issue 229 - March 1992
directed by Oliver Stone
In JFK Oliver Stone seems to have done the impossible and made a genuinely naive conspiracy thriller. It is naive in a way that paranoid political films have rarely been, and views the Kennedy assassination with wide eyes, as if to say Can such things really happen in America?' In a sense it's a necessary tactic, since Stone is bringing events that traumatized a generation to a younger audience that may not be aware of them.
But the film is not so much about the events of 22 November 1963 as about their background, and about the investigation undertaken by New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison (played by Kevin Costner). Garrison was convinced that the Warren Commission report, pointing to Lee Harvey Oswald as the sole culprit, was a cover-up.
Stone has called his film 'an alternative myth to the Warren Commission' and quite clearly it is a fictional construct. But it highlights the danger of docu-dramas, which can present themselves as a kind of higher truth. If a fiction tells us we've been lied to, we all too readily accept its own proposals as gospel. Because so many shady operators lie to him, Costner's Garrison must surely be the repository of truth, and so by extension must the film. More than a pinch of salt is required here.
The film is equally naive about Kennedy himself, portrayed unequivocally as a martyr who would have redeemed America if only he'd been allowed to - his questionable role in the disastrous assault on Cuba is glossed over. Garrison, who takes on his holy mantle, is that hoary American icon, the noble truth-seeker.
By centring his film on Garrison as JFK's shining knight, Stone confronts two models of history - the conspiracy theory, in which truth can never be known, because all 'facts' are fabricated by a cabal, and the 'Great Man' theory in which one outstanding figure makes events happen. However complex the plot against JFK is, in the end everything is reduced to a battle between good and evil - or, in classic Hollywood terms, the little guy versus the system. This is a political film only in the most superficial way.
The revelations themselves have long been fodder for speculation, and are drawn here from books on the case by Jim Marrs and by Garrison himself. The gist is that Oswald was the stooge set up by the CIA as a made-to-measure decoy, and that Kennedy was removed by his own administration, who were afraid of the moves he was making: dismantling the power of the military and the CIA; winding down action in Vietnam; making peace with a Soviet Union whose power base in Cuba would go unchallenged; supporting civil rights. The assassination itself appears as a viscerally edited continuous replay of newsreel and recreated footage, obsessively scanning what an awestruck Garrison refers to as 'the secret murder at the heart of the American Dream'.
As in Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July, Stone is playing psychoanalyst to US history, exorcising the traumas of the 1960s. The film ends with the reminder that the real facts will not be released until next century, and that it's up to the next generation to find out the truth. Costner's closing challenge to posterity is irresistible rhetoric even if it covers up the film's own equivocations.
This film is not what it seems, but then the transparency of its rhetoric tells you that from the start. This is history as pantomime, but staged so vigorously and compellingly that you're transfixed throughout. Simply as a catalyst for heated controversy, it's an extraordinary piece of work.
'People's attitude towards marriage has completely changed. In my day you could offer your daughter in marriage to anyone you liked. It was your choice, not hers. Today if you were to offer your daughter to someone she did not like, without her consent, you could rest assured that sooner or later she will cause you problems.' 70-year-old Wakary Gassama, from Bakel in Senegal.
'We have seen many changes in recent years. The winds have grown very strong because of all the wide open spaces. There are no trees or tall grasses to block its passage. The disappearance of the vegetation has also produced hotter weather and relentless sunshine. There are no wild animals any more. If you want to see a gazelle, a deer or an ostrich you now have to travel at least 40 kilometres. When I was young you could go seven kilometres and you would see a lion.' 92-year-old Harouna Ouédraogo, from Ouahigouya in Burkina Faso.
'The number of people in Sudan moving to urban areas astonishes me. Urbanization is largely caused by people moving away to be educated. Rural people are saying that a person without education is like an animal without a skin. My sons and daughters all go to school. I don't want them to be ignorant like me and their mother, If we were given a letter saying "kill him", we would carry it to our murderer, because we are uneducated.' 60-year-old Girmay Gebray, from Wadel Hileau in Sudan.
Just three of the hundreds of people contributing their own memories to At the Desert's Edge, a collection of oral histories from the Sahel, edited by Nigel Cross and Rhiannon Barker and published by Panos/SOS Sahel, London UK.
Theology and Feminism
by Daphne Hampson
Once a champion of women's ordination in the Anglican Church, and still a theologian, Daphne Hampson now calls herself a 'post-Christian feminist'. Her analysis of Old and New Testaments shows the 'thoroughly sexist character of Christianity' and the story of her own unsuccessful struggle with the Church makes the same point.
She repeatedly notes the crucial parallel between sexism and racism, quoting Desmond Tutu as the only Anglican bishop at the 1978 Lambeth Conference on the ordination of women who seemed to grasp how women felt about the issue under debate: 'A child of God subjected to that kind of treatment actually gets to doubt that he is, or she is, a child of God'.
Hampson's critique is based on a first-hand experience of how patriarchy has wounded women. She takes issue with feminist theologians who try to square their Christian faith with their feminism, and the detail of these passages, together with the moving autobiographical anecdotes she tells to illustrate her insights, form the main substance of the book.
However, while Hampson has rejected the Church (or was it the other way round?), she has kept her faith, though it has now become much harder to name and to symbolize. The problem of finding ways to express our spiritual life without resort to patriarchal religious language is one she shares with many people these days.
She describes many attempts to re-establish new rituals and mythologies, and shows her sympathy with these efforts, though she seems to shrink from participating fully. In fact she is no trendy radical or New Ager but a soberly reflecting academic, and this is what makes her book unique in its radicalism.
The outraged sense of justice that impels her argument has an ironically prophetic ring (and, like the prophets, Hampson has suffered ostracism and character assassination on account of her stand).
It is not often that we see Christianity confronted head-on and from within - in its claims to represent a force for good in the world. If it's true that 'it takes your own to level you', perhaps the passion of this disillusioned activist will have some lasting effect.
Reviews editor: Chris Brazier
It's hard for me to credit, but we're now farther away from the summer of punk than those heady months were from Beatlemania. Back in 1976 it seemed like eons had passed since the last great youth culture explosion - its veterans, from Dylan and Lennon downwards into the ranks of mere mortals, seemed past it, tired and devoid of ideas. But then I only have to look at what I wrote about punk at the time to realize just how long ago it was.
'Grey - that's all I see. People as machine junkies, mainlining materialism. As we stagger into the first great post-War Depression the drab monotony of existence is going to grab you by the throat - there's no affluence to distort the truth into pretty shapes any more...'
I was 21 - and actually a bit ashamed of not being a teenager any more. And I was staking my claim for a job as a rock writer with a set-piece article in Melody Maker, the UK's oldest pop-music paper. I'd spent the summer of '76 following the Sex Pistols, the Clash, the Buzzcocks and the rest around the London clubs, knowing that I had happened upon something that happens only once in each generation, something equivalent to the Beatles in the Cavern Club or the Who up the Goldhawk Road. My own existence actually seemed anything but drab and monotonous.
But it wasn't my life I was talking about: it was the kids (in my head they were usually male, of course) who had nothing to look forward to but the dole queue or the dead-end job. These were the people the Clash cared about too. If punk had a visual backdrop it was the unforgettable picture conjured up in their song London's Burning of a boy running through the concrete wasteland of an inner-city housing estate, with cars racing around him and televisions mesmerizing the tower blocks above. 'Now I'm in the subway and I'm looking for the flat! This one leads to this block, this one leads to that? The wind howls through the empty block looking for a home! But I run through the empty stone because I'm all alone.'
The Clash, the 1977 debut album which contained these lines, was one of the first punk LPs and is still the greatest. It had a ferocious energy that had not been equalled for years - all the fresh enthusiasm of Presley's Sun sessions, of the early Stones or the Hamburg Beatles. Yet despite the determinedly rough edges ('the truth is only known by guttersnipes' were the record's last words) this was also well-crafted pop - especially when you compare it in hindsight with the inarticulate buzzsaw droning it was to inspire.
The Sex Pistols were bigger and more explosive - they transcended all categorization and their first three singles were of quite miraculous quality. But Anarchy in the UK not with standing the Clash were the political heart of punk, embodying the belief that this upsurge of youthful energy and frustration might be channelled into positive social change. 'All the power in the hands,' they raged, 'of the people rich enough to buy it! While we walk the streets, too chicken to even try it! And everybody's doing just what they're told to...'
From this vantage point, of course, the political stance seems emptier simply because we now know that punk as a social movement was going nowhere. I half knew it even at the time, when as a rock critic I would put hapless teenage musicians who were only interested in a bit of sex, drugs and rock'n'roll through an interrogation about their political position. But I felt I had to do all I could to guard the flame of punk as a political movement - even when the Clash's Mick Jones unbraided me for doing it.
Ultimately even I had to accept that punk was of purely musical importance - it caused none of the enduring social ripples that Sixties music had done. And the musicians at its epicentre resisted all attempts by pretentious commentators like me to make them into something more than they were - young people following a time-honoured path of escape from the dead-end expectations that The Clash evoked so eloquently.
The Clash as a group never quite recovered from the expectations thrust upon them. They made an excellent, eclectic album in London Calling, an outstanding reggae-rock single in White Man in the Hammersmith Palais (included, along with other early singles, on the CD version of the first album). Even their fifth LP, Combat Rock, had its moments, notably in Joe Strummer's jaunting evocation of the plight of the Amerasian children US soldiers left behind in Vietnam after the war - a song I remembered when I actually met such children in Saigon.
But by then the band was disintegrating. I think the Clash probably knew deep down that they were doomed by their own origins, that they could never have a career as the new generation's Rolling Stones, still intact (if utterly uninteresting) after decades. They must have realized that the Pistols had the more appropriate end - gone as soon as they'd arrived, exploding like a bright star.
At least the Clash left a classic document behind. Their first album was the moment when the third rock'n'roll generation stood up to be counted. But in so far as it suggested revolution was on its way, how wrong can you be? The youth-led 'riot' the Clash called for actually happened in Britain in 1981 as unemployment soared under the first Thatcher government - but made not a dent in the iron-plated ascendancy of the New Right that lasted out the decade.
That's one irony. An even greater irony is that the Clash gained their first ever British Number One single last year, long after they had gone their separate ways - because Levis chose one of their songs (not even one of their best) for a TV ad. Revolt into style, indeed.
The Clash (Columbia Records, 1977).