issue 232 - June 1992
directed by Lawrence Kasdan
In 1983 Lawrence Kasdan summed up the anxieties and morals of his generation in The Big Chill. Nine years on he's tried to do it again, only this time on a far grander scale, with his cross-section of characters brought together not by one trauma - the suicide of a college friend - but by a whole succession of them.
Lawyer Kevin Kline is nearly murdered when his car breaks down in a black neighbourhood of Los Angeles. He's saved by tow-truck driver Danny Glover, who has his own problems: a deaf daughter and a sister trapped in a gang-infested ghetto. Meanwhile Kline's wife (Mary McDonnell) has found an abandoned baby and his best friend, film producer Steve Martin, has been shot by a mugger.
Using the Grand Canyon as an all-purpose metaphor for the divisions opening up in American society, Kasdan tries to address the state of the nation in a way few Hollywood film-makers have risked in recent years, and he's been rewarded with the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival. The best explanation for this award is that the film seems more profound in a foreign language since the harder Kasdan tries to be serious, the more he falls back on platitudes. Treating LA as a microcosm of the country is fair enough, but the city and its entertainment industry seem to make up Kasdan's whole universe.
Many of the situations here seem to have filtered through from other movies - the breakdown from The Bonfire of the Vanities, the gang violence from Boyz N the Hood, the post-shooting mid-life crisis from Regarding Henry. And the Steve Martin character, a producer of mindless big-budget action movies, seems to exist only to make film-makers like Kasdan seem socially responsible by comparison.
The Mambo Kings
directed by Arne Glimcher
That Spanish will shortly be the dominant language of the US is the best-kept secret in Hollywood. In the US media it's considered a major breakthrough when Madonna slips a few words of Spanish into a record - it's called 'acknowledging' the Latin public.
The Mambo Kings acknowledges Latin culture in the US, but again in the most offhand way. It's based on Oscar Hijuelos's Pulitzer-winning novel, a sharp, animated grapple with the myths of machismo and the meaning of the American Dream for Cuban immigrants (this is set in 1952, well before the Revolution). The film gives the book a cursory dusting-down, retaining only the pot-boiler elements that can be put to the service of a 'torrid' narrative.
This is essentially a Latin-flavoured rerun of The Fabulous Baker Boys, that melancholy look at sibling rivalry on the supper-club circuit. Here the brothers are musicians (Armand Assante and Antonio Banderas), who flee Cuba after a romantic imbroglio and hit New York in search of glory. The film focuses primarily on Assante's flamboyant performance as a manic Lothario and king of forced smiles, but the tension between the brothers, their dream and their loves, is left buried under a cluttered mass of events.
What's missing is any sense of Cuban identity. The pre-Revolution setting makes it easier for director Glimcher to ignore all political themes and concentrate on a vague idea of period style, while casting a Spanish actor and a Dutch actress as Cubans shows rare disregard for the finer points of accent. Salsa queen Celia Cruz is on hand as a sort of benign chorus - but singing in English, which is barely thinkable.
The Mambo Kings finds Hollywood 'acknowledging' Latin culture while showing a predictable contempt for it.
Beyond the Storm
A Gulf Crisis Reader
edited by Phyllis Bennis and Michel Moushabeck
(Olive Branch US, Canongate UK)
Because Saddam Hussein is a monster, a murderous gangster, it was all too easy for George Bush to portray himself as a knight in shining armour, caparisoned in the colours of the United Nations and bearing a banner with a strange device, 'New World Order'.
Truth arrives late with its candle; the journey from writer's pen or desktop to the printed and published page takes months. But now the books about the Gulf Crisis are coming out, and Beyond the Storm is among the best of them: a collection of 30 articles and essays by writers with a mix of nationalities and specialisms.
It helps make clear how the Gulf War came to happen and what it was really about: how Bush decided early upon war and not sanctions; why Secretary of State Baker needed to make all those journeys to the Middle East and Europe, armtwisting and bribing to gain support for the Crusade; why the members of the Arab League and the PLO, although they fear and hate Saddam, were reluctant to support military action in the form it took against him; why 'linkage' with the Israeli situation figured so largely in their thinking; and much more besides that is not commonly realized. In general the writers condemn what happened and are concerned about the consequences.
'War is meant to have a purpose. It should result in a state of peace better than that from which it erupted,' observed Field Marshal Lord Carver. Try applying that criterion to the Gulf War after reading Beyond the Storm.
The Right to Choose
by Perdita Huston
Elise Ottesen-Jensen's younger sister Magnhild had her life wrecked by an unplanned pregnancy in an unforgiving society. Magnhild was made to give the baby away, was barred from her nursing career, and ended up in an asylum where she sewed baby clothes obsessively until she died.
Perdita Huston's newest book, The Right to Choose, tells the life stories of 12 social-change agents like Elise Ottesen-Jensen, women and men from countries as varied as Sweden and Bangladesh, Mali and Japan, who chose family planning as their method of making women's lives a little fairer and healthier.
Some of them fought their battles over 60 years ago, enduring police harassment and accusations that they were pornographers. But, as Huston's book makes clear, the war is very far from over. Women are still expected to have more babies or fewer according to society's wishes, not their own. Tellingly, in the US the book has a different title - Motherhood by Choice. 'Motherhood' is safe enough; reproductive rights for women are still too threatening for those who are used to ruling the roost.
Coincidence and Likely Stories
by Duffy Sainte-Marie
Is it really as far back as 1965 that UK folk singer Donovan, resplendent in kaftan, beads and a shock of black hair, had a huge success with a bitter protest song called Universal Soldier? The song was written by a then little-known mixed-blood Cree Indian named Buffy Sainte-Marie, who went on to record 15 albums and a notable hit of her own in the heartfelt Soldier Blue (the theme song from Mike Nichols' controversial film). This music was often outraged and intensely political, particularly savage in its indictment of the treatment meted out by white America on its indigenous population. At the time much Native American activism was subject to harassment - and Sainte-Marie was no exception.
Disillusioned with this, and discouraged by problems with recording companies, she turned her attention away from adults and carried her message to children. The next five and a half years were spent on Sesame Street teaching children about Native American culture though she continued to play benefits on behalf of Leonard Peltier (soon to be the subject of an Oliver Stone movie) and other Native American political prisoners.
It's fitting that she's returned to the recording studio in the year of the Columbus quincentennial. And Coincidence and Likely Stories shows she has lost none of her extraordinary talent. From pulsating beginning to plaintive end the album throbs with raw energy as Native American musical influences are hauntingly interwoven.
At once angry and tolerant, its central theme of hope and empowerment spears through the songs like a sacred feathered lance skewering the faceless, corrupting 'power junkies' of the world. As she said in a recent interview: 'The assholery in the world is not all there is!'
Buffy Sainte-Marie is back on song with a gem that shines brightly in the darkness.
Reviews editor: Chris Brazier
As I write the largest state in the world is cracking up and no-one can be certain of the new order (or disorder) which is likely to emerge from its accelerated demise. I've had a rather odd view of the decaying Soviet Union, as I've been enjoying the company of a group of Russian academics who have spent a term visiting the university where I work. As the turbulence in their homeland increased, there came a point when I had to ask what the term 'Soviet Union' meant to them. Nellie, in a reply I'll never forget because of the ironic pride with which it was delivered, announced that she was 'a citizen of the Soviet Disunion'.
Language reflects social change. Being able to name a new experience is the first necessary step towards understanding it, and the necessity of finding a new vocabulary for one's new social being is a key emphasis in Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook, the novel I was re-reading during the Russians' visit. Appropriately, it's a novel about the kind of political crack-up they've been witnessing. It tracks the inner and outer life of Anna Wulf, a novelist and member of the British Communist Party, through the last years of Stalin, Kruschev's denunciation of him, and the Hungarian repression of 1956. Anna is herself a new kind of being, a 'free woman' and single parent who has decided not to marry again after divorce. During these years, she has to find an original language to embody both the falling to pieces of her political life and the emergence of a pioneering sexual self.
Lessing's novel itself is cast in an astonishingly new mould. It's hard to think of any novel prior to this which fused sex, politics, madness and motherhood so completely, and its frankness and honesty predictably caused explosions of controversy on both Right and Left. But it's perhaps more difficult to understand how the very form of the novel imitates and thus takes us through the process of 'cracking up'. For it isn't recognizably a novel at all. It looks instead more like a long series of shattered fragments whose relationship to one another we have to work out for ourselves.
That said, it's not difficult at all to understand what's going on. Nobody ever wrote in plainer language than Doris Lessing. And there's a straightforwardly realistic core to the book. It begins with a chapter from a conventional short novel called Free Women. Between the chapters of this novel we are presented with the private notebooks of one of the characters in Free Women, Anna Wulf. The notebooks reflect Anna's inability to synthesize her experiences, as each compartmentalizes her - the black notebook treats her ideas and problems as a writer, the red her political life, the yellow her sexual relationships and feelings, and the blue everyday personal events.
Towards the end of the novel, becoming aware that these four books fail to capture her whole self, she attempts to convey the totality of her experience in a new (golden) notebook. Although this is simply a record of the onset of madness, its composition somehow releases her, finally, so that she can write the novel which has so far been unthinkable.
Bewilderingly, the reader now discovers that s/he has been reading this novel all along - it is, in fact, Free Women. Moreover, it's not a new kind of novel at all, but a conventional, realistic one in which Anna Wulf appears as a relatively sane, whole human being. The knowledge that it is actually Anna (the 'mad' Anna) who has written it comes as an unanticipated shock to most readers. The novel thus forces us to abandon our preconceptions. It startles us into a new form of reading, forces upon us a new experience of reality which 'cracks up' our habitual assumptions and responses. It tells us that things have changed and that we must find a way to negotiate that change.
A generation old it may be, but to me this book seems utterly contemporary in its concerns and its method. Indeed fiction and reality seemed to converge as the British Communist Party abolished itself even as I read. This event did not bewilder my Russian friends half as much as the comparative material plenty they witnessed during their visit, which led them to express political opinions whose frank conservatism alarmed me. In arguing with them I discovered precisely the difficulty of language I mentioned earlier.
For instance, the words 'capitalism' and socialism', respectively negative and positive terms in my vocabulary, have exactly inverse values in theirs because these words designate for us experiences which cannot be compared. This struggle between language and experience, it seems to me, requires as much attention as our more obvious economic struggles - and it's that kind of attention, and perhaps even a solution of sorts, which a novel such as The Golden Notebook offers.
The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing.