issue 212 - October 1990
Mo' Better Blues
directed by Spike Lee
Spike Lee's fourth feature film is the story of Bleek Gilliam (Denzel Washington), a perfectionist jazz trumpeter who puts his music before everything else. Bleek has two girlfriends (Joie Lee and Cinda Williams), each of whom he betrays with the other as a matter of course. He also has an inadequate manager called Giant (Spike Lee himself) whose obsession with gambling is one reason why the group is prone to the exploitation of (white) New York club owners.
An entertaining hybrid of flamboyant style and too predictable content, Mo' Better Blues balances Lee's characteristic from-the-hip immediacy of camerawork, dialogue and performances against a storyline which, but for some very significant trimmings of colour, language and attitude, could well have come out of 1950s Hollywood. All cool elegance and effortless authority, Washington gives a charismatic star performance and the soundtrack, combining imposingly lush orchestrations with soaring trumpet and sax solos, is uniformly excellent too.
Unfortunately the substance of the tale is too thin and familiar by far. The painful spiritual growth of Bleek, his learning that love is more important than music, is acceptable enough, but Lee concentrates far too much on his own character, a much less sympathetic figure than was intended. Giant, hogging screen time as he stumbles from one tedious gambling-led crisis to another, severely unbalances the movie. Meanwhile Bleek's relationships involve a large number of bedroom scenes which for too much of the time seem to present the women as carnal accessories passively accepting his attentions.
Still Mo' Better Blues is full of fine moments and happens to have one of the very best opening-credits sequences you'll see in this or any other year. Don't arrive late - this alone repays the price of admission.
Long Time Companion
directed by Norman Rene
'Survived by his long time companion...' Taking its title from this sober standard phrase of the modern obituary column, Norman Rene's film is an attempt to assess the impact of AIDS on the gay community and at the same time to celebrate the very strong sense of pride and resolve which the disease has paradoxically fostered. The movie progresses in nine yearly stages from 1981 through to 1989, with AIDS gradually looming larger and larger until it finally seems to dominate everything else.
In 1981 AIDS hadn't even been properly identified, so that while the New York Times carries a famous first article on a new 'rare cancer' afflicting gay men, the confident and unseltconsciously gay lifestyle of the film's seven central characters is presented as a kind of nostalgic idyll. By 1982 one of them is seriously ill in hospital with pneumonia; by 1983 much more is known about the HIV virus; by 1985 another of the men is clearly dying.
As the years pass the disease takes a heavier and heavier toll not only physically but also emotionally as it progresses through the group. At the same time qualities of loyalty, caring and unashamed affection are highlighted as lives become ever more intimately linked by bereavement.
One of the major strengths of Long Time Companion is its avoidance of the 'Government Health Warning' approach to AIDS. Transmission routes, precautions, various types of treatment and so on are deliberately kept in the background. Instead the emphasis is on the developing relationships.
The film could be criticized on the grounds that all of the characters are white, 'respectable' and economically advantaged. But on the other hand this helps avoid the pitfall of showing people with AIDS as passive, somehow guilty victims. These are intelligent, sophisticated, emotionally mature individuals rather than stock figures or caricatures and this lends the film a credibility it otherwise wouldn't have.
In the end it is perhaps rather too tidy and symmetrical an affirmation of the human spirit. But Long Time Companion's comprehensive avoidance of manipulative devices and, not least, its sense of humour, ensures its authority both as drama and as a piece of fundamental optimism.
When the Bough Breaks...
by Lloyd Timberlake and Laura Thomas
by Peter Lee-Wright
One reads When the Bough Breaks. with a horror that is familiar - and an anger over one's own impotence that is perhaps equally familiar. This is a comprehensively researched document which records the effects of an industrially devastated environment upon the most vulnerable group of human beings - children. We meet children from all parts of the world. There is Iwonka, the Polish schoolgirl who breaks down and cries as she tells of her mother's miscarriage (caused by the fumes of the steel plant where she worked). Or Pavitra, who drinks contaminated water in her Delhi slum.
The point of meeting them is to understand the ruthlessness of international economic policies which drive the poorer nations of the world to environmental disaster in an attempt to repay their debts. It reads at times like a catalogue of economic aggression of which one telling example may be sufficient: in 1976 Ciba-Geigy purposely sprayed a group of Egyptian children with the pesticide Galecron in order to test its effects.
Such ruthlessness has another face which is passionately explored in Peter Lee-Wright's Child Slaves. It recounts the dehumanizing conditions under which children labour in the Third World in order to provide commodities and services to consumers usually from the West. Lee-Wright doesn't shrink from naming names and one recognizes many familiar superstore products that originate from some fume-choked hovel halfway across the world. And if the faint heart should quail at this then think of the children being sexually exploited in the Philippines and Thailand where the Western male consumer can see the misery behind his gratification but still cannot resist.
In most cases, the author cautions, the answer is not an immediate ban on the products of child labour - that would mean an even worse fate for the children concerned - but the more difficult option of pressurizing the exploiters to improve conditions and alter policies.
Child Slaves is written in prose that pulls no punches and is strident when it has to be, unlike When the Bough Breaks... which is a bit bloodless by comparison. Both books imply what childhood should be like by being very straightforward about the present reality for all too many of the world's children.
The Vegetarians of Love
by Bob Geldof
In which Saint Bob takes up again the slings and arrows of an outrageous career - and turns in a halfway decent record. Geldof has come a long way since his first single with the Boomtown Rats, a hymn to selfishness called Looking After Number One. But his musical achievements have been decidedly slender. No more than a couple of good songs and much sub-Jagger ligging and leering with the Rats; Do They Know It's Christmas?; a mediocre first solo album; and there the list peters out.
He deserves some sympathy: how on earth could he deliver artistic goods that have the weight of his global charity work? Answer: by turning in a record with echoes of Bob Dylan and Van Morrison, which must be as close as popular music comes to high seriousness and sainthood, to being untrammelled by earthly concerns like chart success.
It's a smart move which leads him out onto a limb of high-flown verbiage, as in the charmingly titled Thinking Voyager 2 Type Things: 'I'm electric with the snap and crackle of creation/ I'm mixing up the mud with the pit/ So rise up Brendan Behan and like a drunken Lazarus/ Let's traipse the high bronze of the evening sky/ Like crack crazed kings'.
Geldof gives up struggling to be a singer of quality and pitches for the spoken individuality of a Dylan. He ends up with the non-voice of Mark Knopfler but given that gentleman's sales figures (Dire Straits' Brothers In Arms was the UK's best-selling album of the 1980s) Geldof will hardly complain about the comparison.
The musical setting is carefully selected too to remove him from the tawdry everyday fray of the pop marketplace: violas, accordions, pennywhistles and assorted kitchen utensils conjure up the timeless integrity of Irish folk music (or 'roots' in 1990-speak). But ultimately you have to say that the music is the weak link - that it lacks the depth and the melodic assurance that the consistently interesting words cry out for.
Still, it's a bold attempt to put his art where his mouth has always been and you can't help willing him to succeed. If nothing else you feel for a man blighted by an absurdly exalted image -and one who can make a joke out of it in the wonderful tongue-in-cheek prophecy of The End of the World that closes the album ('Nostradamus and Jesus and Buddha and me/ We said it was coming/ Now just wait and see').
One thing more. The title is ironic: one of this man's many crusades is against vegetarianism. Think of that (and him) what you will.
High Horse Riderless
...being the book that looked beyond the Machine Age
My occasional brushes with office work leave me filled with inarticulate rage I feel as though I have run up against 'The System' in all its indifferent, anonymous power. Why should I, or anyone, be expected to perform tasks which mean nothing to me, and into which I can put nothing of myself? And yet for most people there seems to be no real alternative -and they expect none. People work nine to five and then escape the 10, 20 or more miles back home so the suburbs. This whole attitude to work seems tome to be missing something of deep significance.
LTC Rolt's book High Horse Riderless, written in 1940, analyses what that something is. The book is a passionate plea for craftspersonship and for creativity in labour. His central argument is that the root cause of our modem ills is she frustration of the human creative instinct. The only positive freedom is the freedom to use our creativity - and when machines are used as a substitute for labour rather than as an extension of our abilities, they deny us that freedom. The progressivist dream of a world freed by machines from she necessity of labour misses this fundamental truth.
Rolt had first-hand experience of she changes sweeping through industry during the 1930s. Apprentice-trained as an engineer, he found that his skills were increasingly obsolete. Wages depended not on skill or responsibility but on quantity of output, regardless of quality. Machines were replacing human skill and workers were being reduced to mere machine minders.
As an engineer, with a craftsperson's interest in machines, he could not believe that they were the real villains of the piece and he set about looking for she deeper fault underlying their applications. His goal was so discover a way of reconciling mechanism and science with the harmony which he perceived in the natural world, and with a life of individual creative freedom.
In mediaeval times, Stephen Harding's phrase Laborare est orare ('to work is so pray') sums up she central role which labour played in people's lives. Work was not a means of gaining reward but was humanity's true function in she divine order and the highest expression of human creativity. Bus as attitudes changed labour came to be seen as she fight of the soldier of God through a hostile world, a fight in which the end justified the means. This shift in the religious attitude, which saw humanity as alienated from nature, laid the foundations for the Age of Reason.
Because the spirit of this new age was fundamentally materialistic, scientific invention focussed on reducing the labour needed to produce a given article so it could be made in greater quantity and at less cost. Nowhere does quality of product or job satisfaction enter the accountants' equations of profit and loss. Nowhere does anyone question whether these developments benefit the people doing the work.
Work is geared to making as many articles as possible as cheaply as possible. We are persuaded by advertising to buy goods which are shoddy and of little intrinsic value. Nothing is worth keeping because no love went into its making and stainless surfaces can never mellow with use.
There is no continuity, no history, no meaning, and it is to this that Rolt ascribes our feelings of futility and alienation. We find little solace at home but go out again in search of mass entertainment or slump in front of the television, seeking not to think but so forget.
Scientific utopians believe that the spirit of humanity will achieve its highest expression when it has been freed from the 'slavery' of labour. Rolt warns that this is not so because that spirit can only express itself in creative activities in which work and leisure are facets of one whole. So is there an answer? Rots argues that we must look beyond the present system altogether. If we wish to reclaim responsibility for ourselves we muss aim for self-sufficiency because only then can we have control over our lives. Specialization of function leads inevitahly to dependency. We must husband a real wealth which lies in the land and its fruits: a self-sufficient society can only be built upon an agricultural basis. The city should serve the country, not vice versa.
Modern scientific knowledge can be used by such societies and Rots gives two guiding principles for the use of technology: 'That mechanical methods should only be employed in work provided the qualitative result achieved is better in the eyes of both maker and user'; and 'That no man (sic) should make any use of a machine or a scientific process unless he possess a comprehensive knowledge of its principle, function and purpose, and is already skilled in the use so which it is to be applied'. What a revolution there would be in our behaviour and attitudes if we were so stick to those two principles!
If we pursue the organic life of individual responsibility and self-sufficiency, then knowledge and wisdom, work and leisure, art and religion, life and death, become indivisible parts of one art, the art of the good life. This message is as relevant now as it was in 1940 and is more urgent than ever as she myth of material progress loses its power.
High Horse Riderless by LTC Rolt (1940, republished in 1989 by Green Books as a Green Classic).