issue 238 - December 1992
1492 Conquest of Paradise
directed by Ridley Scott
Ridley Scott's Columbus epic has an interesting advertising tag-line: 'Centuries before the exploration of space, there was another voyage into the unknown'. This piece of ad copy - inadvertently perhaps - raises interesting questions about the myth of 'discovering the Other'. What, for example, does it mean to us to see Columbus set out in quest of an Unknown which today has become a Known complete with 500 years of strife-torn history? Scott fails to make play with this - he clearly aims to get to grips with some of the problems behind the question of Western exploration, but he's only halfway there.
The film's title was changed from the original Columbus so as not to clash with the ludicrous Christopher Columbus: The Discovery. It is thus perhaps unfair to judge it against the promise of the title but this is still a film about the man rather than the year: 1492 not only included Columbus's voyage, but also the expulsion of the Jews from Spain and the fall of Moorish Granada. In other words a New World was being sought just when significant parts of the Old World were mercilessly shut down. The two moments - a purging simultaneous with the creation of a mythical tabula rasa - seem inextricably unified, two sides of a moment in the Western (Catholic) imagination. Yet the film skirts the issue, only acknowledging it in a character's remark - full of anachronistic foresight - that the fall of Granada will be Europe's cultural loss.
Roselyne Bosch's screenplay, to be fair, does attempt to look into the Catholic colonial psyche. Columbus, arriving on the island he christens San Salvador, is convinced he is in Eden, and resolves to convert the natives with peace and honour; a paradoxical notion, this, that the inhabitants of Eden should need to be converted to a 'civilized' faith. He soon learns, amid storms and snakes, that this is no Eden but his faith subsists to the extent of planning a city based on da Vinci's ideas (he succeeds in building a cathedral, which allows Scott to stage an epic bell-raising sequence).
The inevitable hostilities and slaughter ensue although, as in The Discovery, this is attributed partly to the intervention of an identifiable villain - the aristocratic emissary Moxica, complete with black leathers and sneer. The film does, however, do what its predecessor signally did not: it gives a sense of a powerful pre-existing culture disrupted by the naivety (and worse) of its visitors.
Otherwise 1492 is a historical epic of the old school - overlong, turgid and a real disappointment from the director of Blade Runner and Thelma and Louise. The historical look is persuasive, every artefact aged in the cask. And Scott does have real insights in the staging: for example, almost entirely masking the sea with sails and rigging to suggest the sailors' confinement and to counter the triumphalist flavour that tends to accompany shots of the Wide Blue Yonder.
But Gérard Depardieu is ill cast as Columbus: although he exudes energy, pathos and gravity in abundance, his French accent is a severe drawback to both credibility and comprehension. The laborious feel of the dialogue that results from this adds to the sense of this film as stodgy fustian, with too much on its production plate to cope with the real complexities of its subject.
Am I Not Your Girl?
by Sinead O'Connor
Why should one of the only consistently outspoken firebrands in pop make an album of crooning standards? Simply, says Sinéad O'Connor, because these were the songs she grew up with. Consequently Am I Not Your Girl? - with its 47-piece orchestra and covers of Doris Day and Peggy Lee hits - is a rather more personal album than its predecessor I Do Not Want What I Have Not Got. There O'Connor strove, with some discomfort, to forge an absolutely personal, from-the-gut identity. Here she successfully does what pop performers once used to: she simply speaks through classic songs with perfect eloquence.
O'Connor performs the songs with feeling and relish. Rather than attempting to subvert the material to either kitsch or critical effect, she plays it straight, much as she did with Cole Porter's You Do Something To Me on the AIDS benefit album. It seems an implausible gesture from a singer associated with political rage - whose diatribes against the US earned her the fury of Frank Sinatra, and who was particularly visible in the recent Irish protest against the Catholic Church's attitude to abortion.
Yet even this LP has a political agenda. It closes with a text, spoken between gritted teeth, about Catholic intolerance; the sleeve notes ask 'what happens to a child that has been invaded mentally physically emotionally spiritually sexually...' and concludes 'I You He She We are that child'. In addition O'Connor's recent single Success Has Made a Failure of Our Home caused controversy with its sleeve picture of Carmona Lopez, a street child beaten by Guatemalan police; the song's video also featured Amnesty International images of torture victims. These images could hardly be said to have much bearing on the song, a study of a domestic break-up in the wake of fame, and O'Connor has been attacked - notably in the UK's Sun newspaper - for trying to capitalize on them. But rather than questioning the reality of her fury, it seems truer to suggest that she is simply not very good at focussing it: she tends to conflate all the objects of her rage so that her anger, in its expression at least, comes across as personal rather than specifically political.
Still, the record is a bold move by an artist playing against type. It may be comparatively apolitical for O'Connor, but it conveys a far more convincing sense of self than the often overheated rhetoric she has recorded before. These artful, finely modulated performances prove that Sinéad O'Connor is better at being herself when she is not striving so hard to Be Herself.
Beyond the Limits
by Donella M Meadows, Dennis I Meadows, Jorgen Randers
In 1972 a study commissioned by the Club of Rome provoked an outcry when it predicted, based on the growth trends of the time, a limit to worldwide economic expansion within 100 years. Published as The Limits to Growth, the report - making use of computer projections showing the long-term consequences of population growth, resource consumption and increasing pollution - called for a comprehensive revision of policies and practices to avert a global collapse. Now, 20 years later the authors have updated their original findings to produce a sequel: Beyond the Limits.
The book makes for rather alarming, though not unexpected, reading. In spite of the greater awareness of the environment and new technical advances, many of the world's resource and pollution flows are already beyond their limits. Unless alternative ways of meeting people's resource needs are found, society is heading for the global collapse already forecast - possibly within the lifetime of people still alive today.
But Beyond the Limits also offers hope. The chapter on the world's response to ozone, for instance, illustrates humanity's ability to look ahead, sense a limit, and pull back before it is too late. The main challenge facing humanity, the authors argue, is to switch from policies fostering growth in material consumption and population towards more sustainable patterns. Such a post-growth revolution is technically and economically feasible and would, if taken up before it is too late, lead to a condition of environmental equilibrium that is sustainable far into the future. But a profound shift in attitudes has to come first...
This is really a book for policy makers, who will not be able to dismiss the authors' conclusions as easily as they did 20 years ago.
Reviews editor: Chris Brazier
A stranger journeys through the heat and humidity of tropical Africa on a rickety boat. He stays with the boat until it can go no further upriver, then announces he will stay in its final port of call - a run-down leproserie (leprosy hospice) deep in the rainforest. He says he feels nothing, is emotionally dead; even his motto is a parody - 'I feel discomfort, therefore I am alive'.
Bored colonials seek out the stranger, Querry, and pester him to entertain them. They discover that he is a famous ecclesiastical architect who has lost his vocation. An obese journalist travels from Europe to write eulogistic prose about him. A woman so young and innocent that he presumes she is harmless claims that Querry is the father of her unborn child. Her husband believes the story and shoots the stranger dead. And this, say those around Querry, is a happy ending for everybody.
A Burnt-Out Case - the last of Greene's great Catholic novels - is a strange and disturbing book. It is about being at the end of the line - literally for Querry, stranded where the river becomes unnavigable; symbolically for the bored young woman, her smug and frustrated husband, the priests wondering about the practical application of a vocation, and for the huge journalist who knows he is at the end of his creativity.
The book also represents a crisis in Greene's own extraordinary career and often manic-depressive behaviour. By 1961, when this book was published, he had risen through journalism, published a dozen good novels, been an agent with the British Secret Service in Sierra Leone during World War Two, been a foreign correspondent and finally taken a trip upriver in the Congo.
A Burnt-Out Case is not set in the Congo - Greene makes that clear in his introduction when he says 'This Congo is a region of the mind... [it is] an attempt to give dramatic expression to various types of belief, half-belief and non-belief, in the kind of setting, removed from world politics and household preoccupations, where such differences are felt acutely and find expression'.
On his own river journey Greene was reading Heart of Darkness and despairing of his own ability to match Joseph Conrad's imagery. Greene's novel does manage some powerful and vivid images of Africa and the torment in an individual's mind. But more to the point it shows up the fallacy of treating any place, any people, as no more than an external projection of what one is feeling.
Why set the book in Africa? Why set it in a leproserie? - a place far beyond the experience of most readers, though as Greene points out there were then parts of Africa where as many as one in five of the population were lepers. At its most basic the leproserie is a brutal backdrop to the characters' lives, and a setting in which finer points of Western culture cease to matter.
But the leper colony is also, as Querry delights in thinking, a metaphor for the sufferings of a man who despairs in the world. 'I am too far gone, I can't feel at all, I am a leper,' explains Querry. Greene's own diary shows his pleasure in making the link between hero and setting which gives the title of the book: 'Leprosy cases whose disease has been arrested and cured only after the loss of fingers and toes are known as burnt-out cases. This is the parallel I have been seeking between my character X and the lepers. Psychologically and morally he has been burnt out.'
Ultimately Greene is mocking the belief in Heart of Darkness that by voyaging into Africa characters can discover their own hidden depths. The more characters in this book talk, the more they fail to communicate - the dialogue is riddled with misunderstandings. Querry tells the others that he merely sat with his servant in the dark, so they believe that he was praying; he denies it, so they argue that his modesty makes him a saint.
One of the things I enjoy most about this book is that it is so down-to-earth: while people discuss ideals, they remain disarmingly human. There are few writers who can intercut ideals and action, the life of the mind and the life of society, to create quite such a satisfying blend - a technique Greene learnt partly through his work in cinema. Greene is a first-class storyteller and there is evidence enough of that here in this tale of a man so despairing that he cannot laugh who ends up shot because he is thought to be laughing at someone.
From a kind of despair, through vividly illustrated discussions of what it is that makes life worth living, to his hero's final peace with his life, Greene manages once again to make the reader think the unthinkable - that the hero's murder is indeed the happiest of endings.
A Burnt-Out Case by Graham Greene.