issue 231 - May 1992
Until the End of the World
directed by Wim Wanders
Has Wim Wenders lost his marbles? Wings of Desire suggested that something was awry. Half a great film, it finally foundered on its own self-importance, while leaving behind some of the most remarkable black-and-white images of the 1980s and a real sense of European culture taking stock of itself for the last time. After that, the much-execrated Notebook of Cities and Clothes was, in its marginal and terminally trendy way, a quintessential end-of-twentieth-century statement.
Now Wenders has made his start-of-21st-century statement, and it's a fiasco. Until the End of the World (and that's how long it seems to last) is his idea of the ultimate road movie, a world trip that starts in Venice and ends in space via a stopover in Australia. Scripted by Wenders with novelist Peter Carey, it starts as an apocalyptic spy spoof. In the near future the world is menaced by a nuclear satellite out of control. Civilization As We Know It is going to pieces, and free spirit Solveig Dommartin is embroiled in an international game of tag with lover Sam Neill, mystery stranger William Hurt and assorted crooks and crackpots.
The first half of the film is a crazed travelogue taking in Europe, China, America, Russia and - in a deeply embarrassing screwball chase sequence - Japan. It posits a decaying world culture held together with computer technology. In the second half the whole cast fetches up in the Australian outback, where Hurt's parents (Max von Sydow and Jeanne Moreau) are living with an Aboriginal community and working on a dream machine deep in the bowels of the earth. Under the sci-fi gloss, there's a vague New Age idea of a return to the earth and to the power of dream.
But the Aborigines serve largely as a metaphor for earth-consciousness and despite their complaints about von Sydow's invasion of their 'dreamtime' there's no attempt to understand Aboriginal culture, except in the most token way. The problem is not so much that Wenders has fallen short of some vague criterion of cultural correctness. It's just a shame that, having used the entire world for his adventure yarn, he uses Australia as a kind of blank space, a mythic terrain that seems empty and feature-less by comparison. You come away with the feeling that Wenders lacks any real curiosity about the world, that he still sees it through a European film-maker's cultural tunnel vision.
In a risible coda, the film ends on an ecological research satellite out in deep space. It's probably scouting up there for the remains of Wenders' talent.
Wealth Beyond Measure
by Paul Ekins, Mayer Hillman and Robert Hutchison
by Helena Norberg-Hodge
(Rider/UK, Sierra Club/US)
Conventional economic progress is doomed. We all know this but conveniently shove it to the back of our minds to indulge in a little more shamefaced materialism. Yet others can't have it. The rest of the world may aspire to the high-consumption, high-pollution lifestyle of the rich Western minority, but the earth would curl into a crisp if it did.
These two books come at this issue from opposite ends while sharing a green perspective. First, the overview: Wealth Beyond Measure is designed as 'an atlas of new economics'. It is one of that recent genre of books which has moved in the direction of the magazine: topics are broken down into bite-size double-page spreads, each column of text accompanied by illustrations or fact charts. Anything to do with economics tends to be daunting and this treatment makes the book easy to dip into - though probably also pretty impossible to read from start to finish. A clearer sense of structure might have helped. But as an introduction to the ills of economic growth and the green alternatives, this is as good a place as any to start.
Of less use in the classroom but far easier to read is Ancient Futures: Learning from Ladakh. Ladakh borders the Chinese-colonized country of Tibet. Ladakh has not had its monasteries smashed but its culture is just as insidiously being destroyed. The enemy, it appears, is the Western development model as filtered through India: what was a trickle of influence when Norberg-Hodge first lived there 17 years ago has turned into a flood of Bombay films, polluting diesel trucks and toothrotting soft drinks, not to mention Western 'experts'.
Norberg-Hodge documents this disaster passionately, the more so because she sets it against the land she first encountered 17 years ago. We visit a society which was once in balance with nature; investigate systems of justice, health care, farming and personal relations. Women, for example, had a stronger position than in any other society Norberg-Hodge knows. Perhaps they were helped by the custom of polyandry, two husbands to one wife: the book even caters to our prurient interest in how lovemaking was shared out (no, we're not going to tell you).
The key is the balance between people and the resources that sustain them. It is easy to be cynical about such traditional idylls. But we need dreamers. We need to document alternative utopias which have worked. Simply greening the supermarket merchandise is not enough.
by Noam Chomsky
Noam Chomsky is 'arguably the most important intellectual alive', according to a writer in the New York Times. Some will disagree but they can hardly question his standing as America's foremost dissident. He is the horrid little boy who pipes up as the procession goes by 'Look! The Emperor has no clothes on!'
Chomsky has always argued that such events as intervention in Central America and Vietnam are not deplorable aberrations but rather elements of a consistent US policy, which he traces back to the beginning of the century. And that policy, unless prevented, looks set to continue, adapting as it always has done to changes in the global situation.
Two recent changes in particular are discussed in this book. First, the US's economic predominance is being challenged by Japan and a German-led Europe. Second, the US 'remains the only power with the will and capacity to exercise force on a global scale'. In the past the existence of the Soviet Union as rival superpower exercised a degree of restraint on the US and afforded help to countries seeking to oppose its will. That is no longer so. Will it mean more military adventurism?
The Gulf War suggests that the answer to that question is a resounding 'yes'. The introduction to Deterring Democracy is dated December 1991, some four months after Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait but before the Coalition's shattering defeat of his forces. But Chomsky is clear that George Bush had chosen the military option very early on: the Gulf War was a logical consequence of the processes sketched out so ably in this book.
The History of Indipop
by various artists
To judge by the minimal crossover between music from the Indian subcontinent and the mainstream, you'd be forgiven for thinking Western countries contained no Asian communities. Perhaps it's because of a lingering embarrassment over the hippie-era discovery of classical Indian music, but it took until the mid-1980s for music from the region and its emigrant communities to be noticed again.
The most interesting things went on under the banner of 'world music' - notably singer Najma's elegant jazzification of ghazals (love songs) and the rise to prominence of traditional Sufi singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, who was paid the questionable tribute of a remix by Massive Attack. In this curious crossover area, the Indipop label played a large part, even if it failed to connect with its potential audience. 'Pop' rather than 'Indi' is perhaps the key factor on this 1981-1991 compilation.
But there is plenty of invention. Foremost is singer Sheila Chandra, who had a hit with the rather twee Ever So Lonely (included here), before going on to make a series of sometimes over-arty but adventurous solo albums. Her tracks stand out for their complex vocal overlaying and dexterity.
Then there's the straighter bhangra style of Jhalid; the density of Ganges Orchestra ; East-West's unashamedly artless disco style; and two tracks by the Suns of Arqa, a very odd band that mixed Asian, soul, dub reggae and even Irish music. Whether Indipop's eccentric artiness has another decade in it remains to be seen, but main-stream dance and pop can only benefit from an Asian infusion.
Reviews editor: Chris Brazier
'Whatever they said they were doing, they were doing the easy kind of soft jokes and platitudes that war was hell. But what they were really doing for 12 years was bringing an Asian war into everyone's living room and the implication was that the Asians were the bad guys. I thought it was propaganda. I wanted people to walk out laughing and to hate themselves for what they were laughing at.
This was director Robert Altman's dismissive opinion on the long-running TV spin-off of his 1970 movie M*A*S*H, when I interviewed him 20 years on. The most consistently impressive US director of the 1 970s, Altman came to prominence in the first year of that decade with the unexpected box-office success of this Korean War black comedy, a film which captured the irreverence and cynicism of young America during the Vietnam era like no other before or since.
M*A*S*H is many things: a comedy; a war movie which comments on the meretricious conventions of earlier war films; a statement about the Vietnam War; an attack on the military establishment; and a window on the fractured US society of the time. Woodstock may be a cultural time capsule too, but it now plays like an unintentional joke. M*A*S*H's humour still literally cuts to the bone: a comedy steeped in death, pain and quite withering sarcasm.
The scene is a 'Mobile Army Surgical Hospital' close to the front line during the Korean War. Helicopters ferry in an endless stream of wounded from a conflict which seems to be proceeding without logic or meaning. Over the public-address system Oriental versions of American pop songs blare out, interspersed with announcements about the nightly movie show - which always consists of a Hollywood war film.
The running gag of old war film titles does two things. First, it situates the film in a subversive relationship to an entire tradition of earlier movies which presented a sanitized war without real suffering but with clearly defined and easily achieved goals. Second, it takes account of the influence these films have had on the people fighting America's wars. M*A*S*H lampoons both this tradition and even its own place within it, most notably in the final lines of the movie, which come over the loudspeaker: 'Tonight's movie has been M*A*S*H. All the zany antics of our combat surgeons as they cut and stitch their way along the front line, operating as bombs and bullets burst around them. Snatching laughs and loves between amputations and penicillin.'
It's a great way to end the movie but also quite horrific, pointing up how absurd it is even to contemplate making entertainment out of such grim subject matter. Yet this is exactly what the film manages to do. To paraphrase Altman's own words, we laugh but hate ourselves for doing so.
Whereas in those earlier war films the corpses and wounded would be left conveniently behind as the action adventure moved on, here we see the actual casualties dying on the operating table and the casual brutalization of the emotions of those who have to treat them - the three wisecracking new surgeons presiding over the endless bloody mess. Dishevelled, disrespectful of authority and more concerned with playing golf and seducing nurses than anything else, these three not very likeable nonconformists sustain their grim labours with a diet of casual sex and juvenile practical jokes.
It's easy to remember the obvious humour in the film, which mostly centres on the hypocritical characters Hotlips and Major Bums. These authority figures are mercilessly sent up. But what really hits home aren't the slapstick set-pieces but rather the offhand cynicism of characters who casually sunbathe next to a wrecked helicopter and complain when another laden with wounded interrupts their golf game.
M*A*S*H gets comprehensively under the skin of both Hollywood movie conventions and of the fragmented society which produced it. It was hugely successful precisely because it mirrored the values and concerns of its young dissenting audience. Clean-cut contemporary stars like Tom Cruise and even Kevin Costner would have been laughed off the screen by a 1970 full house. Watching M*A*S*H again nearly a quarter of. a century on, what's most noticeable is its utterly savage sense of morality, something that mainstream Hollywood cinema seems to have lost.
The audience which could turn a film like this into a box-office hit simply isn't there any more. Nothing better illustrates this than the fact that 16 years after his appearance in M*A*S*H, the third and least prominent member of the surgeon trio, Tom Skerritt, turned up as one of Tom Cruise's commanding officers in Top Gun.
M*A*S*H directed by Robert Altman (1970).