issue 221 - July 1991
directed by Lewis Teague
One of several US war films which have had their overseas release dates delayed by the Gulf war, Navy Seals is a recruiting poster for the US Navy's elite commando teams. Charlie Sheen and Michael Biehn lead the squad through the customary round of hard-playing good times and noisy action sequences, all set to pop music.
At first sight the film would appear to be no different in mentality and structure from Top Gun or the average Chuck Norris Missing-In-Action movie, but what makes Navy Seals of some passing interest is the strangely inhibited nature of its plotting. An Arab faction in the Lebanon have managed to get hold of some US-made Stinger ground-to-air portable missiles - 'the perfect terrorist weapon'. So, with the help of Lebanese-American journalist Joanne Whalley-Kilmer (also representing the inevitable romantic interest), the Seals have to go in and destroy them.
It's an absolute certainty that the scriptwriters did not intend their film to be a parable about the international arms trade and its effects in Iraq, but we can't help but see it that way now. The obvious task for these movie fantasy commandos would have been to rescue hostages from the Lebanon but given the plight of the real hostages that would have been in such extreme bad taste as to alienate the audience.
So all they're left with is a mission to destroy weapons of US manufacture which have irresponsibly been allowed to fall into the wrong hands. It's a curiously futile enterprise that no amount of wisecracks and hi-tech gunplay can disguise: nothing is solved except the problem the Americans have created for themselves. At the same time, though, the film does seem to be wholly at one with the Sheen character's rabid xenophobia: 'We go in there, we hit 'em, we forget 'em!'
It's the gist of the Gulf war replayed in a mere 113 minutes. Navy Seals may be garbage - but it's very revealing garbage.
La Captive du Desert
directed by Raymond Depardon
In 1975 a young French woman was kidnapped by rebels in Chad and held prisoner in the desert for over a year. Raymond Depardon, a photo-journalist with the Gamma and Magnum agencies, covered the story at the time. Now, 15 years later, he has used it as the basis for this extraordinary film.
Depardon doesn't establish what the rebels are fighting for, or how the woman, simply identified as The Prisoner, is captured. The film opens with a long, long take of a caravan tramping through the desert. Lagging far behind it come the woman and her guard. This shot sets the tone for the rest of the film. There's a minimum of dialogue and no violence; the prisoner makes no contact with her captors beyond teaching some children a song. Instead the film focuses on her daily struggle to survive and escape, both hinging on her need for water. The extended takes and awesome desert landscapes have a hypnotic effect so that the audience comes to share her experience that time has lost its meaning.
In its attention to the tiny, mechanical details of survival and the overall austerity of its style, La Captive du Desert recalls Bresson's A Man Escaped. But whereas the hero of that film was locked in a tiny cell, the woman, mesmerizingly played by Sandrine Bonnaire, is imprisoned in a vast expanse, the very size of which prevents her from running away. Totally alone in a crowded caravan, confined in a limitless space, she turns in on herself, stripping away the baggage of her old identity until she can focus exclusively on her present actions.
Then, suddenly she is released. A guerilla explains to her that, simply by having lived with them, she can now bear witness to the hardship of the desert people. And it's at this point you realize that's exactly what the film, in its unobtrusive way, has been doing. This is one of those rare, remarkable films that, refusing to ram explicit emotions or politics down the audience's throat, manages to evoke them all the more powerfully and authentically.
Night Ride Home
by Joni Mitchell
The one-time queen of the 'Me Generation' troubadours, Joni Mitchell has over the last few years taken a path markedly different from her West Coast-based contemporaries. Always the most approachable of musicians, even when straying into avant-gardism, she has since the mid-1970s continued to draw on styles apparently alien to her coffee-house folk tradition - electronics, jazz, fusion, scat, Latin - and to talk equally persuasively about herself and the world around her.
On her classic 1975 LP The Hissing of Summer Lawns she was arguably the first Western artist to use African drumming as more than flavouring, creating an extended metaphor of America-as-jungle that made the album one of the most complete musical commentaries on American living.
While emulators like Suzanne Vega have appropriated elements of her style - the preciousness but not the substance - Mitchell has of late reverted to an older purity. Night Ride Home sounds closer to folk than anything she's done for years and represents a healthy step back from the overwrought studio gimcrackery she indulged in on 1988's Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm. It also represents a step back from political subject-matter. The rather obvious polemic of her Dog Eat Dog LP and Chalk Mark's clumsy American Indian metaphors have been superseded by a return to sexual politics.
Mitchell is still popular music's most persuasive articulator of female desire - notably on The Only Joy in Town, a blithe vignette of touristic passion, and on Ray's Dad's Cadillac, in which she jokily rehearses and then dismantles the role of the high-school bimbo. Come In From the Cold is a more extensive commentary on sex and her 1960s generation, while Cherokee Louise touches almost casually on child abuse and inner-city desolation.
Night Ride Home is Mitchell's most confident LP for some time, and welcome reassurance that the old acoustic school can still produce music that, however comfortable it may sound, is fundamentally at odds with the corporate sound of American taste.
Independent travelling in the Third World has become so common now that a publishing industry has grown up around it. The travel itself was born of cheap air travel and the relaxed social mores and work patterns of the post-1960s West. But it has also certainly been much helped by the existence of the 'alternative guide book'.
Since the mid-1970s this territory has been dominated by the Lonely Planet series of Travel Survival Kits. Kicked off by the original success of South-East Asia On A Shoestring (still going in its umpteenth edition), founders Tony and Maureen Wheeler hit on a winning formula which has since been applied to the entire Third World.
The formula is essentially a distillation in print of the travellers' information exchange that you will find going on informally in young Westerners' haunts in most cities of the Third World. What's worth seeing? Where's worth staying? What's the cheapest way of doing it? The questions become monotonous in their inevitability - and the obsession with spending as little money as humanly possible often becomes ridiculous.
But the Lonely Planet guides work because they deliver the information people want rather than what they ought to want. Given their success it is no surprise that competitors have arisen to challenge them. The burgeoning series of Rough Guides (published by Harrap Columbus) is perhaps the most serious of these.
Both have recently published a guide to Nepal which provide a point of comparison, though it is actually difficult to choose between them: both are excellent. They both make a reasonable stab at sketching out the political and developmental context (the Rough Guide even runs a short story from the NI). The Rough Guide's central section is better designed; its other two sections worse designed.
The Lonely Planet's few pages of colour photos make it more attractive and are indicative of the commercial success of the series - but are they an error? You're less inclined to bash about a colour book on the road, which is why no-one is ever seen travelling with the miraculously colourful Insight guides (from Apa Publications, whose 'city guide' to Kathmandu is also just out) - they either leave that at home or else buy it when they get back.
Both series are reliable - it's comforting to know what standards you can expect when you land in a new country with them as your most useful friend. But they lose something by being part of a formula too. The greatest travel guides of all are often those which are totally individual, infused with the idiosyncratic personality of the author. Which is why if you ever visit Indonesia, the Lonely Planet book on it is not the one to buy - go instead for Bill Dalton's marvellous Indonesia Handbook (Moon Publications), now in its fourth edition.
...being the book that put thinking into the thriller
'Thriller' on a bookflap has seldom made me reach for my wallet. Hardly any of the very few thrillers I've read have thrilled me in the slightest: the word usually provokes in me a notion of wooden (always male) leading characters speaking ridiculously inappropriate dialogue in unlikely locations (these being as globally varied as possible) in an ultimately successful attempt to unravel the threads of a ludicrously complicated conspiracy to do with drugs, terrorism, robbery, vice or high finance. There is the occasional female character, usually a ready provider of sex for the hero. Think of an Ian Fleming or an Alistair Maclean novel, and add laptop computers: that's my idea of a contemporary thriller.
I'd thus probably never have read The Volunteers ('a compelling thriller', according to the publisher's blurb) if it hadn't been written by Raymond Williams. I knew him as perhaps the finest socialist writer on politics and culture that Britain has produced this century, but he'd also written about half a dozen novels before his death in 1987. I'd read three of these and hadn't liked any of them. Nobody's ever written a halfway-decent novel in which the hero/me was an academic, and these were no exception. I therefore picked up The Volunteers out of duty rather than expectation. I was more than pleasantly surprised.
Think of it as a British All The President's Men, only much more politically astute. Lewis Redfern, a London-based news reporter for Insatel, a global satellite TV conglomerate, is reporting on the shooting of the Secretary of State for Wales. The only clue to the identity of the assailant is a note sent to the Welsh Senate and signed by one 'Marcus, Volunteer'. Of all the reporters working on the story, only Redfem is able to unpick the clues and discover the attacker. However, in doing so he discovers an enormous subversive left-wing organization operating at the heart of the British establishment and poised to take it over: The Volunteers.
At this point in a typical thriller the way forward is usually clearcut. SMERSH (Communist) represents evil and James Bond (Capitalist) represents good. The need for the hero to destroy the alien conspiracy in favour of the status quo is not something any reader is encouraged to question. But Redfern is not the typical gung-ho establishment agent which a run-of-the-mill thriller requires. He keeps down his job largely because, as an ex-radical, he has inside knowledge of the workings of the political underground. However, the novel shows that this knowledge and the power it gives him to see through official bluffing and deception only takes him so far. Once he discovers the existence of The Volunteers, all his residual political sympathies are activated. The dilemma he is then faced with - should he expose the organization or join it? - occupies the rest of the book.
The choice is not straightforward, partly because of an uneasiness about what The Volunteers actually represent. It seems to be a modem variant of Fabianism, in which socialism is to be achieved by radical individuals permeating the highest ranks of social and political life. In the case of The Volunteers, however, infiltration has to be covert, and therefore the individuals involved must have no traceable political interest. If their commitment is not public, Redfern recognizes, it is 'a commitment to nothing'. The shooting may be a signal for The Volunteers to 'take over', but the question Redfern finds himself asking is 'why these people should change the system when they've become the system'. Yet, in the absence of any other obvious radical successes, the attractiveness of The Volunteers is also powerful.
The Volunteers is a predictive novel. Although set in the mid-1980s, it was first published in 1978, long before the attempts by the IRA to assassinate members of the Cabinet of successive British governments. While one intention of the book is simply to work out some position on the use of violence for political purposes, the specific inclusion of terrorism gives a noticeable air of authenticity to the plot: satellite TV, corporate empire-building, nationalist agitation, economic depression, industrial militancy and its savage repression by the State are additional elements which render the novel an impressive and convincing depiction of Britain in the last decade.
But what is thrilling about the book ultimately is the way it turns the routines of the conventional 'thriller' upside down. Redfem, tied in a knot of conflicting loyalties, is the antithesis of the decisive, dashing, swaggering hero. The novel explodes the pious notion of the media as an honest broker innocently retailing the 'objective facts' of public life without allegiance to any particular political corner, for concealing or revealing the 'fact' of The Volunteers would both be political actions with enormous political consequences. The ingenious plot of the book places its hero in a personal dilemma where he can no longer deny the truth of this, and in so doing should provoke its readers to similar self-questioning.
The Volunteers by Raymond Williams (1978).