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new internationalist
issue 243 - May 1993



directed by Danny De Vito

directed by Derek Jarman

Jack fills out his cheeks but fails to blow Hoffa's house down. The Hollywood biopic comes saddled with problems. Not only does an unwieldy life have to be condensed into two or three hours and often comes littered with clunkingly obvious asides of the ‘one day, William, you will be a famous playwright’ kind, but also the subject has to be sympathetically portrayed. Why else, ask the studio executives, would audiences want to hang around with them for the duration of the movie?

Hence last year the notorious racketeer and murderer Bugsy Siegel turned out, courtesy of Warren Beatty, to be rather charming and a little misunderstood. Celluloid seems to redeem all those it touches. It is not surprising then that Hoffa, which dramatizes the life and times of the controversial leader of the Teamsters – under his leadership the most powerful of US trade unions – tends to the hagiographic. There is a certain irony here, for after all the US film industry is held together by a flotilla of truck drivers. If the Teamsters strike, Hollywood screeches to a halt.

The chronicles of a union movement are a noble and epic subject for cinema but one that the mainstream, until now, has shied away from. The film, which marks a serious turn for comic director/actor Danny De Vito, is not without its rousing moments. There are the bloody riots for the right to strike played against a backdrop of burning skies and Hoffa's charged speeches. But it is all rather stodgy and no more than a cartoon guide to the working man’s struggle (and women, including Hoffa’s wife Josephine, only ever hover on the periphery). Played by a squat and corpulent Jack Nicholson, Hoffa is a pugnacious man of the people who bullies potential members into knowing what is good for them, dallies with the Mob and is eventually assassinated. The movie isn’t blind to his dirtier side but somehow its very structure demands that he comes out on top – in the courtroom confrontations with Bobby Kennedy, for example.

However questionable his actions are though, David Mamet's script always seems to see Hoffa’s gangster-style leadership as a rather good thing. Ultimately, like Malcolm X, Hoffa has a monumental feel rather than daring to chip away at a more complicated history.

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While Hoffa’s budget weighed in at $45 million, Derek Jarman’s life of Wittgenstein cost a paltry $500,000. No doubt Wittgenstein himself, who eschewed worldly goods and wanted to go to the USSR to work as a labourer, would have approved. With just a black backdrop and a minimum of props, the film is a sparely styled exposition of the gay Austrian philosopher’s life from his privileged childhood in Vienna to his ascetic existence in Cambridge.

Co-scripted by the Marxist Professor of English at Oxford, Terry Eagleton, it attempts to convey some of the philosopher’s ideas about language – ideas that he perversely refuted at the end of his life. It also draws upon the personal contradiction that ensnared him – the fact that he was applying a philosophical system to a world in which his own gay love was illegal. Lucid and surprisingly witty, this is the Wittgenstein lecture as cabaret.

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by Chenjerai Hove

The Man Who Came In from the Back of Beyond
by 'Biyi Bandele-Thomas

Smouldering Charcoal
by Tiyambe Zeleza

These are three African exhibits from contemporary fiction’s gallery of loss. Alienation, the breakdown of familiar patterns of living, urban malaise and political terror : the treatment of these themes is a worldwide phenomenon. Whereas with some authors in the West it can turn into navel-gazing, novelists from other parts of the world seem compelled to render the tumult of their nations.

Set against the Zimbabwean war of liberation, Chenjerai Hove’s Shadows is a story of young lovers who ‘opt for death instead of life’. Death is everywhere and arbitrary in this Zimbabwe, where people are so brutalized by war and the loss of roots that they drift in a shadowland of continual pain. The lovers themselves may represent the dying hopes of their communities uprooted from their traditional farmlands. Written as an extended prose poem, the narrative has passages of great emotional resonance and beauty, but can at other times be dense, dirge-like and mawkish. Hove’s strength is his ear for the speech and proverbs of the people he writes about. In English their conventional wisdom is fresh and interesting.

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Bandele-Thomas’ English is all his own, a lively mix of turn-of-century pedantry and ornament, thriller-style raciness and cheeky similes. His novel is set in Kafanchan in Nigeria, the town of his birth and he writes about it with a sureness that is palpable. The story concerns the adventures of one Bozo Macika, whose life after the breakdown of his family slides into increasing violence and squalor as he gives himself up to that most potent of urban symbols – the gun. But the prose is shot through with wit and the story through its many twists and turns is enjoyable, perhaps because there is so much of it. Less than enjoyable, however, is the curious combination of macho swagger and tidy moralizing that runs through it. Here is someone trying very hard indeed to gather as much street credibility as possible – and it shows.

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Smouldering Charcoal Tiyambe Zeleza’s Smouldering Charcoal is an altogether more conventional novel and, as it turns out, a more satisfying one. Zeleza’s canvas is very broad – he tells the story of two families from different economic and social classes whose lives get inevitably overrun by the corruption that strangles ordinary existence in Malawi. But he shows us that life goes on for individuals despite the collective despair and failed dreams of an entire nation. Even though his characters wind up as refugees in another land they manage to preserve their identity and their smouldering aspirations for change in their country. Compassionate and real, the book praises the tenacity of the human spirit without glamorizing it.

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The Predator
by Ice Cube
(4th & Broadway)

The inflammatory Ice Cube. Alarm bells, gunshots, a panicking crowd and the sounds of a cop conducting a search: if this collage didn’t open Ice Cube’s new album, then it could just as easily have been snatched from some gangster movie. Cube – one of LA’s most contentious rap stars – has never been one for understatement. Death Certificate, his last album, was marked by some appalling out-bursts against Koreans and Jews.

Ice Cube’s America is an ugly one, painted with the broadest strokes. Cops get shot, the Ku Klux Klan are ascendant. Black America is the impoverished, brutalized flipside to white civilization. A good day is defined as a day when ‘I didn’t even have to use my AK’ (the AK 47 gun). Cube’s language – the album comes with a discreet warning sticker for parents of impressionable children – is equally blunt. His sleeve notes read like a j’accuse of contemporary America; the album lyrics throw out warnings to trespassers.

Although last year’s riots in South Central LA showed that such views are not excessively paranoid, one wonders what merit there is in endless albums telling us ‘how it is’. Predator received a quiet release in the US and, after the furore over Death Certificate, the violent content of tracks such as Now I Gotta Wet ‘Cha, We Had To Tear This Motherfucker Up and Say Hi to the Bad Guy seemed predictable to US critics. Their muted response meant that some fine, heavy-gauge music was ignored: Cube’s Lench Mob producers have cut in some fearsome breaks (Parliament’s Aqua Boogie and the Isley Brothers’ Footsteps in the Dark are put to effective use), while Cube concentrates on cut-up conversations that seem written with a movie scenario in mind.

But Cube can hardly complain if people concentrate on what he says rather than what he sounds like. In political terms Predator does not even try to offer solutions. And in presenting that tired old picture of its maker in full gangster swagger, it makes you wish for the clarity and diplomacy of KRS-1 – the peace-campaigning New York rapper. This will never stop the violence.

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T H E[image, unknown] C L A S S I C
Ace in the Hole
... being the film that every aspiring journalist should watch

In an era when the issues of press freedoms and individual privacy are themselves consistently turned into the stuff of newspaper headlines, one film still stands as the most blistering, honest and concise introduction to the unwritten ground rules of a career in tabloid journalism: Billy Wilder’s searing 1951 drama Ace in the Hole (also known as The Big Carnival).

Generally regarded as the most relentlessly cynical film ever to have come out of Hollywood, Ace in the Hole was a flop at the box office and was even banned in colonial Malaya for presenting a facet of American life ‘that might be misunderstood’. The film attracted mostly hostile reviews from newspaper critics who refused to admit that the events and characters it depicted had any kind of truthful relationship to their own work practices.

Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas) is an experienced reporter who has been fired from a succession of major newspapers back East. Now working on a small paper in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Tatum and his young photographer colleague Herbie stop off at a desert roadhouse and happen upon a man, Leo Minosa, trapped deep underground inside a cave.

With his big-city ear for a story, Tatum realizes that this could be his ‘ace in the hole’, his way back into the big time. So he hatches a deal with the local crooked sheriff to have exclusive access to the trapped man and also convinces Leo’s selfish wife not to walk out on her husband but to play the part of the distraught lover. Then, while Tatum gets busy putting together the perfect human-interest story, the national press, TV, radio and the general public descend upon the desert location in droves, turning it into a grotesque carnival.

However, what Tatum really needs for the story to go well is for Leo to stay trapped for several days. So he makes the fateful decision to rig the rescue. Instead of the rescue team shoring up the tunnel and getting the trapped man out in 16 hours, Tatum contrives to have them drill down to him from above, an operation guaranteed to take at least five days. That’s great in terms of a good running story – the problem is, Leo dies before the drill reaches him...

Douglas’s wonderfully vitriolic performance turns sarcasm into an art form in a film that’s packed full of memorable lines. However, the most penetrating feature of the movie is the way in which it mercilessly exposes the craft of the gutter journalist.

The symbolism is perfect. An innocent man lies trapped and dying. He’s pleased to see the newspapers in which he’s front-page news, but all the time the reporter is ruthlessly exploiting him, using his name and the basic situation to fabricate his own ideal STORY. The process by which one individual’s personal crisis is transformed into a big headline and a set of worthless clichés to entertain the reading public is brutally revealed. Tatum talks of the big papers ‘lapping up’ and ‘gobbling’ his work. The image is apt: this is journalism expressed as a kind of cannibalism, with the newspapers and their readers callously devouring – and here literally destroying – their subject.

Ace in the Hole’s message was unpalatable because as well as indicting the press it also indicted the public which voraciously consumes this kind of story. We, the audience, are forced to identify with the people who flock to the carnival above what becomes effectively Leo’s tomb – and that’s a deeply unpleasant experience. Tatum’s own cynicism is overwhelming as he watches the rescue site turn into a bizarre money-spinning circus: ‘Mr and Mrs America, they’ll eat it up – the story and the hamburgers!’

When the film came out most critics accused Douglas of hamming his role. They wouldn’t believe that a reporter could act and talk in such a brutally selfish way. These days his character seems much more credible. Journalists behave like Tatum all the time: it would be very difficult to hold down a reporter’s job on one of Rupert Murdoch’s mass-selling titles without behaving something like this – without being prepared to ‘doorstep’ a grieving widow or pay a relative for a photo of a murdered child. But the difference between Tatum and the modern tabloid press is that Tatum admits his contempt for his readers, his profession and finally himself, something that most real journalists and editors would never do.

Ignorant readers and the gutter press feed off each other. That’s the relationship that Ace in the Hole crystallizes so well. An improved brand of tabloid journalism requires an improved kind of reader, but for that what’s needed is an education system which works. When tabloids like Murdoch’s plummet in circulation, we’ll know we’re getting one and Ace in the Hole will no longer be quite the most honest and socially relevant newspaper movie ever made.

Tom Tunney
Ace in the Hole directed by Billy Wilder (1951)

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New Internationalist issue 243 magazine cover This article is from the May 1993 issue of New Internationalist.
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