issue 239 - January 1993
directed by Bertrand Tavernier
The hard-realism cop drama is a staple genre in French cinema. In recent years there's been no shortage of downbeat depictions of Parisian policing methods, the most notable being Bob Swaim's glossy La Balance and Maurice Pialat's lugubrious Police.
Bertrand Tavernier's contribution to the genre is different, privileging the realism over the fiction and getting you involved in character rather than plot; the nearest equivalent in style is Ken Loach. As in Loach, glamour is mercilessly weeded out till you get something that's as close as fiction can get to the impression of reality.
L 627 is an article in France's Public Health Code under which drug addicts can be held for up to four days with daily medical checks. Lulu (Didier Bezace) is a hard-working cop placed on Drugs Squad duty who finds that his ideals aren't necessarily those of his colleagues. The film has stirred up much controversy in France, drawing accusations of racism for its portrayal of African and Arab drug dealers.
Tavernier is an unlikely director to merit a charge of anti-Arab feeling, his last film being the TV documentary La Guerre Sans Nom, which looked critically at France's colonial record in Algeria. Tavernier has argued that his film is simply true to life, quoting statistics that suggest that 80 per cent of Parisian dealers are in fact African or Arab. His case has been borne out in that respect by the campaigning organization SOS Racisme, who have been using it for educational purposes. And indeed most of the drug users busted by the squad in the film are presented simply as victims of the poverty trap and of the social restrictions imposed by a vehemently racist society. L 627 does not paint a pretty or particularly hopeful picture, but it makes its point compellingly.
by Neil Young (Reprise)
Neil Young continues to be the most erratic of North American heirs to the folk tradition. One moment he'll be exploring his R&B roots and taking a satirical swipe at corporate sponsorship (This Note's For You); the next he'll be rooted in a pure folk-protest vein (the excellent Freedom); then suddenly he'll be claiming kinship with the new generation of grunge rockers and bringing out an entire CD of guitar feedback culled from live performances.
If these show Young the radical, Harvest Moon is Young the conservative. Not politically conservative as he was a few years back, when he briefly and bizarrely declared himself a confirmed Reaganite; but personally conservative in that he's harking back to a less complicated past.
His early 1970s album Harvest was among his simplest (and most popular) works, and one of the few that espoused anything like hippie beatifism. Harvest Moon has been billed as its long-awaited sequel but the tone here is more one of hard-won realism. The opening Unknown Legend is a beautiful musical appendix to Thelma and Louise, a lament for one woman's wasted life; Dreaming Man regrets the impossibility of romantic love in a world of malls and Club Med vacations. The 10-minute Natural Beauty backs up its lament for the Amazon with some rainforest recordings, to slightly mawkish effect.
Most impressive of all is War of Man, a haunting hell-on-earth scenario with the refrain 'No-one wins' and with dramatically martial backing. Harvest Moon is not one of Young's great soapbox records, more a stocktaking of themes, but it's unmistakably the work of an artist who goes his own way.
A Cause for our Times
by Maggie Black (OUP and Oxtam UK)
Like our own issue on the subject a year ago, this official biography of Oxfam on its 50th birthday is more than just a profile of a single development charity. The book deserves a much wider readership because it is to a large degree the unofficial biography of the whole pro-Third World movement of which this magazine is also a part.
All the landmarks in the history of world development appear here. There are the emergency events which stand out in terrible starkness in the collective memory, all those famines driven by civil war: Congo in 1961; Biafra/Nigeria in 1967-9; Ethiopia in 1983-5. There are the big ideas: development itself, when it first came to be separated from emergency relief; the notion that aid agencies' campaigns could really change the world; theories like Paolo Freire's 'conscientization' and Julius Nyerere's ujamaa. And there are the changes in the approach to voluntary aid: from amateurism to ever-increasing professionalism; from liberal sahibs doling out charity, to people trying to live up to the idea of 'partnership'; from starving-baby ads to sophisticated and sensitive fund-raising images.
Through it all runs the principle of humanitarian neutrality, the idea that the people who end up hungry or sick through conflict deserve succour even if they are on the other side. This was the notion that set Oxfam in motion during the Second World War, as Greeks on the other end of Churchill's 'total war' blockade starved to death. Occasionally Oxfam has strained at this leash itself, wanting to take a partisan position in Biafra and Cambodia, but it is nevertheless a vital principle which is brought full circle in this book, ending as it does with Oxfam's publicizing of the plight of Iraqis after the Gulf War.
Occasionally your eyes glaze over as names and campaigns appear and disappear. But there is as little user-unfriendly detail as there could have been in an official history - Maggie Black has done an excellent job in meshing this with the movement of ideas in the wider world.
She had a spell as an NI editor in the 1970s and will actually be guest-editing our next issue. But despite this close connection with us her book unintentionally leaves the reader with a slightly confused impression of the history of the New Internationalist. It documents the original funding of the magazine by Oxfam and Christian Aid. But the reader is likely to be left assuming that we are still in their pockets when we have in fact been independent since 1979. A tiny point in Oxfam's history but an enormous one in ours.
Reviews editor: Chris Brazier
films OF THE YEAR
There was no one film of the year inhabiting our territory so we're giving honourable mention to three outstanding mainstream films which had some political dimension.
Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven managed to reinvent the Western genre as well as Eastwood's own ruthless screen image in the portrait of a reformed gunfighter.
The finest non-Hollywood film was James Ivory's Howard's End, a faultless and magnificently mounted adaptation of EM Forster's classic novel, which on one of its many levels dramatizes the brutality of capitalism.
Last but not least there was Beauty and the Beast, in which Disney managed to update both an ancient tale and its own classic formula by creating a female hero with a feminist spark.
music OF THE YEAR
Committed to Amnesty, godfather to WOMAD: Peter Gabriel's image as the saintly man of pop only seems to increase over the years. With the release of his new album Us (Real World), he was also acclaimed for his honesty, subtlety and perception, though if you were wanting to look on the down side you could see this set of songs about relationships as the musical equivalent of Robert Bly's book Iron John.
In these lusciously conceived backing tracks, Gabriel proves himself to be one of the few mainstream pop artists who can use influences from international music as more than just exotic flavouring. African drumming, Russian singers and Turkish flute feature here alongside the more customary high-tech, but the match is intelligent, unobtrusive - and very impressive.
book OF THE YEAR
The Third Revolution (IB Tauris/ Penguin) is of course the green one and here Paul Harrison, who has been popularizing Third World concerns superbly for years, looks at the implications of environmental sustainability for development.
That sounds dry but the book is not. The sheer quantity of information marshalled here is staggering, yet it is showcased by writing that is both elegant and eloquent. And if you want a book that tells you all you need to know about environment and development - passionately, provocatively, persuasively - then this is the one for you.
With What's Going On Motown soul traded its songs of innocence for songs of experience. The famous black record label had enriched the Sixties with a vast array of three-minute jewels, each created according to the strict house rules of owner-dictator Berry Gordy. When long-established star Marvin Gaye emerged from a period of inactivity with the album What's Going On Gordy at first refused to release it: it broke all the rules and he described it as 'the worst record I ever heard'.
His ears failed him: it was sublime. Motown singles are divine in their own way: what could be more perfect than Smokey Robinson's The Tracks of My Tears or Marvin Gaye's own biggest hit from the Sixties, I Heard It Through The Grapevine? But What's Going On was like an out-take from a recording session on some higher plane. Here was the Motown gift for melody relaxed into long pieces flowing seamlessly into each other. Here was an orchestra used more intelligently than any pop record had hitherto, as an integral part of the whole rather than just a vulgar 'touch of class'. And here was Gaye's own voice in an inspired new form: silky and at ease with itself, where it had once sounded strained, it swooped and soared through the album, now in rich falsetto, now double-tracked in an echo of Gaye's early fame as a duettist with the likes of Tammi Terrell.
Tammi Terrell's death from cancer in 1970 at the age of 24 plunged Gaye into the period of isolated reflection that eventually spawned What's Going On. Gaye lost all interest in performing and in his former stylish, slick-suited image; he started thinking about life and the world in a way he never had before. His younger brother had recently returned from Vietnam: 'He told me some pretty horrible stories about the war,' said Gaye. 'It caused me to think hard about society... and I felt the strong urge to write music and lyrics that would touch the souls of men...'
There is no doubting the social concern of What's Going On, as the song titles alone make clear: Save the Children, Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology), Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler). But over the years the record has also acquired a reputation for political radicalism which it doesn't deserve. True, Mercy Mercy Me focussed on Green concerns long before they became fashionable, but beyond that the closest the album comes to a political statement is in suggesting that the money for 'moonshots' should be spent on 'the have-nots'. And the stunning title-track is marred by its unquestioning association of 'picket lines and picket signs' with 'brutality', as if this were the greatest social problem of all.
For the most part the record expresses outrage and bewilderment at the violence in the world. It asks simple questions like those Gaye puts into his Vietnam vet brother's mouth: 'When will people start getting together again? Are things really getting better like the newspapers say?... Say man I just don't understand what's going on across this land. What's happening brother?' Or later: 'Who really cares? Who is willing to try to save a world that is destined to die?'
Marvin Gaye has no political answers to these questions but he does have another answer: God. In some ways it is bizarre that What's Going On has such an eternally hip reputation. Lines like the following would be laughed out of court in most other quarters of popular culture, assumed to be part of the TV Evangelist Sunday School Songbook: 'God is my friend, Jesus is my friend! He made this world for us to live in and gave us everything... He loves us whether or not we know it and he'll forgive all our sins'. Gaye's own original sleeve notes were thankfully excised from the British version of the record: 'Find God: we've got to find the Lord. Allow Him to influence us. I mean what other weapons have we to fight the forces of hatred and evil. And check out the Ten Commandments too. You can't go too far wrong if you live them, dig it... Thank you Jesus.' Come back John Denver, all is forgiven.
Seriously, Christian performers in the popular arena have long ago learned to be careful about how they present their faith, especially within style-obsessed youth culture. But Marvin Gaye is blithely unconcerned about such tactics and comes up trumps anyway: this music is of such transcendent quality that his claim to divine inspiration begins to seem plausible.
But if God was using Marvin Gaye as a vessel it didn't last long. After one more classic album (Let's Get It On, an explicit celebration of sex from the male viewpoint) he descended deeper and deeper into self-destruction, developing a heavy cocaine habit, hurting the women he loved and wasting his talent. A decade later, in 1982, he made one more strong LP, Midnight Love, but in 1984 came to a sordid end, shot dead by his preacher father in a domestic dispute.
Marvin Gaye's life story makes depressing reading. Much better to stick to What's Going On, when he managed to look the world's ugliness and brutality in the face while creating music that lifts us far, far above it.
What's Going On by Marvin Gaye (1971).