issue 222 - August 1991
In Bed With Madonna/Truth or Dare
directed by Alex Keshishian
Although a staged finale fulfils the saucy promise of the British title, the US title Truth or Dare is closer to the spirit of this film. The basic premise is that here, at last, Madonna dares reveal the truth about herself.
Truth or Dare is a backstage documentary, focusing on Madonna and her dance troupe dunng the 'Blonde Ambition' tour that so outraged the Pope. In theory the camera was allowed access to Madonna at all times, and the film, with its classically grainy black-and-white vérité look, furthers this impression, constantly drawing attention to the filming process. But the truth the film tells is not at Madonna's expense - her own production company oversaw the film, and she appears so much in control of what we see that she is arguably its real director.
This all adds to the mystique of a star whose appeal lies in her degree of control - both of her business dealings and of her image. Her constant metamorphoses constitute a classic strategy for evading capture - for not being pinned down by sexual/social conditioning. This has made Madonna a hotly debated sexual icon: why should a woman whose images duplicate classical Hollywood sex-bomb stereotypes be con- sidered in any way subversive? Can her irony really be consid- ered liberating? Or is hers an extreme form of collusion with misogynistic imagery?
The answer suggested by the film is that Madonna has transcended not only the 'victim' status that fatally haunted Marilyn Monroe, but also sexuality itself. By being a parody at once of the Sexual Woman and of the all-round entertainer, Madonna simply 'quotes' sexu- ality as the signifier of a greater, more threatening form of con- trol. In her own way, Madonna is infinitely less sexy than, say, the asexual Michael Jackson.
Madonna is not afraid to come out badly in front of the camera - it's her show, after all. Staging a visit to her mother's grave, protesting fatuously to her father about not compromising her 'artistic integrity', humiliating her childhood friend Moira, Madonna knows how bad she looks and evidently doesn't care. The price for Madonna's complete control is paid not by herself but by others - like the young dancers, whose vulnerability she admits to exploiting in order to play the mother-figure (she claims to have deliberately selected 'emotional cripples').
If, contrary to the popular image of stardom, other people are paying the price for the star's fame, that itself may be Madonna's singular achievement. That revelation makes Truth or Dare a fascinating but disturbing film - deeply revealing of the fact that in showbiz, 'truth' and the 'inner self' may be utterly redundant terms.
by Alec Wilkinson
(Random House US)
Every year, 10,000 West Indian men arrive in the sugar-cane fields of Florida to do the backbreaking manual labour which is too hard and too low-paid for most Americans. The working conditions of these 'cutters' have improved only a little since the 1940s when those who tried to leave the plantations were arrested, returned and chained to their beds at night.
Alec Wilkinson, a staff writer for The New Yorker magazine, describes their lives superbly. The cutters, many of whom spend up to nine months a year living in the company barracks, are unfailingly eloquent: 'We are slaves. They pay us money but really they buy us. We live in captivity, we must obey our master, anything he say we have to do. We are all of us under a sufferation.'
The cutters are a skilled and necessarily docile labour force. If you complain you will be promptly shipped back home. If you keep quiet and are lucky enough to avoid illness and injury, you can come back year after year though, as Wilkinson says, 'cane cutting in America never seems to buy the cutter a ticket out his circumstances.'
Wilkinson describes plantation life with great vividness and his sensitive observations about the men are gracefully delivered: 'With their eyes staring into the distance they look as if the landscape they see in their minds is not the one through which they are walking.'
A first-rate reporter, Wilkinson also follows some of the cutters back to Jamaica to see the lives they leave behind. Between the terse intensity of Wilkinson's writing and the patois-flavoured poetry of the cutters' own reflections. Big Sugar packs a powerful punch.
Dragons in Distress
by Walden Bello and Stephanie Rosenfeld
Brave New Third World
by Walden Bello
(Earthscan UK, Food First US)
Walden Bello is a Filipino who, after years of advocacy in the anti-Marcos movement, joined the Institute for Food and Development Policy in San Francisco - long-time friends and collaborators of the NI. His main project there has been an in-depth study of Taiwan, South Korea and Singapore, Asia's supposed miracle economies: after years of being told that the Philippines should be emulating their model of development he wanted to take a close look.
Dragons in Distress is the fruit of that work, a detailed and often quite technical analysis of each of the economies in turn which concludes that these celebrated models are actually headed for the rocks. The old strategy of high-speed, export-led growth is no good any more as the economic superpowers continue their move towards protectionist super-blocs. Unable to penetrate these blocs or out-compete Japan with hi-tech products like cars and camcorders, they desperately need a new, sustainable strategy.
Bello's suggestion is that they should start producing explicitly for the Third World - lower-gloss, lower-cost computers; eco-friendly low-cost transport systems; and electro-mechanical inputs specifically designed to aid labour-intensive organic farming.
This is all part of the strategy he advocates for all developing countries in Brave New Third World, a very short and punchily presented look at the state of the world. Much of the book is an authoritative overview of the economic plight of the Third World after a disastrous decade in which it suffered a 'freefall in living standards' and an 'erosion of economic sovereignty'. But unlike most observers he goes one stage further to suggest a way out of the downward spiral.
Faced with economic superblocs like the EC and North America, he says, the Third World has no alternative but to form its own regional trading blocs. This is the old idea of South-South trade in much more worked-up and fea- sible guise. It still takes a leap of imagination to see it coming about but at least there are the bare bones here of an alterna- tive model to the current Washington/World Bank eco- nomic orthodoxy. And by basing his 'strategy for survival in the global economy' on genuine democracy, Bello has covered those bones by stealing his opponents' clothes.
Paperbark - A collection of black Australian writings
Edited by Jack Davis and Mudrooroo Narogin
This is an outstanding collection of black Australian short stories and poetry, and probably represents the most diverse range yet in print. An anthology which took six years to collect, contributions range in era and genre, from the early days of the colony to the present day, from urban and rural traditions, and from oral history to drama and rock opera. Paperbark also contains a full bibliography which would serve as an excellent resource for those unacquainted with the breadth of black Australian writing available.
Many of the stories and poems featured have their genesis in the oral traditions which for centuries have been the lifeblood of the Aboriginal and Islander cultures across Australia. The oral 'literature' transcription has been done according to a technique first used in Paddy Roe's book Gularabulu, and so is designed to retain as much of the original pace and rhythm as possible. Oral traditions are so important in Aboriginal culture that many Aborigines remain suspicious of the written word, which is often divorced from the familial and communal framework.
In no way is this collection detached from the Aboriginal struggle for economic freedom and legal recognition. It starts from the position that all literature is political expression; its aesthetics are not divorced from its rhetoric, It also affirms that Aboriginal writing must be seen as a community gesture, rather than purely a channel of artistic self-expression.
by Angélique Kidjo
For years record companies talked of launching an African star of Bob Marley proportions onto The Western market (Thomas Mapfumo and King Sunny Ade were notable abortive attempts). Should they ever decide to look for Africa's Grace Jones or Sinead O'Connor, Kidjo would be a prime candidate.
Kidjo's is not a soaring voice in the great African tradition, coming across as slightly tense and monotone. But it's the effortless way she rides the backings, holding the focus with strong rock-based inflections, that makes her presence so compelling. Her work is a hybrid, as the West African flavour of the melodies and lyrics - she uses five languages, notably Benin and Yoruba - is matched to the funk feel of the music, written by her and recorded largely with European musicians.
Parakou is not as complex as some recent African techno experiments but at a time when many of Africa's grand masters have gone badly astray in courting the Western mainstream - Mory Kante turning into Phil Collins, Salif Keita getting engulfed in labyrinthine jazz fusion - it's a welcome direct stroke. With records this powerful to her name, that front cover of the style magazines could yet be Kidjo's - always assuming she wants it.
Reviews editor: Chris Brazier
Moving Heaven and Earth
...being the book that tries to pull it all together
I tried to review this awe-inspiring book a few weeks ago but found I couldn't. At the time I thought this was because I had nothing critical to say, and I've since found one slight snag to focus on. But today I've begun by doing the 10-minute meditation the author recommends before starting work, so we'll see what happens.
Lucy Goodison is an archaeologist turned massage therapist, a socialist and feminist: not a follower of fashion, but one who holds the different strands together and weaves new meanings from them. The book was 20 years in the writing and as I move through it, I feel my own experience and reflections in those years have been assimilated and articulated, fittingly, at the opening of this last decade of our century.
From a detailed study of the symbolism portrayed on seals and statues in early Cretan burial sites (her doctoral research), Goodison builds up a powerful picture of prepatriarchal beliefs and ritual. All is centred on death and regeneration, bodies are buried in foetal position, facing towards the cervix-like opening of round tombs which in turn look towards the sun setting over the sea. The sun is experienced as life-giving womb, for it also rises from the sea. Women dance to the sun, and the female pubic triangle, subtly ubiquitous, forms the base of everything.
Next Goodison shows how the advent of the patriarchal, hierarchical and warrior-like Mycenaean culture from the Greek mainland - pastoralists turned palace-builders - affected the religious symbolism of sun-worshipping, egalitarian Crete (a process which led eventually to the familiar pantheon of squabbling Greek gods). Weapons begin to appear on seals, and males are depicted in violent conflict whereas before they had danced in fertility rites, played games beneath trees or were sexually embraced by a larger, female figure. Mastery becomes an issue - the issue. The sun turns from all-giving womb to all-seeing eye and a new God is born - detached, judgmental and supervisory.
This section is sprinkled with illuminating quotes from Western archaeologists and historians (all men, some contemporary) who have conspicuously failed to notice these changes in symbolism and their implications, and have even twisted the evidence to suit their preferred notion of heroic Western forebears: apparently sun worship is considered OK for Africa and the East but not for the Greeks.
In 'The Separation of Heaven and Earth', Goodison lets us see how the writings of Hesiod and Homer chronicle the denigration of the feminine and the elevation of the masculine as the new dualism was established to accord with the new world order: spirit over matter, 'pure' over 'impure'. This first half of the book makes sad reading, for the violence done to an originally integrated society and symbolism has been inflicted on all of us in Western culture. Our own individual psy- ches have been torn in two to fit the dualistic world view of patriarchy.
But Goodison does not leave us in despair. As she herself abandoned academia for the creative chaos of radical politics and the Red Therapy group she co-founded, so she embarks from the secure shores of histori- cal analysis onto the wide, healing waters of dream symbolism and meditation, the Hindu chakras, and so on - in order to show how we can choose and change the symbols through which we understand and channel life. The second half of the book is dense with enjoyable exercises to help us re-experience and work with the unity of mind and body which our Western inculturation has denied and suppressed.
As thinker and therapist, Lucy Goodison is both respectful and unafraid. She dismisses nothing as mere 'superstition' - the Tarot and acupuncture, the Astral and the auras, are all treated as valid symbolic systems to express the integrity of life. This is Jungian territory but she does not overlook, out of deference, Jung's patriarchal blind spots; and she tackles modern astrology's tendency to accept traditional masculine/feminine role definitions.
Reliably sound and enlightening, her lucid good sense will reassure those who suspect holistic therapy of self-absorption and political irresponsibility. The only snag for me is that I find the Marxist premise that people make culture and therefore people can change it, a frustratingly superficial account of causality or whatever we call it - karma, will, destiny. In a mysterious sense, we do choose what to make of life but I feel that life has at least as big a hand in the making of us.
Having said that, I believe the recommended meditation enabled me to write this today. Though finding the criticism gave me the lever to work with, asking for energy and inspiration brought life to the task. Perhaps the resolution of my dilemma demonstrates in a small way the proper relationship between analysis and creativity, fatalism and voluntarism - as Goodison's magnificent book does in a much greater way.
Moving Heaven and Earth - Sexuality, Spirituality and Social Change by Lucy Goodison (The Women's Press UK, 1990).