he wants. But I like my dad being at home. My stomach doesn't hurt any more when the kids in school ask "What does your dad do?" I tell them "My dad takes care of me".'
British readers can get hold of all of these titles from Letterbox Library, which specializes in non-sexist and anti-racist children's books. Address: 1st Floor, 8 Bradbury St. London N16 8JN. Tel: 0l 254 1640.
Reviews editor: Chris Brazier
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting
.being the book that explored the totalitarian mind
The title intrigued me - made me buy the book. That, and the title of the series to which it belonged: Writers From "The Other Europe'. 'The Other Europe'. What does that mean now? Then, nine years ago, that meant to me somewhere very distant and pretty grim; a grey and uniform mass behind the Wall. Now The Other is coming in from the cold: a timely moment to re-read a book which so vividly challenged the absorption of a nation into 'the Eastern bloc'.
At the time of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 Milan Kundera was a professor in the Prague film institute. He was soon fired, and forbidden to publish in his own language. His books were removed from libraries and shops. In 1975 he moved to France and was stripped of Czech citizenship. In an interview at the end of this book he says: 'If someone had told me as a boy "One day you will see your nation vanish from the world", I would have considered it nonsense, something I couldn't possibly imagine. But after the Russian invasion every Czech was confronted with the thought that his nation could be quietly erased from Europe.
'Vanish', 'erase', 'dissolve', 'liquidate'. These are the words Kundera uses. This is the 'forgetting' of the title: a country was invaded, its identity wiped out, its history rewritten, its thinkers silenced. Or so it seemed. It is thanks to the courage of people like Kundera - and to books like this - that the cultures of the countries of Eastern Europe were kept alive.
But this book is not just about the last 20 years. Kundera points out that in a half-century Czechoslovakia has experienced democracy, fascism, revolution, Stalinist terror, the disintegration of Stalinism, German and Russian occupations, mass deportations. He describes how streets are renamed with each new system, how monuments rise and fall, how people are punished for not toeing the latest line.
As novelist rather than historian, however, Kundera is primarily interested in what shapes and motivates people, and why. He takes a handful of themes - history, memory, power, laughter. With a light touch and a wry smile he teases them, probes them. The themes are what shape the book, and they are explored in stories, imaginary actors and flights of fancy; hard facts, autobiography and political debate. In his own words, the book is 'a novel in the form of variations. The individual parts follow each other like individual stretches of a journey leading toward a theme, a thought, a single situation'.
The route takes you into one country and its politics but also goes way beyond. It explores the way private and public life are governed by the same laws: invasions, whether of individual privacy or of a country, are abuses of power. If political propaganda recreates the past, so too do individuals: we all distort, select and reinvent history. And what are we but the sum of everything we remember? What do we fear? Forgetting: the loss of our past, our identity. Collectively and individually, the 'struggle of man (sic) against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting'. Memory plays tricks; we play tricks with memory. We search for meaning yet we live only inches away from the dividing line where everything seems senseless and ridiculous: 'It takes so little, so infinitely little, for a person to cross the border beyond which everything loses meaning: love, convictions, faith, history.'
This is where the laughter comes in. There are two kinds of laughter: one expresses security and knowledge and the other ridicules and mocks; one affirms meaning and the other denies it. 'People nowadays do not even realize that one and the same external phenomenon embraces two completely contradictory internal attitudes.' These are the twists and turns that Kundera takes. He explores the sublime and the ridiculous contained in sexuality; the 'lyricism' and 'horror' within childhood; the dividing lines between innocence and corruption, fanaticism and scepticism.
And he writes: 'Totalitarianism is not only hell, but also the dream of paradise - the age-old dream of a world where everybody would live in harmony, united by a single common will and faith, without secrets from one another... Once the dream of paradise starts to turn into reality, however, here and there people begin to crop up who stand in its way, and so the rulers of paradise must build a little gulag on the side of Eden...'. He examines the problem of power in a way relevant not just to his own country as it opens a new chapter of its history but also to us all.
Wit, eloquence and sharply drawn images lure you in and carry you along. Almost before you know it Kundera takes you to the heart of his concerns and leaves you with no easy escape routes, few answers. Indeed, he writes of the 'noisy foolishness of human certainties'. He asks big, serious questions, always with a twinkle in his eye.
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Milan Kundera.