issue 217 - March 1991
directed by Alejandro Agresti
Buenos Aires at dawn. A man running naked through the streets is picked up by the police. Back at the station he is identified as Fermin Garcia (Tito Haas), a revolutionary who 'disappeared' under the military dictatorship in 1976. But Fermin remembers nothing of the intervening years. Set free and armed with a new name, he wanders bewildered until the memory of his old love Tota (Mirtha Bushnelli) spurs him to return to his home village to find her. But her faithful 13-year wait for him has made Tota 'crazy' - she does not recognize him. He decides to wait and attempt to win her love in his new identity. But the corrupt priest and influential powers who terrorize the village have been checking up on the 'Communist heretic'...
Agresti creates a moving allegory of Argentina's recent history through a sensitive, delicately balanced love story. While his vision is bleak and uncompromising - history repeats itself and people prefer to forget past horrors - his light comic touch and sense of irony prevent Secret Wedding ever becoming merely the servant of an idea. The tragic figure of Tota - betrayed time and again, yet partly to blame as she remembers without remembering - seems an embodiment of both Argentina's hope and its agony. You're never sure whether she recognizes Fermin or not - and perhaps she's right not to believe her eyes because the desaparecidos never do come back.
A bonus is that the film's only concession to the Latin American straitjacket of magical realism is a set of identical triplets.
directed by Sydney Pollack
A laconic American abroad who doesn't want to get involved in other people's wars meets up with a beautiful woman whose husband's a big name in the Fight for Freedom; that's a dusty old plorgoing all the way back to Casablanca. Havana surreptitiously updates it to the Cuba of 1958. The revolutionary overthrow of the Batista dictatorship is only days away and Jack Well (Robert Redford) is a professional gambler on his way to what he hopes is the biggest card game of his life. However his simple philosophy of making money and enjoying himself is called into question when he falls in love with Bobby Duran (Lena Olin), the wife of a prominent member of Castro's rebel movement.
A long (two and a half hours) and very expensive-looking film, Havana impressively recreates the gaudy neon-and-chrome excesses of what used to be the Caribbean Las Vegas and isn't at all afraid to point out the links between the CIA, American organized crime and the Batista regime. But like so many other Hollywood films it transforms the issue of US foreign policy into a specifically individual crisis of conscience in which the hero's personal redemption completely over- shadows the real issue.
Weil is an American and the US is propping up Batista but Weil is also a noble soul with his heart in the right place.
Thus, like Platoon, Salvador, Air America and so many others, the film is able to have its cake and eat it: bad Americans cause the problems but good Americans solve them while the local population simply provide a violent, picturesque backdrop.
The film makes much of the contrast between the hedonism of Weil's lifestyle and the murderous activities of the Batista security forces but never goes beyond the juxtaposition of partying rich folks and bodies being dumped in alleyways. At the same time it tends to overdose on fashion and nostalgia: Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin contribute to the bulging soundtrack while Redford progresses through a good half-dozen smart outfits. Redford never quite succeeds in conjuring Humphrey Bogart's aura of deep-thinking romantic isolation while Pollack's direction plods through an all-too-obvious script.
One further point of comparison with Casablanca is interesting though: the wartime movie ends famously with Bogart's Rick abandoning his isolationist stance and declaring a commitment to the Allied cause. By contrast, as with the recent glut of Vietnam films, the moral of Havana is that the best policy for the US is to get out, go home and learn from the experience. In that line of pessimism at least, it hits the mark.
Abuse of Power
by David Dembo, Ward Morehouse and Lucinda Wykle
(New Horizons US)
In 1962 an advertisement appeared in the National Geographic showing a giant hand pouring clear fluid from a beaker onto a field. The land was being ploughed by an Indian farmer guiding two oxen. In the background loomed a modern petrochemical complex. 'A hand in things to come,' read Union Carbide's caption. You can say that again.
Days before the publication of this critical look at Union Carbide, the chemical giant distributed a statement to its shareholders. The firm denounced the book as 'biased', proclaiming that they led in safety and environmental matters. The company responsible for the deaths of some 10,000 poor Indians at Bhopal warned its shareholders that the authors were seeking 'to impute evil to our free world economic system'.
In fact Abuse of Power is concerned with accountability and democracy. The managers of modern multinationals are self-elected and self-perpetuating. The authors ask whether the workers, communities and nations where these private firms operate shouldn't have some say over how they operate.
This is a timely book. And not just because Bhopal focussed the world's attention on multinationals whose Third World operations seldom have the same safety and environmental standards as at home. But also because the democratic victories in Eastern Europe have led to a renewed chorus equating freedom and democracy with the unfettered rights of private business to operate as it sees fit. Abuse of Power's examination of the social performance of one of the world's largest chemical companies reveals a sordid record of disregard for the health of the environment, of employees and of people living close to its plants.
The list is long, Bhopal being only the most obvious example. In Puerto Rico the company was found to be fouling the environment both inside and outside a graphite electrode plant it had located in a poor barrio. Even at home in West Virginia's Kanawaha Valley, rates for leukemia, lung and endocrine cancers are among the highest in the US.
The authors propose that the social performance of multinationals be judged by standards similar to those the international community uses to evaluate the human-rights records of governments. It seems a modest enough proposal but will doubtless be regarded as radical heresy as much by the managers of our world as by the managers of Union Carbide itself.
Enough For Me
Enough for me to die on her earth
be buried in her
to melt and vanish into her soil
then sprout forth as a flower
played with by a child from my country
Enough for me to remain
in my country's embrace
to be in her close as a handful of dust
a sprig of grass
From A Mountainous Journey, autobiography of Fadwa Tuqan, Palestine's outstanding woman poet, published by The Women's Press UK.
Round the Outside: The World Famous Supreme Team Show
presented by Malcolm McLaren
Malcolm McLaren: once godfather to the Sex Pistols, since then a world expert in the transatlantic recycling of ideas and fashions. He's often been criticized for exploitation of other cultures in his insatiable search for fame and this album - feeding unimaginatively on the talent and power of Latin Californian hip hop - will only add fuel to that fire.
McLaren has elected to zoom in on a mixed bag of rappers, DJs and singers from LA and NYC, choosing for his familiar cross-cultural fertilization process to revert to the classical influences of the opera and old worn-out Shakespearean favourites. The result is unashamedly derivative.
II Be Or Not II Be is rapped with a notable lack of inspiration by MC Hamlet. Operaa House! ('you're from the ghetto, I sing librettos') flatters to deceive - Sparky D's explorative house beat and Mona Lisa Young's haunting operatic vocals seem to be building up to something big. But they never get there: all impetus is lost and they tail off with a disappointed whimper.
There is one track worthy of your attention. Un Coche De Agua Negra is adapted from a poem by Federico Garcia Lorca. Here for once the rap style, house beat and operatic backing vocals actually fit Lorca's lines and the effect is gloriously imaginative.
But for the rest there is no cohesion, no heart. One approach after another is tried, half-heartedly pursued and then abandoned. McLaren is accomplished in creaming off what is popularly digestible from a wide variety of cultural sources. But here his approach seems indiscriminate, masking only a dearth of originality. And when the plundering of an original source seems like an insult to it rather than a tribute, then the project is difficult to justify - whether morally or musically.
Reviews editor: Chris Brazier
...being the writer that Speaks to the 1990s from the 1930s
Simone Weil has become a touchstone for me. For that reason I find this hard to write: it feels like trying to advertise sunshine. Simone Well died in London in 1943 while working for the Free French Provisional Government. She was 34. She died from discouragement and exhaustion, her health ruined by factory work; she would not eat more than the rations permitted to her compatriots at home.
Her death illuminates the way she lived - without the split between ideals and practice which allows most of us middle-class radicals to remain privileged all our lives. With her, thinking and being were one. She transmuted what she learned in the factories into analysis not conceived in libraries. Works like Analysis of Oppression, Prerequisite to Dignity of Labour and The Needs of the Soul addressed human beings directly and explicitly as ends in themselves; and by doing so Weil highlighted how unorthodox this is in our Western intellectual tradition. In most socio-political analysis we proceed from an economic and/or utopian vision of the 'Great Good' and therefore unconsciously use people as the means to realizing an abstractly conceived ideal.
In a letter to a friend written during her factory work, Weil wrote; 'When I think that none of the great Bolshevik leaders... had ever set foot inside a factory, so that they hadn't the faintest idea of the real conditions which mike servitude of freedom for the workers - well, politics appears to me a sinister farce'.
In Simone Weil's political vocabulary, the concept of obligations supplants the usual Western concept of rights as the moral foundation on which all else is built. Such obligations are both material and spiritual. 'The cry "Why has somebody else got more than I have?" refers to rights. We must... do all that is possible to hush it... Minds capable of solving problems of this kind can be formed in a law school. But the cry "Why am I being hurt?" raises quite different problems, for which the spirit of truth, justice and love is indispensable.'
One of Weil's last works, her Draft for a Statement of Human Obligations, was published in August 1943 by the Free French Movement. It opens with a 'Profession of Faith' which begins: 'There is a reality outside the world... outside space and time... Corresponding to this reality, at the centre of the human heart, is the longing for an absolute good, a longing which is... never appeased by any object in this world... Whoever recognizes that reality... holds every human being without any exception as something sacred to which he is bound to show respect.'
From the basis she has established, Well goes on doggedly to list 'the needs in this world of the souls and bodies of human beings... For each need there is a corresponding obligation.' The needs of the body are obvious enough, things like food, warmth, sleep and fresh air. The needs of the soul sound much less familiar and are listed in contrasting pairs, which include 'equality and hierarchy, consented obedience and liberty, truth and freedom of expression, solitude/privacy and social life, personal and collective property, security and risk'.
In connection with 'security', Well describes the need for 'natural human environments' - places where our language is spoken, and so on. Everything which has the effect of uprooting man or preventing him from becoming rooted is criminal.' Groups like Survival International and the lobbying indigenous peoples of the Americas and Australasia are gradually making us Westerners aware of this truth we have disregarded for so long.
Simone Weil wrote about the things what we are only now finally being brought to see, helped by recent world-changing political events, and sadly also by the looming threat of global self-destruction. She came to adulthood in the 1930s, the first decade of all-out ideological warfare, but she was not deceived. In 1936 (aged 27), while her radical peers were spouting Marx, she was not afraid to write, in a piece called The Power of Words, 'No two nations are more similar in structure than Germany and Russia, each... pretending to see the other as the Beast of the Apocalypse... The anti-fascist position is this: anything rather than fascism; anything, including fascism, so long as it is labelled communism. And the anti-communist position: anything rather than communism...'
In the same piece she wrote 'What a country calls its vital economic interests are not the things which enable its citizens to live but the things which enable it to make war; petrol is much more likely than wheat to be a cause of international conflict'.
Fifty years on, now that our ideologies are collapsing, perhaps we are ready to learn from what Simone Weil was saying and doing while her 'brilliant' contemporaries (including Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre) were dutifully toeing the Soviet line. As for her own brilliance, Weil had this to say: 'The eulogies of my intelligence are positively intended to evade the question: "Is what she says true?"'
Simone Weil: An Anthology edited by Sian Miles