issue 219 - May 1991
directed by Bruce Beresford
Based on Joyce Cary's 1939 novel, Mister Johnson is set in 1923 West Africa and tells the story of one perpetually cheerful individual whose delusions about himself and the world around him eventually lead him into big trouble.
Mister Johnson (played by Mayard Eziashi) is black but he wears a smart white suit and has an inflated idea of his own importance as Chief Clerk to the British District Commissioner (Pierce Brosnan). Regarding himself as 'English' for reasons which the film never makes clear, he keeps losing his new wife because of the money he owes her father and then loses his prestige job when he becomes the scapegoat for the illicit diversion of government money to build a new road. However, refusing to let circumstances get the better of him, he keeps bouncing back with a never-ending smile and yet more dubious schemes of self-advancement.
Mister Johnson is a film about a limited consciousness which unfortunately betrays its own lack of insight in every scene. Replete with the same regulation lush landscapes and period costumes as Out of Africa and White Mischief, it proffers its supposedly tragicomic hero as an object of both pity and admiration but what comes across much more strongly is how much he's a safely sentimental fabrication designed to make (white) audiences feel good about themselves in pitying his plight. Johnson himself is presented shamelessly as a passive recipient of sympathy and the fact that there's no other dimension to his personality means that a sugary condescension has to be the only alternative to rejecting both him and the film outright.
For a point of view we have the District Commissioner (complete with a prim young wife who isn't at all keen on Africa) and for an ambiguous symbol we have the road that Mister Johnson helps him build. Edward Woodward's storekeeper ('Treat 'em right and they aren't half as black as they look') and too many shots of the Union Jack fluttering in the breeze complete the colonial picture.
There's no anger, resentment or any rebellious sense of self in Johnson's shallow nature and finally that lack of reality makes the film's huge emotional investment in his fate risible. Bruce Beresford's last film was Driving Miss Daisy. On the basis of this effort, don't be surprised if his next is Uncle Tom's Cabin.
Quigley Down Under
directed by Simon Wincer
Quigley Down Under is a very pleasant surprise. Essentially it's a Western with Tom Selleck as the eponymous hero who takes himself to the Australian Outback like a cowboy Crocodile Dundee in reverse. There is an offbeat quirky love story too. But it also manages to be convincing about a particularly unpleasant phase in Australian history.
With his neatly trimmed beard, cowboy hat and huge six-foot rifle, Quigley cuts a very imposing dash when he steps off the boat in the port of Fremantle, Western Australia. It's the 1860s and he's been hired after answering a newspaper advertisement looking for 'the best long-distance sharpshooter in the world'.
Quigley thinks he's been hired to shoot dingos but it turns out his English rancher employer has a much more sinister job for him - murdering the Aboriginal population on 'his' land at distances believed to be beyond normal rifle range. When he finds out, the battle lines are soon drawn between right and wrong, justice and genocide, peaceful Aborigine and warring rancher...
This is a hugely enjoyable film with all kinds of traditional heroic resonances allied to a strong revisionist sense of history and of the two contrasting cultures. Over 300 Aborigines are featured in the supporting cast and as extras and film pulls no punches in depicting their ancestors' treatment at the hands of expanding white settlement.
At the same time the movie's political heart fits perfectly within the framework of an otherwise old-fashioned adventure story, with an authoritative Selleck wholeheartedly into his role as a laconic but highly moral Western hero. Lots of spectacular rugged landscapes, an uplifting musical score and some perfectly judged dramatic moments complete a movie which manages to be both politically sound and very entertaining.
by Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine
1991 appears to belong to Carter. They are that rare thing, a band that wholeheartedly addresses its time, that truly belongs to it.
This is not a little paradoxical in that, a year ago, Carter could have been written off as hopelessly out of step, an old-fashioned DIY pub-rock duo, two enraged anarcho-hippie jesters whose natural constituency was the dispossessed crowd haunting the dingier clubs of backroom Britain. Now, confirmed front-page regulars, they may well be the UK's first real post-Thatcher pop group.
Their single 'Bloodsport for All', included here, was cold-shouldered by the BBC along with other records proscribed during the Gulf War - 'Boom Bang-a-Bang', 'Waterloo' et al. In Carter's more flagrantly anti-militaristic case the terror seemed justified: 'Bloodsport for all said Corporal Flash! And shoved me in a room full of CS gas'. 'Say It With Flowers' is even more apposite: 'The Christmas cards and greetings are arriving across the shifty sands to the war'.
Carter's success may be explained by the fact that the end of the Thatcher era demands that new pop heroes be embraced, if only for symbolic purposes. It's been a decade since political pop per se played any real part in the UK main-stream and, while rap has taken the lead in matters of polemic, Carter may be indicative of a trend among white indie bands to get political again.
Carter's bluff, seedy ebullience is a welcome antidote to the rather fey self-regard that's dominated indie pop over the last decade, from the Jesus and Mary Chain to the current blissed-out hedonism of Happy Mondays and their baggy ilk.
But it has to be said that Carter's musical style is limited in the extreme - for the most part, a ragged thrash that happens to be played largely on sequencers rather than guitars. The music and the rasping vocals give diminishing returns - the real pleasure has to be sought in the pun-laden lyrics, spiked with references to Sondheim, Jimmy Webb, the Andrews Sisters, TV ads, all manner of pop detritus.
Alcoholism, wife-beating and consumerism as a metaphor for, seemingly, all the world's ills - lyrically Carter can carry all this in their stride, with the brio of the best jaundiced cartoonists.
After several years of pallid navel-gazing on the British indie scene, it's encouraging to see a spirited return of what used to be called dole-queue rock. It's just a shame that Carter's music fits this description a little too well.
Our Grandmothers' Drums
by Mark Hudson
(Secker & Warburg)
The Gambia. In a region bypassed by slave traders, colonialists and missionaries alike, the action centres on Dulaba, close to a British Medical Research Council compound, a village which has been the subject of countless doctorate theses for visiting scientists and anthropologists. Here lived Mark Hudson in 1985. Out of that year and Hudson's quizzical relationship with the people of Dulaba has come a snorter of a book.
Our Grandmothers' Drums has picked up a well-justified couple of prizes as a 'travel' book. Yet 'travel' is a misnomer. Revealed is a cameo of the lives, the work, the loves, the worship, the ceremonies, the highs and lows of the people. 'Knowing nothing of the outside world, unaware even of Africa as a geographical entity, they called themselves simply the mofingos - the blacks - and they believed God had made them the poorest people of the earth.' It was particularly the lives of the women, their courage and good humour, which Hudson was determined to understand.
Certainly by the end you feel intimately acquainted with these women. The dilemma, of course, is whether it is acceptable for a white man to describe the private world of black women. Should this be done through flat objective description, or can personal value judgements be made? It's a dilemma which Hudson tries to resolve through devastating honesty. Certainly when we come to the female circumcision ceremonies, Hudson is happy to apply a clear descriptive lens, puzzled as he is by the enthusiasm of the women and girls to mutilate and be mutilated. Elsewhere, at a flareup in a soccer game with adversaries close to killing each other, he generalizes openly about African violence, suspicions and jealousies.
Nevertheless it is Hudson's personal interaction with the women which is most fascinating. He regularly goes to work with them in their fields, bravely if pathetically wielding a hoe, flirting and conversing with those around him. Yet what to do when the village is starving from lack of rains, with supplies of rice and millet exhausted? As a city-born fellow he gets a headache if he doesn't eat every three or four hours. So how does he consume his midday sandwich in the fields, surrounded by gaunt faces? And of course there is Hudson's love life, and lack of it, with a number of women he loses his heart to.
Finally, there is the title, a metaphor perhaps for the tradition and fatalism of the village, for when these drums sound the women go to the bush for the circumcision rituals. No man is allowed - one caught spying had been beaten to death a few years previously. With clear, straightforward prose, Our Grandmothers' Drums describes an intimate acquaintanceship. It is a riveting read.
Reviews editor: Chris Brazier
...being the writer who connects the badlands of
the 1860s with the dreams of the 1990s
Of all the prophets and Utopians crying out from that epicentre of unrestrained capitalism - nineteenth-century Britain - few reach so intimately into the green and spiritual yearnings of the late twentieth century as John Ruskin. His analysis of capitalist economics and society was an influence on political philosophers as diverse as Gandhi and Mao. But today it is also his writings on the true nature of wealth, the conditions for art and architecture, and our relationship with nature which reverberate with such power. But you won't find it easy to get copies of his work - books about him, yes, but not by him. Why?
His complicated eloquence, which enthralled ordinary people in the Working Men's Colleges of a century ago, seems difficult to people reared on the slogan, the six-second TV image and the headline; on the 'information management' and photo-journalism of modern life. Furthermore, Ruskin wrote about everything: from rock formations to dew-fed leaves; from pine trees to public health; from Gothic decoration to the uses of iron; from economics to window frames; and all of this often in the same volume. We are more used to specialists and the fragmented knowledge which goes with them.
What is available is Ruskin Today, Kenneth Clark's wonderful anthology of excerpts from Ruskin's writing. Clark offers more than a sample: his introductions take us on a guided tour through the vast labyrinth of Ruskin's collected works, pointing out the writer's contradictions and eccentricities as well as his poetry, clarity and humour.
Ruskin was an unrelenting opponent of nineteenth-century capitalism. Yet were his ghost to return and survey the contemporary world order he would change little of what he wrote. Many of the questions he raised have not really been answered in the intervening century - for example about the real nature of wealth. He was concerned about the horrors of material poverty brought about by exploitation. But he was also interested in how the more wealthy impoverish themselves.
'What is wealth?' Ruskin asked his complacent well-fed Victorian audiences time and again. Not money and mass production and consumption of goods. 'Wealth is nothing but life,' he replied. And by that he meant human intellectual and creative power used to create marvello environments with scope for the expression of our innate spirituality. On those criteria Ruskin would have rated many indigenous pre-con quest peoples as wealthier than the rich of new York, and in fact saw the craftspeople of Italy's medieval and renaissance cities as wealthier than the entrepreneurs of Manchester's surburbs.
Ruskin (like Marx) saw that true wealth was public wealth: spaces and buildings and institutions used by everybody should be lavish and beautiful; those for private use, simple and modest. He saw this principle illustrated in Renaissance Italy. There the greatest artists of the day were commissioned to build and paint town halls (and even, in Venice, orphan schools) while the private houses of the great banking families were relatively simple.
And were his ghost to return today it would see everywhere the inverse of that principle: the comfort and pseudo-glitz of the typical modern interior in the rich world and the sterility, ugliness and squalor of the public domain. Today, as we face those great levellers - pollution, apocalyptic climate changes, congestion of skies and cities, the death of nature and everywhere ugliness - we know, as Ruskin foresaw, that the rich cannot escape the consequences of their 'wealth'.
Aesthetic order is dependent on moral and economic order. What is good architecture? Ruskin asked the burghers of Bradford who'd invited him - the greatest authority on art and architecture of the age - to advise them on the choice of an architectural style for their new Exchange. His lecture did not please them. Good architecture, it turned out, emerged from close observation of and inspiration by nature's forms; from a sense of divinity; and from the expression of a building's proper purpose, which is the enhancement of life and of community. Since he saw no signs of any of this in the operations of the money markets, he could find no basis for choosing a 'style' for their Exchange: 'Choose what you please,' he concluded.
Ruskin also foresaw the dangers of science and technology informed only by rationality and not by reverence - he saw that in tearing nature apart for material exploitation we might lose forever the profound truths of life revealed in it. His writings on nature are among his most beautiful and compelling.
Ruskin went gradually from being unhinged to being demented. So in his lifetime he also unwittingly played the role, essential to English conservative bourgeois society, of crazy revolutionary. His ideas were entertaining but were conveniently discredited by his eccentricity. Yet Ruskin's ideas have not only outlived him but also a whole century of social revolution, to take their place in post-modern thought.
Ruskin Today by Kenneth Clark (1964). Reprinted in Penguin 1988.
This article is from
the May 1991 issue
of New Internationalist.
- Discover unique global perspectives
- Support cutting-edge independent media
- Magazine delivered to your door or inbox
- Digital archive of over 500 issues
- Fund in-depth, high quality journalism