The second issue of 21st Century Manifesto magazine is available HERE.
Interesting to see Tarantino become animated in his refusal to discuss violence in his movies. In the US the ongoing controversy of gun control in the wake of recent massacres and school shootings, the latest yesterday in Los Angeles, shows little sign of abating.
Britain’s Piers Morgan has found himself cast as the bete noire of the pro-gun lobby for using his CNN show to argue for gun control, with a petition calling for his deportation being instigated by shock jock and conspiracy nut Alex Jones.
Below the Tarantino interview is the YouTube of Jones’s tirade at Morgan during a recent interview about gun control.
I am not a fan of Quentin Tarantino or his movies. I find his treatment of race, gender and class issues trivial and demeaning, lacking any depth whatsoever.
He is a member of a generation of white men who were weaned on a version of Blackness that was served from the shelves of corporate America in the mid-70s. Let him tell it, it was in the theaters watching films like “Shaft” and “Superfly” that he discovered his desire to become a filmmaker.
Blaxploitation films were Hollywood’s answer to the Black Power and Black Arts movements of the late Sixties. In these films we witness the real aspirations of working class Black people at that time as evidenced by organizations such as The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense turned inside out, gutted of all political relevance. These films became the canvas for white men to project their guilt-ridden fantasies of racial retribution. They turned our self-defined expression into a fashion statement, a corporate-sponsored slogan propped up on the billboards that scoured the skylines of ghettos across the country. Tarantino’s fascination with Black culture is not based on actual experience or concern with Black people’s organized struggle for justice, self-determination and liberation. It is based on his coming-of-age white boy experience with commercialized Blackness as filtered through the lens of Hollywood’s B-rated white directors, producers and executives.
So when I walked into the theaters to watch “Django Unchained,” I wasn’t expecting much. What I was expecting was what I have come to expect from a Tarantino film – gratitutous violence intermingled with homoerotic overtones, the overt exploitation of women and a sadistic use of the n-word. The thing is that in doing a film that proposes to treat the issue of slavery in the United States, such images and usages would be required given the obscene and brutal reality that slavery was. So, again, I was expecting Tarantino to have a field day. The problem with Tarantino’s film lies not in that he made use of such images; the problem is in how he used them.
Tarantino’s film was not as violent as I thought it would be or could have been. In fact, he was restrained. Slavery in the United States was violence unmitigated and without restraint. To define it otherwise, is to tell the most blatant of lies. Tarantino’s treatment of violence of slavery was timid in comparison to the daily reality faced by enslaved Africans. That said, the film failed to faithfully depict the Black men and women that lived under slavery. In “Django Unchained,” Black women are cast as mindless vixens and willing sexual liaisons to white men. Having a white master named “Big Daddy” (with all of its 70’s pimp nostalgia in tact) being called upon affectionately by enslaved women is a disservice to the memories of women like Harriet Jacobs, who resisted the sexual advances of her slave master for seven years by hiding away in the crawl space above a porch. Although Tarantino does manage to portray Kerry Washington’s Broomhilda as having agency (she runs away twice in the film), she never manages to escape the typical patriarchal frame being cast as a mere object for the hero’s affection. Rather than escaping slavery on her own merit, she is made to be rescued by her prince on horseback … and Harriet Tubman rolls over in her grave.
In Tarantino’s homoerotic white patriarchal fantasy we witness what is rare in American cinema – a blockbuster film that portrays the Black man as “the hero that rescues the girl and kills everyone that dares to stand in his way.” The problem with this is that the depiction of Django is a parody of history. From the moment Django and Schultz step out of the saloon facing an entire town of angry white men with their guns aimed at their faces, I knew that what would come after this would render the rest of the film mere fantasy. And from that scene to the last, every interaction Django has with a white man is unrealistic and unfaithful to the history the story is set in.
No, this film is not history. Neither is it historical. Tarantino does what white men do. Rewrite history. The facts are irrelevant. For white filmmakers, truth is in the mind of the beholder. When it comes to the Black experience, they can do what they have done to Black people throughout American history – whatever they please.
For me, the greater crime in this regard goes to Spielberg and his film “Lincoln.” Spielberg promotes this film as being true to history, yet leaves out a critical player in that history. For him to make a film about Abraham Lincoln and the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation and not include Frederick Douglass is be akin to someone making a film about Lyndon Johnson and the signing of the Voting Rights Act and leave out Dr. King. Incredible, right? Yet, that is exactly what Spielberg did.
I did find Tarantino’s treatment of white people interesting in this movie. He does a decent job of treating the dynamics of whiteness as played out in the plantation system – and in the process makes a statement on whiteness as it is played out today. He showcases white men who are enforcers of the plantation system. These white men do not own plantations, themselves. They merely work to enforce the plantation system. But that is not meant to diminish the power they wield over the lives of the enslaved. Even mired in ignorance and illiteracy, they still command a clear authority above the very Africans who are more intelligent than they are – as evidenced by the character of Django. This dynamic is played out very well in the scene where one of Candie’s “Mandigoes” is captured after attempting escape. In it, we see a dialogue between Candie and one of his white overseers whose garbled words are not intelligible, whatsoever. That scene was a telling indictment on the wage of whiteness that was paid out to buy the systemic complicity of impoverished whites who had more in common with enslaved Africans than the men and women who exploited them both. But that one scene and scenes like it were undermined by the comedic atmosphere that surrounded them throughout the film, enabling most viewers to just laugh it off and miss the message.
“Django Unchained” is a knock-off of Sergio Corbucci’s 1966 spaghetti western. According to Austin Fisher’sRadical Frontiers in the Spaghetti Western: Politics, Violence and Popular Italian Cinema, Sergio Corbucci’s films were revolutionary efforts to dramatize the brutality of the Italian state at a time when the working class were literally in the streets protesting policies they considered neo-fascist. Many of the directors of these films found inspiration from the writings of Che Guevera, Mao Tse-Tung, Leon Trotsky and Frantz Fanon! Imagine what kind of film Tarantino could have made had he injected “Django Unchained” with the philosophy of a Fanon. But that would have been too much work for Tarantino. He can’t seem to get past his juvenile obsession with gun-fire, bloodshed and gore to investigate the political messages that lie behind the bullets.
One of the most disturbing moments in the film was when Candie snorts “Why don’t they [the enslaved Africans] just rise up?” The rhetorical remark plays into the American white supremacist myth that Black people passively accepted slavery. No white slave owner conscious of the history of just his lifetime would make such an unchallenged statement in the late 1850′s. He would surely know the story of Nat Turner. He would certainly have been told of the conspiracies of Denmark Vesey and Gabriel Prosser. And that is just the short-list. In placing such ahistoric commentary in the film, Tarantino does more than lie on the history of slavery, he trashes the legacies of true Black heroes.
In keeping with his desire to mash up Blaxploitation and Spaghetti Westerns, he messed over the memory of a people still chained by the legacy of slavery. In an interview on NPR he was asked what he thought about his film premiering soon after the Sandy Hook mass shooting. A more appropriate question in light of the film’s subject matter would be to consider how his film glorifies the gun violence that has too many young Black men believing they can shoot their way out of the conflicts they encounter on the street. His film aggrandizes a violence that is not history but present day reality. A reality that has the Black community left grappling with the crippling effects of a startling statistic: there are as many Black people in the criminal justice system today as there were Black people enslaved in the late 1850′s. Fact is, shooting one’s self out of slavery was a much riskier venture than the film proposes. The system knew and knows how to handle that. Black men and women had to be and were smarter than that. They came together and organized collectively. They had to outfox the fox. I am referring to men like Robert Smalls who stole a ship right under the noses of the Confederate army and liberated himself and a band of his fellows and their families. He would go on to become one of the first Black elected officials from the South to serve in the U.S. Congress.
Tarantino could have tried to make a film about any number of great Black men and women who beat slavery on their own terms. Thing is, making such a film would require having a real relationship with Black struggle. Tarantino is confused. He believes that dabbling in stereotypes is the equivalent to treating the Black experience. He doesn’t have a real relationship with Black people, our history, our culture, our reality. And he doesn’t want one. To paraphrase Frederick Douglass he wants Blackness without the struggle.
With “Django Unchained,” Tarantino is saying to Black people, “I know Hollywood won’t let y’all make a movie like this, so let me do it for you.” He is one of those whites who believe they can use their privilege for the benefit of the oppressed. But in the process, what real benefits are gained?
As the Black intelligentsia and artistic elite bemoan and debate the merits of this film, there is a greater concern here that is being missed – our lack of control and influence in Hollywood. Yes, it is true – a Black person could not have gotten this film made in Hollywood. Even truer, a Black person cannot get any film green-lighted in Hollywood that attempts to tell the story of slavery in the Americas as it actually happened. Just ask famed actor Danny Glover who has been working for years to get a film made on the Haitian Revolution. In 2008 Glover, appearing at a press conference in Paris, stated that Hollywood financiers dismissed the film stating that it lacked white heroes. The racism of the industry remains as virulent as when the first Hollywood film “A Birth of a Nation” appeared in theaters across the country. The NAACP picketed that film in 1915. This year, “Django Unchained” is up for four NAACP awards. Is this a sign of progress or of something else? Such valorization of Hollywood and films that Hollywood produces casts a long shadow over the incredible films that are being produced by independent Black filmmakers. We lack a viable organization that would check Hollywood’s racism as well as highlight the considerable and valuable work being done by Black filmmakers not chained to the deep pockets of the likes of 20th Century Fox, Warner Bros. or Columbia. Sad fact is that Black actors in Hollywood, those that could bankroll such an organization or such an effort, are still chained to the executive offices of these corporations. Thus, we are left with great Black actors confined to roles that leave us engaged in a debate that does little to empower us, either economically or culturally.
Tarantino has stated that there are many great films that have yet to be made on the subject of slavery. I agree. “Django Unchained” is not one of them. Until we are able to pay our ten or twelve dollars to see Glover’s story of Toussaint L’Ouverture and the Haitian Revolution brought to the silver screen or any other film on slavery that has the gall to tell it like it was without apology and that captures the victorious spirit of our people’s struggle, I encourage you to search out Haile Gerima’s “Sankofa.” You will not be disappointed.
Ewuare X. Osayande (www.osayande.org) is a poet, essayist and political activist. He is founder and director of POWER: People Organized Working to Eradicate Racism. Follow his work on Facebook: Ewuare Xola Osayandeand Twitter: @EwuareXOsayande. His latest book is entitled Whose America?
The great American novelist, screenwriter, playwright, political and cultural commentator, essayist and polemicist, Gore Vidal, has died at the age of 86 after a battle with pneumonia.
When it comes to fiction, he is best known for his series of historical novels charting seminal events in US history. Another stand out (and this writer’s personal favourite) is his fictional account of the life of the Roman Emperor Julian the Apostate – Julian (1964) - who tried but failed to resist the spread of Christianity during the late Roman Empire. Myra Breckinridge (1968) is another classic.
The first of Vidal’s novels to come to mainstream attention was his third – The City and the Pillar (1948). Inspired by his own experiences, it attracted huge controversy for its honest and unapologetic treatment of homosexuality and depiction of openly gay characters, making it way ahead of its time.
Born into one the America’s oldest political dynasties, the Gores, Vidal’s colourful and eventful life included service in the army during World War II, two failed attempts at running for political office, and a career in Hollywood in the sixties, during which he worked uncredited on the script of Ben Hur. According to his account of the experience, he attempted to add a gay subtext to the relationship between the main characters Hur (Charlton Heston) and Messala (Stephen Boyd) but only Boyd understood and was able to carry it off. Heston, whom Vidal described as ‘charmless’, did not.
Vidal was a contemporary of every major US literary, political, and Hollywood icon of the 20th century, a man who could count among his friends, associates, and enemies the Kennedys, Martin Luther King, the aforementioned Charlton Heston, Marilyn Monroe, Orson Welles, Tennessee Williams, William F Buckley, Norman Mailer, Truman Capote and many many others. His immense literary talent earned him scandalously few literary awards and prizes in a career which included 25 novels, two memoirs, numerous plays, screenplays, and several volumes of essays. But then again Vidal was a man who revelled in the status of outsider and was scornful of literary awards and the literary establishment in general. When he was first offered a National Book Award, he turned it down with his now famous quote:
“I don’t want anything. I don’t want a job. I don’t want to be respectable. I don’t want prizes. I turned down the National Institute of Arts and Letters when I was elected to it in 1976 on the grounds that I already belonged to the Diners Club.”
He later accepted a lifetime achievement award at the 2009 National Book Awards.
A man of supreme caustic wit and sharp critical instinct, Vidal enjoyed collecting enemies. His notorious feud with the arch-conservative writer and commentator William F Buckley resulted in a famous TV debate, posted below, and he had similar TV spats with Norman Mailer, whom he compared to Charles Manson, and Truman Capote, whom he sued for libel after Capote alleged that Vidal had been thrown out of a Kennedy White House function on one occasion.
Politically, he was consistent in his attacks on the US political establishment, particularly the right, but also the Demcorats. He was a champion of the civil rights movement, a vocal critic of both the Vietnam and Iraq wars, and an opponent of America’s foreign policy overall. Post 9/11 he began to veer towards conspiracy theory and controversially voiced his sympathy for Timothy McVeigh in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995. On a personal note, I had the privilege of meeting him at an antiwar demonstration in Los Angeles in 2003, at which he spoke.
Though a man of the left, Vidal carried the air of a patrician and could give any English aristocrat a run for their money when it came to emitting an aura of smug superiority. However, in Vidal’s case, it was understandable considering his abundant talent and intelligence.
He lived during the high water mark of US literature, when novels and those who wrote them were still deemed important. In later years, Vidal lamented the state of American literature, encapsulated in the following quote: “Writing fiction has become a priestly business in countries that have lost their faith.”
The range, wit, and sarcastic bite in Vidal’s quotes over decades were redolent of Oscar Wilde at his satiric best, with far too many to include in one obituary. He was arguably the most important man of American letters since Mark Twain.
A couple of days ago there was the most extraordinarily lazy piece of reporting I have ever seen on the BBC TV news. In response to the new Hollywood film of the Adventures of Tintin, the Beeb decided to feature Hergé’s “Tintin in the Land of the Soviets”, his first book. The BBC’s angle was that Tintin in the Land of the Soviets was a very accurate portrayal of life in the USSR.
In fact “Les Aventures de Tintin, reporter du “Petit Vingtième”, au pays des Soviets” was originally published as crude anti-Marxist propaganda in an ultra-conservative Catholic newspaper by a 22 year old cartoonist who had no knowledge of the USSR, and based his story on information given to him by the Mussolini loving proprietor, Abbé Norbert Wallez. The paper, Le XXe Siècle, at that time also employed the future Belgian Nazi collaborator, Léon Degrelle, as its foreign correspondent.
So effectively, the BBC was going out of its way to say that the position argued by Belgian fascsists about the USSR was “surprisingly accurate”. Remember that the demonisation of the USSR was the justification for Belgian collaborators allying themselves with Nazi Germany during the war in what they saw as a “war against Bolshevism”. I know that it was just intellectual laziness on BBC’s part, but they did go to the expense of filming people in modern Russia to support their view, so they had made a serious editorial decision to run with this anti-Bolshevik angle.
There is a paradox at the heart of Hergé’s politics, because Tintin stories, notwithstanding their reflection of colonial steroetypes of their time, are generally anti-militarist, and are cynical about European colonialism. But he responded to the Nazi invasion on Belgium with the highly controversial story “The Shooting Star”, serialised in the pro-Nazi paper, Le Soir. While the obvious anti-Semitism of this work is often commented on, its almost as obvious collaborationism is less remarked upon.
The story describes a panic that the world will be destroyed by collision with a massive meteorite that will destroy civilisation, but it turns out to be a false alarm, and there was nothing to worry about. This was a clear reflection of the hysteria that gripped Belgium as the German forces advanced; and an endorsement of the idea that the Nazi occupation was benign.
Indeed, Hergé’s collaboration with the Nazi occupiers caused him enormous difficulties after the war, and he effectively lost editorial control of his own artistic output.
However, if you take into account the social and cultural context they were written in, as we would with other artists like Kipling, then the Tintin books are still remakable works for children, that have two big plusses; firstly that they feed the imagination, and secondly that they allow children to identify with the young reporter who champions the underdog, and who does succeed in changing the world.
In response to the recent economic troubles facing bookshops of all sizes across Britain, a group of radical booksellers has joined together to create the Alliance of Radical Booksellers, a supportive community for Britain’s remaining radical bookshops.
Intending to pick up where the former Federation of Radical Booksellers left off in its mission to offer practical assistance and support to radical bookshop owners, the Alliance hopes to increase awareness of the unique offerings of local radical bookshops, as well as provide a support network for the radical bookshop community.
The Alliance currently includes the following booksellers:
* London-based booksellers 56a Infoshop, Active Distribution, Andrew Burgin, Book Bloc, Bookmarks, Freedom, Gays the Word, Housmans Bookshop, Letterbox Library, Newham Bookshop, and Soma Books
* Brighton ’s Africa Book Centre and the Cowley Club
* Kendal-based bookshop Left on the Shelf
* Liverpool ’s News from Nowhere Bookshop
* The People’s Bookshop in Durham City
* Leeds-based Radish Books
* October Books in Southampton
* Edinburgh ’s Word Power Books
* …and Bristol ’s soon-to-open Hydra
Nik Gorecki, co-manager at Housmans Bookshop, explains the motivation behind the formation of the Alliance :
“Independent bookshops have been on the back foot for many years now. Headline after headline tells of booksellers shutting up shop. Radical bookshops used to thrive in Britain , with most towns having at least one dissenting bookshop to call their own. We felt it was time to take a stand and turn the tide.”
“A key issue is awareness – many people just don’t realise that we’re out there – so making ourselves more visible is a key objective. But beyond that it’s also important for us to share expertise and provide support for one another. We don’t see each other as competition, but as complimentary parts of a wider whole. The politics of our shops binds us together.”
“There are three members of the ARB who have either just opened, or are getting ready to open in the near future: Book Bloc in London ’s New Cross, The People’s Bookshop in Durham and Bristol ’s Hydra. Starting up a new bookshop can be a daunting process, and the Alliance has already proven to be a valuable resource to turn to for advice and encouragement. Hopefully their example will encourage others to follow suit.”
“We’re taking it one day at a time, but hopefully the ARB will become an ever-growing presence on the bookselling landscape. One of the primary initiatives we’re kicking off with is a new book award for political non-fiction: we’re calling it the Bread and Roses Award.”
Bread and Roses Award for Radical Publishing
In addition to fostering a community for booksellers, the Alliance is proud to announce the first annual Bread and Roses Award for Radical Publishing. With a prize of £1000 for the winning author to be announced on the 1st May 2012, the Bread and Roses Award aims to promote the publication of radical books, to raise the profile of radical publishing, and to reward exceptional work.
The Bread and Roses Award will be awarded by a panel of judges including children’s novelist and poet Michael Rosen, lecturer and feminist author Nina Power, and Festival Director of Liverpool ’s annual Writing on the Wall Festival, Madeline Heneghan.
The Prize seeks to reward outstanding works of non-fiction published in 2011 that engage with socialist, anarchist, environmental, feminist and anti-racist concerns, and primarily will inspire, support or report on political and/or personal change. They may relate to global, national, local or specialist areas of interest.
The name Bread and Roses is taken from the slogan attributed to textile workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts, who, at least in the song commemorating the event, struck “for bread, and for roses too.”
Ross Bradshaw, of Five Leaves Publishing and one of the trustees of the inaugural prize, officially launched the prize at the Chapter and Verse Literature Festival in Liverpool on the 13th October. The announcement was followed by a stirring rendition of ‘Bread and Roses’ by the Liverpool Socialist Singers.
Speaking at the launch Ross said that “Radical publishing is going through a small renaissance, but we also want to recognise radical books published by mainstream publishers. This new award will raise the profile of radical publishing and writing in this country, reward good writing and encourage people to read books by left of centre writers.”
The winner of the first Bread and Roses Award will be announced on the 1st May 2012, with the award being presented at Clapham’s Bread and Roses pub – an ideal venue, not just because of the shared name, but because of the pub’s connection with the Workers’ Beer Company and the Battersea and Wandsworth Trades Union council, which founded the pub.
The response from radical publishers has been very enthusiastic, with representative from publishers taking part in discussions with the ARB to see how best the two sectors can work together. Anne Beech from Pluto Press says “I’m genuinely excited at the prospect of the RBA and Bread and Roses book award. Independent booksellers have always been important to independent publishers – there’s a special sort of symbiosis that sustains us both, particularly in these challenging times. So the prospect of an alliance of radical booksellers awarding a prize is an enticing one, given that the members of the alliance represent some of the most passionate and committed booksellers on the planet!”
For further details on submitting to the Bread and Roses Award visit http://www.bread-and-roses.co.uk
Recently, I rediscovered the work of Charles Bukowski after many years. For those unfamiliar with Bukowski, he is one of the most popular novelists and poets ever to inhabit the American counter culture, with some of his works still considered classics and as popular today as they were when they were published in his lifetime.
The book of his I picked out from the back of the bookshelf was Factotum, a semi-autobiographical account of his years as a down and out itinerant worker in the 1940s, moving back and forth across the United States working in a series of menial and low wage jobs, sleeping in cheap hotels when he could afford the rent, or in parks, perennially drunk and involved in dysfunctional relationship after dysfunctional relationship with a variety of women. Adopting the alter ego Henry Chinaski in each of his classic semi-autobiographical novels: Post Office (1971); Factotum (1975); Women (1978); and Ham On Rye (1982), Bukowski’s genius was in articulating the deadening reality of working life in simple yet scintillating prose, while at the same time infusing his work with a scathing rejection of polite society with its stifling and rigid conventions.
When I got back to Los Angeles I found a cheap hotel just off Hoover Street and stayed in bed and drank. I drank for some time, three or four days. I couldn’t get myself to read the want ads. The thought of sitting in front of a man behind a desk and telling him that I wanted a job, that I was qualified for a job, was too much for me. Frankly, I was horrified by life, at what a man had to do simply in order to eat, sleep, and keep himself clothed. So I stayed in bed and drank. When you drank the world was still out there, but for the moment it didn’t have you by the throat.
Born in Germany in 1920, Bukowksi came to the United States with his parents in 1923. In 1930 they settled in Los Angeles, the city that was to feature so prominently in his prose and poetry, just as the Depression swept the country. His father was unemployed for long stretches and in this passage from Ham and Rye, the autobiography of his childhood years, years in which Bukowski suffered constant beatings and mental abuse from his father, he describes the moment when the beatings no longer frightened him.
He hit me again. But the tears weren’t coming. My eyes were strangely dry. I thought about killing him. In a couple of years I could beat him to death. But I wanted him now. He wasn’t much of anything. I must have been adopted. He hit me again. The pain was still there but the fear of it was gone. The strop landed again. The room no longer blurred. I could see everything clearly. My father seemed to sense the difference in me and he began to lash me harder, again and again, but the more he beat me the less I felt. It was almost as if he was the one who was helpless. Something had occurred, something had changed. I heard him hanging up the strop. He walked to the door. I turned.
“Hey,” I said.
My father turned and looked at me.
“Give me a couple more,” I told him, “if it makes you feel any better.”
Outside the parental home, Bukowski’s life was just as difficult as a boy growing up. He was rejected by the other kids both in his neighbourhood and at school and regarded as a misfit. His cause wasn’t helped by the chronic acne he suffered, which left him permanently scarred.
When one boil vanished another would appear. I often stood in front of the mirror alone, wondering how ugly a person could get. I would look at my face in disbelief, then turn to examine all the boils on my back. I was horrified. No wonder people stared, no wonder they said unkind things. It was not simply a case of teenage acne. These were inflamed, relentless, large, swollen boils filled with pus, I felt singled out, as if I been selected to be this way. My parents never spoke to me about my condition.
In his adult years, Bukowski’s experiences of being an outcast growing up unsurprisingly led to him embracing solitude and seeking sanctuary in his own company wherever possible.
It was the first time I had been alone for five days. I was a man who thrived on solitude; without it I was like another man without food or water. Each day without solitude weakened me. I took no pride in my solitude; but I was dependent on it. The darkness of the room was like sunlight to me. I took a drink of wine.
His abiding passion and preoccupation, apart from writing and alcohol, was women. His classic novel of the same name was published in 1978. In it he recounts a series of abusive and dysfunctional relationships. Though laced with his trademark humour throughout, Women reveals an underlying fear of commitment and rejection when it came to his many encounters with the opposite sex, resulting in an inability to treat a relationship as much more than an exercise in psychological and emotional warfare.
There is always one woman to save you from another and as that woman saves you she makes ready to destroy.
As well as prose, Bukowski wrote a prodigious quantity of poetry, again chronicling life on the margins among the down and outs, prostitutes, and drunks in cheap hotels, dive bars and on the street. When it came to politics, he remained resolutely disdainful.
The difference between a democracy and a dictatorship is that in a democracy you vote first and take orders later; in a dictatorship you don’t have to waste your time voting.
He excoriated the Beats during the fifties and during the sixties he sat out the anti-Vietnam war movement and concomitant upsurge in youth rebellion, even though by this time his poetry and short stories were regularly appearing in the underground press and he was in demand to appear around the country giving readings of his work. Appearing in public was something he loathed, however, and typically he would appear drunk and incoherent and end up spending the bulk of the reading trading insults with his audience.
In terms of influences, Bukowski’s work belongs in the tradition of Dostoevsky, Celine, Jean Genet, Henry Miller, and John Fante, writers who chronicled life at the bottom of society and were able to find poetry in the most base and desperate aspects of the human condition. But what sets Bukowski apart from those just mentioned is the absence of ornamentation in his prose, lending it a deceptive simplicity and clarity which enhanced its impact. Later writers whose work reflects his influence include the likes of Raymond Carver, Hubert Selby Jnr, and James Kelman.
After years of poverty, Bukowski’s fortunes finally changed when his work was discovered by John Martin, publisher and owner of a small, independent publishing house, Black Sparrow Press, in the late sixties. Martin immediately recognised the genius in Bukowski’s writing and published his first and most popular novel Post Office in 1971, a chronicle of the 13 years the writer spent working for the US Postal Service.
Thereafter, Bukowski committed most of his work to Black Sparrow Press in a relationship that continued until his death from leukaemia in 1994 at the age of seventy three.
By the 1980s Bukowski was a cause celebre both in underground literary circles and in Hollywood, with young actors such as Sean Penn and Mickey Rourke paying homage to the man and his work. This was reflected in the fact that both vied to play his character in the movie based on his life, Barfly (1987). Penn even offered to play the part for as little as a dollar in salary. Ultimately, though, Bukowski favoured Rourke for the role, with the writer himself making a cameo appearance and Faye Dunaway playing his lover. Bukowski wrote the script and described his experience of the movie business in the novel Hollywood (1989).
Despite losing out on the role in the movie, Penn kept up a close relationship with Bukowski until the writer’s death. Asked later for his thoughts on Bukowski’s life, Penn said of him that, “he wasn’t irreverent. He was a man without reverence.”
Robert Burns: Not In My Name reclaims Scottish bard from tourism
Kevin Williamson showcases radical subversive poetry at Edinburgh Festival 2011
So, you think you know Robert Burns, eh? Tartan-edged poetry for shortbread tins and corporate haggis suppers? Well, Kevin Williamson, founder of 90s publishing punks Rebel Inc (Children of Albion Rovers) has decided to change your mind. His new multimedia show focuses on reclaiming Rabbie from the heritage industry and showing people the charged, political revolutionary behind the kailyard iambics.
‘Surprisingly, given how ubiquitous Robert Burns is, few people have heard his radical subversive poetry performed live,’ says Williamson, who describes the vicious satires and underground revolutionary anthems he’s reviving as ‘the dangerous stuff Burns couldn’t put his name to in his lifetime’. The poems are going to be linked into a chronological narrative by a series of 12 videos (made by award-winning filmmaker Alastair Cook, who specialises in setting poetry to film), and set to a new soundtrack by composer Luca Nasciuti. Williamson wants to perform the poetry as he believes Burns might have, had he been around today.
‘I’m hoping to show it still packs a powerful punch, and sends people away with a more complete perspective on our national poet.’
National Library of Scotland, 226 0000, 4–12 & 24–28 Aug, 7pm, £8 (£5).
‘How are the mighty fallen in the midst of the battle’
The above biblical quotation seems an apt way to describe the sea change in Rupert Murdoch’s fortunes when it comes to the power and influence he once wielded over the body politic in this country but which is now no more. From being the man in front of whom ministers, politicians, and anyone looking to climb the greasy establishment pole bent the knee, he has now become untouchable, the political equivalent of toxic waste.
However, lest we forget, the alacrity with which the political class has lined up as one to distance itself from Murdoch and the rancid, reactionary ethos of his media empire is an object lesson in the venality with which it once abased itself before him.
None of the mainstream parties can claim any moral high ground when it comes to Murdoch, as all could be found jangling in his pocket like loose change over the years. Indeed, of the many prominent political voices who’ve railed against Murdoch and his baneful role in British society, scarcely few have been able to do so in the knowledge that they were fighting the Murdoch Empire and everything it represents during the long years when its influence was at its height and seemed well nigh unbreakable.
That being said, Ed Miliband and the Labour Party haven’t put a foot wrong from the moment that the NOTW phone hacking scandal exploded in significance with the revelation that Milly Dowler’s phone had been hacked. In a way that none probably would have thought possible, Labour under Miliband’s leadership have succeeded in driving the political response to this unfolding crisis, culminating in the unprecedented event of a sitting government supporting an opposition motion in the House of Commons.
Understanding completely the extent to which Cameron is vulnerable over his close personal relationship with News International’s chief executive, Rebekah Brooks, his calamitous decision to appoint Andy Coulson as his head of communications, and worse his refusal to distance himself from Coulson months ago before he himself resigned, even in the face of advice from ranking members of his own party that he should, Miliband has succeeded in keeping the government on the back foot. In the process he has reduced Cameron to fighting a desperate rearguard action as more and more revelations appear in the pages of the Guardian and the Independent daily.
This scandal has exposed how for decades the political process was corrupted by Murdoch, to the point where his newspaper group assumed the de facto status of a government within a government. More than this it operated beyond the law with all the morals of a criminal organization, doing so up until now with impunity.
The public struggle for power that has unfolded between News International and the political establishment only erupted when it came to light that the crimes committed by the NOTW extended to violating the privacy and human rights of ‘ordinary people’, proving that a corrupt and supine executive can only sustain itself on the basis of an apathetic and passive populace. Public revulsion over this issue had not manifested in any tangible form, but the fear of it doing so has been enough to produce the unprecedented revolt against Murdoch by the political class that we are currently witnessing. Coming in the wake of the expenses scandal, banking crisis and iniquity of the government’s austerity programme, there is no doubt that the NOTW scandal with its tentacles reaching to expose widespread corruption within the Met, has left the credibility of the establishment in tatters.
While it would be folly to draw any conclusions from events that are evolving so rapidly, it is by now safe to declare that Murdoch’s influence over the political process via his media empire has been irretrievably broken. The market for the toxic brand of right wing populism his empire churns out on a daily basis is, however, another matter. This is where the left, progressives and the trade union movement come in.
The culture wars that have defined the realm of ideas in the West for the past three decades with the spread of neoliberalism have proved manna from heaven for the right, which has used them to exploit cultural differences in order to place a smokescreen over the issue of class. This has manifested in newspapers such as the Sun, the NOTW, the Daily Mail, Express, and Daily Star being able to get away with claiming to represent the interests and values of ‘ordinary people’ for over three decades without serious opposition.
Tumbling newspaper circulations in this regard suggest positive evidence of the increasing influence of alternative sources of news and information, with the internet having assumed a larger imprint year on year and little sign of it slowing down either.
Online magazines, blogs, websites, social media in general, this is the terrain on which progressive ideas can gain traction in the months and years ahead as the unions and the left continue to resist the coalition government’s cuts agenda.
While Murdoch may now be yesterday’s man as far as political influence is concerned, the struggle doesn’t end there. For if social democracy is to return to prominence as the cornerstone of a civilized society, the reactionary ideas and values he represents must be sent into the night with him.
In tribute to film director Sidney Lumet, who died on April 9 at the age of 86, here are clips from what to my mind were his three greatest movies – Twelve Angry Men (1957) with Henry Fonda; The Hill (1965) with Sean Connery; and Dog Day Afternoon (1975) with Al Pacino.
Lumet was a master at merging social realism with psychodrama, as the three examples posted illustrate. He was also a great humanitarian, a liberal filmmaker who depicted his characters with tremendous sympathy and who managed to coax classic and career defining performances from some of cinema’s finest actors. Sean Connery’s performance in The Hill, for example, was in my opinion the best of his career, though Harry Andrews does come close to outshining him.
Movies which stand the test of time are rare. Rarer still is the director who directs not just one timeless work but three in a career, as Lumet did.
He was without a shadow of a doubt one of the finest film directors of the 20th century, ahead of his time both in terms of the themes he tackled and the craftsmanship he brought to the execution of those themes. Twelve Angry Men, if pitched as an idea today, would be rejected as being too uncinematic and dialogue heavy. The ability to carry a movie set in one location, which Lumet did by dividing up that one location into multiple locations, and sustain the tension throughout, was a work of cinematic genius.
He was a great believer in extensive periods of rehearsal with his actors before shooting began, anapproach which many directors scorn as the death knell of spontaneity. But as Lumet himself said: “All great work is preparing yourself for the accident to happen.”
In his case the ‘accident’ happened time after time.
Matewan (1987) was written and directed by John Sayles, and is based on the true story of the labour struggle that took place in the small West Virginian coal town in 1920. It starred Chris Cooper, James Earl Jones, and David Straithairn, each of whom put in an excellently understated performance. It is a film which in its depiction of issues which the left continues to grapple with today - sectionalism, racism, ultra leftism, betrayal, and the abiding strength in unity and solidarity - is supremely accurate and relevant.
The film was shot by legendary cinematographer, Haskell Wexler, who worked on and produced so many classic movies and documentaries it would be impossible to list them all. His work during the sixties and seventies was at the heart of the American counter-culture movement which emerged during and in the aftermath of the Vietnam War.
John Wight looks at the phenomenon that is the X-Factor
Greek philosopher and tragedian, Aristotle, devised six elements of drama which have guided the work of playwrights and dramatists for over 2,000 years. Within the parameters of his classic three act structure, these elements are:
1. PLOT – what happens in a play; the order of events, the story as opposed to the theme; what happens rather than what it means.
2. THEME – what the play means as opposed to what happens (plot); the main idea within the play.
3. CHARACTER – the personality or the part an actor represents in a play; a role played by an actor in a play.
4. DICTION/LANGUAGE/DIALOGUE – the word choices made by the playwright and the enunciation of the actors delivering the lines.
5. MUSIC/RHYTHM – by music Aristotle meant the sound, rhythm and melody of the speeches.
6. SPECTACLE – the visual elements of the production of a play; the scenery, costumes, and special effects in a production.
In addition, Aristotle defined tragedy in the context of drama as:
“…the imitation of an action that is serious and also, as having magnitude, complete in itself; in appropriate and pleasurable language;…in a dramatic rather than narrative form; with incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish a catharsis of these emotions.”
If any further evidence were needed that the ancient Greek’s definition of tragedy and essential elements of drama were timeless then surely the phenomenon that is the X Factor provides it. Once again the reality TV show created by the ubiquitous Simon Cowell is currently dominating the cultural life of the nation with its ingenious combination of drama, tragedy, music, audience participation and suspense.
That all good drama is conflict is embodied on the show in the constant behind the scenes squabbling among the contestants, scripted or not, which takes place on a daily basis in between shows in the pages of the tabloid press and across the internet. And as in any classic drama there is the hero, this year in the shape of Cher Lloyd, and the villain, who this year is played by Katie Waissel, who was finally voted off this year. The addition of comic relief this year has been provided by Wagner, who again was voted off this week.
Meanwhile the subplot, that essential component which any screenwriter omits at his peril, is filled by the ongoing rivalry between the judges. The audience receives enough of a glimpse of this subplot in the barbed comments between the judges during the show to leave it wanting more, which they duly receive in tabloid accounts of the ongoing behind the scenes animosity and rivalry between Cheryl and Danni, and the fractious nature of Simon’s relationship with Louis Walsh, etc. Again, the subplot continues between shows in the pages of the tabloid press, thus keep the audience engaged with the show on a daily basis.
Viewing figures for the X Factor consistently trumps those of every other show during the much coveted peak Saturday and Sunday night television slots, averaging in the region of 13 million viewers. An ancillary show, The Xtra Factor, is broadcast immediately after the main show in order to analyse the latest developments and the judges decisions on everything from the songs chosen by them for the acts they’re mentoring, the outfits worn by the acts, the performance, and so on. Due to the phone-in format of The Xtra Factor, the show’s engagement with the viewer at home is enhanced.
On the show the suspense of wondering who will be ejected each week mirrors the anguish of the contestants as they wait to hear their fate. This is followed by the heightened emotion which comes with the reaction of those acts voted through to the next round on the one hand, and that of the act or acts voted off. The rollercoaster of emotion which ensues – involving crushing disappointment and sadness for those who’ve been rejected, and relief and joy for those voted through – makes for compelling viewing, as does the reactions of the judges who stand with their respective act or acts and share in their pain, sadness or joy as the decision is announced. The fact the watching audience at home is accorded the privilege of influencing the outcome by voting on who stays and who goes adds the element of emotional engagement and empowerment over proceedings.
The performance of each contestant, as they literally sing to escape a fate of normality and drudgery, allows us to imagine such an escape for ourselves. We sympathise with them just as we sympathise with a character in any compelling film or theatre production, and in the process suspend disbelief as they succeed in pulling us into their world.
But it is exactly the theme embodied in the notion of affording this escape where shows like the X Factor distorts the meaning of human existence, divorcing it from its essential social relations and ties of solidarity, compassion and cooperation. These shows invite us to escape our lives, problems, frustrations and fears for those precious two hours every Saturday or Sunday night. This we do willingly, but the price paid for doing so is the deflation we may experience once the show ends and we are forced to confront again the reality of our actual existence rather than the imagined one created by the show.
It is the same experience involved in a visit to the cinema to watch a movie in which acts of heroism and courage are magnified on the silver screen. In the confines of a darkened cinema, we enjoy the visceral experience of being part of a fictional world where good triumphs over evil, the good guys always win, and where courage and heroism prevails. The thrill we experience is often matched at the other end by the sense of deflation and let down we encounter upon leaving the cinema and the world of excitement and moral certainties we’ve just been part of behind.
At its best drama poses disturbing questions about the world we live in, about the received truths of said world and its smug conceits. By holding up a mirror to society, drama, like any art form, can also provide comfort by depicting conflicts and seemingly insurmountable every day problems that we recognise in our own lives. It creates a circular relationship between the characters acting out the drama and us in the audience, whereby not only are we able to sympathise with the characters and the conflicts they depict, but we are left with the feeling that they sympathise with us and our conflicts. In the process it reminds us that we are not alone in facing those conflicts, which has the effect of fostering a sense of solidarity that gives us strength to carry on.
But in inverse proportion to the level of social and economic injustice that exists in society, we are fed as entertainment a diet of escapism masquerading as drama via the visceral experience of witnessing contestants, plucked from obscurity, being given the opportunity to secure an individual solution to the conflicts inherent within said society. The success of shows such as the X-Factor, Britain’s Got Talent, and The Apprentice are a symptom of the desperation felt by millions trapped in low paid and/or unfulfilling occupations, straitened circumstances, and who face an uncertain and precarious future.
That the contestants on these shows are willing to compromise their self esteem as a price worth paying for this escape merely reflects the massive promotion of celebrity and fame as being synonymous with happiness and fulfilment in our time.
Musically, we come to perhaps the most egregious aspect of the X Factor. A weekly round of classic and not so classic songs by the world’s greatest musical artists and songwriters are covered, but not in an attempt to convey the emotion and power of the song, rather in a contrived attempt by each contestant to impress the audience and the judges with their ability to mimic that emotion. The song is not performed as the end, as an expression of unalloyed human emotion, but as the means to the end; in this case a ticket through to the next round. Each week another song is sung and easily discarded as the contestant moves on to the next, thus reducing music and lyrics to nothing more than a transmission belt to fame and hopefully fortune.
Typically, winners of the X Factor, rewarded with a recording contract, go on to release one single with the objective of it becoming that year’s Xmas number one, followed by an album of mostly cover songs. If they are lucky they get to release a second album before being returned to the obscurity whence they came.
Last year, a Facebook campaign succeeded in trumping the X Factor to the Xmas number one slot with a song by Rage Against The Machine. It was a campaign of cultural resistance which provided encouraging evidence of a growing rejection of the show and the values of crass commercialism it promotes. This year, the show has responded with a charity song sung which cynically exploits the troops, in the process emphasising the X Factor’s association with a palpable pressure to join in with the apotheosis of the military and its role in places like Afghanistan.
Next year, just like the year before and the year before that, there will be another round of X Factor contestants, most indistinguishable from the next, to satiate the nation’s need for a visceral escape from the problems of survival which most of us encounter on a daily basis. Like the gladiatorial games of ancient Rome, the X Factor acts as both a distraction and a temporary palliative, reinforcing the perversion of human happiness as a by product of extreme wealth and fame.
As Bertolt Brecht reminds us: “Unhappy the land that is in need of heroes.”