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new internationalist
issue 208 - June 1990


Star rating system.
Film reviews

Pow Wow Highway
directed by Jonathan Wacks

Promising politics swamped: A Martinez in Pow Wow Highway. An offbeat comedy with a strong political dimension, this is the story of two Cheyenne Indians, a beat-up old car and a long, long road. It begins at the Cheyenne reservation of Lame Deer, Montana, progressing through Wyoming and South Dakota to a final serio-comic conclusion in Texas.

Buddy Red Bow (A Martinez) is tense, cynical, politically aware and very suspicious of a big mining company's plans for the Reservation. With little interest in the past except to see a history of betrayal, he's very vocal about the future danger for his people: 'This ain't the American Dream, this is the Third World! ... White America ain't gonna hold off much longer, they want our coal and our oil and our uranium and they're gonna take it!'

The huge and lugubrious Philbert (Gary Farmer), on the other hand, spends the time he's not eating lost in reveries about religious ritual and warrior prowess. Momentarily these reveries seem to become real as the ill-matched pair head south in a truly decrepit 64 Buick when Buddy hears of his sisler being arrested on a trumped-up drugs charge down in Texas.

As with all road movies, the ensuing journey takes in quantities of landscape, adventure and misunderstanding with the emphasis upon Philbert's discovery of his heritage. 'This is the most sacred place in America, probably the world!' he says of the Black Hills of South Dakota, while in one of the film's most atmospheric sequences he has a vision of some bedraggled Cheyenne next to the plaque marking an atrocity of 100 years before.

The problem is the contrived sense of whimsy which eventually swamps the movie's promising political context: a plot which at the start explicitly raises the issue of mining exploitation of Reservation land gradually dumps this in favour of knockabout comedy. What redeems the film is the attractive austerity of its images and the insights it gives into the lives of modern-day Native Americans. The Lame Deer Reservation itself is a palpably real and lived-in environment: a woman leaves it for a housing development saying 'There's a shooting a week, it's like living in Belfast!'

As a whole Pow Wow Highway is seriously lacking in dramatic substance but there's just enough originality to maintain interest. Guardedly recommended.

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Book reviews

Angela Davis: An Autobiography
by Angela Davis
(The Women's Press UK)

Angela Davis's autobiography reads like a thriller... It contains clearly defined goodies and baddies, and is redolent with violence and passion - though in this case the passion is for justice and socialist ideals and the violence that of a state that allows economic, racial and sexual inequalities to flourish. After 15 years her book is now republished with a new retrospective preface in which the 44-year-old Angela Davis contemplates the 28-year-old.

We meet her in 1970, relieved of her post as philosophy lecturer at the University of California for being a communist (a move instigated by the then Governor of California, Ronald Reagan). Soon she is on the run from the FBI, charged with kidnapping, murder and conspiracy against the state - allegations trumped up after her campaigning for the release of the Soledad brothers. This is where the thriller element emerges as we discover an underbelly of the US riddled with phobia about communists' especially black ones.

After the tense scenario of arrest, Davis flashes back to the experiences that moulded the woman of strength and conviction: her formative years in Birmingham, Alabama, and the parental encouragement and scholarships that equipped her with the intellectual means to articulate the plight of disadvantaged Americans.

A fascinating insider's view of the spirit of the time, it proves that political prisoners were never the prerogative of the Eastern Bloc - while also, in these more right-wing times, seeming disturbingly like a period piece.

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Music reviews

Cruel, Crazy, Beautiful World
by Johnny Clegg and Savuka

Diluted rhythm: Johnny Clegg (second from right) and Savuka. Johnny Clegg's international recognition (if not success) is no mere by-product of the present interest in South Africa. He has evidently thought hard about ways of making his music more accessible to an international audience.

But that kind of drive for acceptability prompts some inevitable questions. Have the African rhythms been watered down to suit the Western palate (as with Paul Simon's Graceland)? Has the political Johnny Clegg 'sold out' to the commercial world?

The chart success in South Africa of the single One (Hu)Man One Vote suggests that the new sound has struck a chord at home. The song was written after the assassination of anti-apartheid activist Dr David Webster but has profited deservedly from the build-up to Nelson Mandela's release.

But to an ear attuned to the rawer rhythms of Clegg's earlier work - especially with Sipho Umchunu in Juluka - this can seem rather bland. The delivery is smoother but the South African traditional influences are more subdued, overlaid instead with a veneer of disco. Interestingly, the two most South African of the songs - Vezandlebe and Sengikhumbula Ubuso Bakho - do not appear on record but only as bonuses on cassette and CD.

Still, Clegg's politics have not been diluted in the same way as his rhythms. And, far from being outdated by the rapid pace of recent events, his songs can seem disturbingly prophetic. Often the words work hand in glove with the music to play off anxiety against hope. In Bombs Away, for example, a song about someone betraying a friend while under torture, the crazy concertina and unison trumpets provide a poignant backdrop of overriding optimism. And elsewhere the fear that South Africa will 'slip back into the dark' is balanced by the sheer joy of Moliva, a celebration of Clegg's Zulu wedding in which the strong choral harmonies chase away any threats of sentimentality.

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New Age and Ambient Music
by various artists

[image, unknown] 'New Age' and 'ambient' musics - sometimes similar but' never synonymous - have made the quietest but most successful incursion into the pop market in the past decade. These musics, unlike pop proper, aren't urgent or upfront: they're less structured, more pacific and even subliminal in effect.

[image, unknown] New Age music sounds as if it should offer emancipation from the social and economic imperatives we're confined in. It seems to promise the rediscovery of a redemptive natural world and lost holistic values - as in Earthscapes by Nightingale and Thomson (Lumina). But in fact hardcore New Age, the healing' music that's sold in alternative health centres and record shops, actually complements and colludes with the world of production and consumption.

It's a warm bath phenomenon, just like transcendental meditation when it's used to help executives manage stress and ultimately perform better. New Age music, like the alternative beliefs it's loosely associated with, belongs to a higher form of capitalism that urges you to privatize your own bodily and spiritual welfare (no more collective provision, just a pick'n'mix of paid-for therapies). It tells you to expect the maximum return on all your assets, even your unconscious mind. As the glossy magazine said, 'put your daydreams to work'.

[image, unknown] This New Age music is an anodyne balm meant to assure well-being and self-assurance. Night Music by Dominic Alldis (Lumina) sounds like a snowstorm paperweight or a descendant of Erik Satie's ironic minimalism. Earthscapes is widescreen travelogue music, the pleasant clatter of executive desktop toys.

But ambient music, like Brian Eno's Apollo (EG), with its suspended, mercurial chords and eventless tranquillity, is a different matter entirely. And Durutti Column's Vini Reilly (Factory) all diffracted guitars and spectral, sampled classical singers - offers a serenity that unfocuses your perceptions and lets you experience everything more intensely, not less. These records sound elegaic because they are a glimpse of all that's lost and obscured amid the noise of everyday life - the pleasures of undirected, unprofitable daydreaming.

New Age music is a survival aid, a way back into the world. But ambient music is a chance to imagine the world differently.

Reviews editor: Chris Brazier

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Of Woman Born
.being the book that gave a feminist view of motherhood

With Of Woman Born Adrienne Rich took on a massive task of feminist analysis, autobiography and vision. Her subtitle - 'Motherhood as Experience and Institution' - draws a distinction between what women go through as mothers and what 'motherhood' is held to be. The book is a radical critique of modem Western patriarchy, yet it is also a work of courageously honest, often painful, self-analysts. And this is both its strength and its weakness.

Rich's main achievement is in tracing the 'progressive' suppression and trivialization of Western womanhood from the power it commanded in 'primitive', prehistoric and even medieval human psyche and society. With an acute sense of history and attention to detail, Rich brings to life chilling chapters in the construction of modern Western motherhood. Hands of Flesh, Hands of Iron follows the takeover of midwifery by male - often overtly misogynistic - gynaecologists. The Sacred Calling outlines the invention of the 'home' in the Industrial Revolution as a private area to which women were to be confined as nest-builders and nurturers - in catastrophic contrast to the preindustrial integration of home and economic productivity.

Rich's writing owes much to anthropological and Jungian as well as to feminist research and theory; but it is also directly and unflinchingly personal. With artistic (and feminist) integrity, she begins at home, telling the story of her slowly emerging motivation for writing the book - the guilt about her own sons' childhoods, her excruciatingly mixed feelings as a mother and writer, and her urge, once she had started work on the book, to escape into the safe objectivity of archives and theoretical analysis.

Yet with all this honesty she steers clear of self-indulgence. Like her powerful poetry, which is both lyrical and incisive, Rich's exploration of motherhood is a tightly woven web of empathetic chronicling and analysis, liberating insight and purposeful revelation. Her every paragraph is both argument and poem:

'Probably there is nothing in human nature more resonant with charges than the flow of energy between two biologically alike bodies, one of which has lam in amniotic bliss inside the other, one of which has laboured to give birth to the other. The materials are here for the deepest mutuality and the most painful estrangement.

All in all, Rich has a profound and delicate grasp of the predicament of Western women and an inspiring vision of where we go from here, at least on an individual level: 'The quality of a mother's life is her primary bequest to her daughter.'

But there are times, I feel, when her white middle-class background plays her false and she elides things which should not be elided. There are parallels between sexism and racism, for instance. But I think it is unacceptable to write that: 'The physical and psychic weight of responsibility on the woman with children is by far the heaviest of social burdens. It cannot be compared with slavery or sweated labour because the emotional bonds between a woman and her children make her vulnerable in ways which the forced labourer does not know.

Rich's other, related, blind spot is her tendency to assume that her (our) middle-class Western problems are everyone's problems and our liberationist perspective a universal one. In our anxiety to establish sisterhood across cultural and economic barriers - or our eagerness to claim that 'we are oppressed too' and so escape our white guilt - Western feminists have assumed the right to speak for women in other societies, to deplore their oppression and subservience. And we are often offended by these women's rejection of our solidarity.

The unpalatable truth is that educated Western women partake generously of the international power wielded by our unprecedentedly masculine culture. And as members of both dominant and oppressed groups our values and loyalties are divided - rather like Third World elites. We find it hard, from within our cultural perspective, to appreciate how far we have internalized the competitive, individualistic and rationalist habits of mind of our society. But others standing outside see us clearly enough.

Thus Rich's desperately fervent assertion of the awesomeness of goddess images that show women 'at the very centre of what is necessary and sacred' might strike African women, for example, as an unwarranted fuss. The image, she enthuses, is 'beautiful in ways we have almost forgotten. Her body possesses mass, interior depth, inner rest and balance. She is not smiling ...' Such women are to be seen all over Asia and Africa, Bradford and the Southern US - even Italy, Yugoslavia and Ireland. They may not be educated or 'successful' but they know they are awesome and central - and so do their men.

'All human life on the planer is born of woman,' Rich begins her book, with an all-American grand gesture. 'Yet we know more about the air we breathe, the seas we travel than about the nature and meaning of motherhood.'

This may be true of many of us. But it is certainly not true for most of 'human life on the planet'.

Yvonne Burgess

Of Woman Born by Adrienne Rich (1976).

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New Internationalist issue 208 magazine cover This article is from the June 1990 issue of New Internationalist.
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