Review: Marx in Soho

Written by: Howard Zinn
Preformed by: Brian Jones
Venue: University of Melbourne Student Union
Reviewed by: Joel Cosgrove

“Don’t you wonder why it is necessary to declare me dead again and again?” asks Brian Jones in his performance as Karl Marx in Marx In Soho, a part of the Marxism Conference at Melbourne University.

The premise of the play is that Marx has been granted an hour to return to earth from heaven to argue his case and clear his name against over one hundred and fifty years of confusion and bastardization of his ideas by both supporters and opponents of his ideas. The twist being that instead of returning to Soho, London, he ends up in Soho, New York. With as much reflection on the 21st century as much as the 19th century that Marx inhabited.

Sitting on the sparse (but smartly laid out) stage, Marx reflects from his desk “Is there anything more boring than reading political economy? Writing it.” And proceeds to give an exposition of his ideas and his life. Drawing on being deported across Europe stating: “It seems the police develop an international consciousness long before the working class” as he ends up in London.”

Living in poverty, in part a result of Marx’s focus on writing (apart from occasional journalism assignments the only job Marx ever had was as a rail clerk, but he wasn’t offered the job when it became apparent that his handwriting was illegible.). Jones as Marx details the struggles his family went through, the deaths of a number of his children, the anguish and pain is something felt dearly from the stage.

This is a play that on one hand has a dense yet accessible account of Marx’s politics, but the heart of the play is a personal humanizing reflection on the relationship between Marx and his wife Jenny. Jenny Marx is someone who is often left out of discussions of Marx and Engels. Yet here figuratively she takes centre stage. Jones as Marx rages at their arguments, lauds her for her piercing intellect and studious work transcribing his illegible notes and is honest about his flaws and the struggles that he put her through. A key aspect of the play that makes it so enjoyable is the strongly feminist aspect, an almost defence of the role of Jenny played, subtly but clearly critiquing what is often labeled on the internet as ‘brocialism’.

The two aspects of the play which come together so beautifully are Howard Zinn’s excellent script and Brian Jones’ consummate performance. Zinn, a prolific radical writer and educator, best know for his bestselling work A People’s History of the United States produced in 1999 what is a deep and intelligent portrayal of Marx the political theorist and Marx as an individual, that gets across a dense amount of information in a surprisingly accessible and absorbable manner. Like the best theatre (or episode of Sesame Street), it teaches and informs without the audience realizing necessarily realizing. Primarily it is funny and entertaining.

In an interview speaking about his experience performing the play, Jones had the following to say:
“The secret: Zinn has a deep respect for his audience, and they know it. You feel it instantly when you meet him. He speaks and writes not to impress, but to stimulate. He never talks down to you, never writes in language you can’t understand to make him seem smarter. Making complicated ideas clear as glass, rescuing socialism from Stalin, and, yes, giving us a vision of Karl Marx that actually makes us laugh…these are the products of Zinn’s excellent method.”

It is Brian Jones who takes Zinn’s script and completes it as a live performance. It is Jones, 25 when he first started performing the play (he has been performing it since Zinn wrote it with him in mind in 1999), an African-American who so deeply embodies the eccentricities and humanism of the German revolutionary Marx.

The audience was the perfect one for this play. Densely layered with jokes and asides about Marx, Marxism and the wider history that Marx’s ideas inhabit. You don’t need to know all these intricacies, but it definitely helped on the night!

Film Review: No

no_filmByron Clark

After touring a number of film festivals and picking up the Art Cinema award at Cannes, Chilean director Pablo Larraín’s film No has arrived in New Zealand for a limited theatrical release. This is Larrain’s second film looking at Chile’s tumultuous political history; 2010’s Post Mortem was set during the 1973 military coup that overthrew leftist President Salvador Allende, inaugurating the 17-year dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. No is set in 1988 and takes place during the historic referendum on whether or not Pinochet should have another 8-year term as President.

While the film is certainly one to see for fans for Latin American cinema or anyone with an interest in Chile’s history, it also provides some ideas for those active in political campaigns today.

Gael García Bernal (star of 2004’s The Motorcycle Diaries) plays René, an advertising agent who is shown at the beginning of the film pitching a soft drink commercial when he is approached by an old acquaintance requesting his help on the ‘No’ campaign.
When international pressure forced the Pinochet regime to hold the referendum, each side was given 15 minutes of advertising in the middle of the night over a 27 day period. The group of left-wing parties involved in the No campaign initially wanted to show the horrors of the regime on screen; torture, disappearances and restrictions on dissent. Rene, in contrast, wanted to present an optimistic view of a post-Pinochet Chile, which appears to have more in common with his soda and microwave commercials than the opposition’s suggestions.

While the conflict between these ideas makes for one of the best dramatic scenes in the film, the final TV spots that Rene and his team come up with represent the best of both worlds, not dumbing down the politics of the situation, but presenting them in a way that is catching and memorable. For example, when a jingle writer asks Rene why he isn’t finding a rock or folk singer to write an anthem for the No campaign he replies that he isn’t looking for an anthem, he is looking for a jingle.

One of the key themes of the film is the question of how to communicate political ideas. While most advertising is indeed terrible from a creative standpoint, the nature of capitalism means that it is the industry where many creative types will end up working and the skills of those people shouldn’t be written off wholesale. Cynical leftist attitudes toward advertising, such as those presented in the Canadian magazine Adbusters, fail to acknowledge its persuasive power. To quote Australian author (and former marketing guy) Max Barry “You’re probably not persuaded by advertising. The thing is, everyone thinks that, and advertising is a $600 billion industry. Someone, somewhere is getting $600 billion worth of persuasion. “

Locally, Unite Union recognised the impact that marketing had in their 2005-2006 “SupersizeMyPay” campaign. It adopted a striking red and yellow colour scheme for all campaign materials and borrowed the McDonalds created phrase ‘Super Size’. The campaign co-opted as much as it subverted the fast food industry’s own marketing. While of course the biggest impact came from a supersized organising effort and industrial action, visibility and public awareness of the campaign was increased by the way it was branded.
No deserves the critical acclaim it has received. The danger of working on a dissenting campaign under an authoritarian regime is shown through the intimidation Rene and his colleagues find themselves in. It is also shown in the conflict between Rene and his boss, who has been enlisted to work on the ‘Yes’ campaign. A subplot about the relationship between Rene and his ex-wife gives the character depth, though this subplot is unresolved by the end of the movie.

Larrain made the interesting decision to shoot the movie on U-Matic magnetic tape, a format widely used for news broadcasts in Chile (as elsewhere) in the 1980s, rather than shooting on film or a modern digital format. This means that archival footage blends seamlessly with the fictionalised narrative and adds to the realism of the film. Of course since No is deliberately low-definition you won’t be missing out on much if you forgo the cinema screenings and watch it on DVD. Whichever way you see it though, just make sure you do.

Review: Black Faggot

black faggot

Reviewed by Ian Anderson

Black Faggot, performed in Auckland for Pride and Fringe Festival, should tour everywhere. Playwright Victor Rodgers’ examination of the “gay Samoan male experience” is timely and important. It’s also a crowd-pleasing comedy, selling out for its first season.

Direction, by Roy Ward, is spare and character-driven. Iaheto Ah Hi (Sione’s Wedding) and Beulah Koale (Shortland Street) perform in simple black outfits – with no props, no pre-recorded soundtrack, and simple lighting cues. In Auckland’s black-walled Basement Theatre, this simplicity allows the performers space to bounce a range of roles off each other, including various gay men and fa’afafine, their friends, family members, and tormentors. This two-man setup also allows for some excellent gender-bending performance, with Iaheto Ah Hi particularly relishing his portrayals of a Samoan mother and a fa’afafine artist.

Rodgers’ play is well-timed, given the recent press focus on homophobic Pasifika leaders.  According to Colmar Brunton polls, around 60% of Pasifika respondents support marriage rights, a similar amount to the general population. However, the play explores the complexity of double oppression for Pasifika queers: particularly the dominance of conservative churches (a closeted Destiny Church member prays to be straight) and the challenge of articulating an identity (a Samoan mother stumbles over whether to call her child “fa’afafine” or “gay”).

The play also acknowledges the racism faced by Pasifika queers, including in gay spaces. In an interview for GayTalk Tonight, writer Victor Rodger notes: “Race is something that always fascinates me and that is absolutely a product of growing up in Christchurch.” While Black Faggot focuses more on struggles within Pasifika communities, the play humorously highlights the corporate palagi monoculture of many gay spaces: “You know the one thing that makes me wish I was straight? The music they play in gay bars.”

Although nodding to the Civil Union and Marriage reforms, Black Faggot focuses mainly on personal relationships rather than legal reforms. The play should remind us of the importance of solidarity within communities; the importance of families supporting their fa’afafine, queer, and gender variant brethren. While some may find the slogan “it gets better,” spoken to a struggling queer kid near the end of the play, overly passive – it doesn’t “get better” until we make it better – the play reminds us that the struggle for liberation has just begun.

BlackFaggot

Book Review: Pirate Cinema, by Cory Doctorow

Reviewed by Byron Clark

Book cover
Cory Doctorow is a blogger and activist for civil liberties in the age of the advanced information and communication technologies and the war on terrorism. His near future speculative fiction novels such as Little Brother set in an America obsessed with anti-terrorism, have examined these issues, his next young adult book For The Win explored the economics of multiplayer online games, and the bizarre world of “gold farming” where workers toil in sweatshops to create virtual wealth, traded for real currency. Now with Pirate Cinema he’s taken on the issue of copyright and the power big content (film studios and record labels) has over government.
The story begins with Trent, a working-class teenager from a council flat in Bradford in the north of Britain having his family’s Internet connection terminated for illegally downloading movies. This scenario might seem familiar to local readers, as New Zealand not so long ago attempted to pass an amendment to the Copyright Act that would include disconnection from the Internet as a penalty for copyright infringement. This part of the bill was removed after public protest and concern from Internet Services Providers (ISPs)- businesses with interests different from big content.
Without access to the Internet Trent’s father loses his job as a work-from-home telephone operator, his disabled mother can’t sign on for welfare, and his sister struggles at school without access to the vast amount of information on the World Wide Web. Doctorow wants to show access to the internet has become as essential as electricity in the modern world. Ashamed of himself, Trent runs away from home to London, where he begins a comfortable life of squatting and dumpster diving. This scenario is a little unrealistic, but it makes a fun fantasy.

[Read more…]

Nationalism, Ethnicity and Gender in the Olympics

Nadzeya OstapchukBen Ritchie

The London Olympics have now been and gone, and by most accounts it was a pretty successful one for the New Zealand team, winning six gold medals. It was a successful one for casual sports observers such as myself, too – the competition itself was fascinating – a truly amazing range of physiques and athletic ability were on display. The story behind the last of New Zealand’s medals to be awarded – Valerie Adams’ shot put gold was belatedly presented in an Auckland ceremony on the 19th of September – is a fascinating microcosm of the role of elite athletes in modern capitalist society, and the many-faceted exploitation that is critical for the functioning of the current incarnation of the Olympic Games and modern elite sports in general.

Adams finished the competition in second place, behind her Belarusian rival Nadzeya Ostapchuk, only for Ostapchuk to be disqualified days later for returning two positive tests for the banned steroid metenolone. But Adams involvement in the Olympics was already subject to a degree of media sensationalism before she even made her first throw – an administrative mishap by the New Zealand Olympic Committee lead to some doubt as to whether Adams, the defending Olympic champion would even be able to participate. This was gold for the New Zealand media. Very few of their market know the first thing about shot put, so to have so much material to draw on enabled outlets like Fairfax to generate revenue with headlines such as ‘Adams entry blunder needs full NZOC inquiry’ and an out of context photo of a frustrated Adams in support. How often would you normally read an article about the correct forms being filled out for a shot put event? But, by exploiting the general enthusiasm for sports generated by the Olympics hype, this was front page news in New Zealand. [Read more…]

Review: Occupy This Album (2012)

Byron Clark

Wired magazine journalist Quinn Norton wrote about the music of the Occupy movement way back in December 2011, stating that “A movement goes nowhere without creating culture as it grows.” ‘Occupy This Album’ seemed almost inevitable. This is the closest thing possible to an official sound track that could come out of this loosely organised and non-hierarchical movement. All proceeds from the album go back to Occupy Wall Street activists.

Ambitiously the album was going to contain 99 tracks, playing on the slogan of “the 99%” that the movement has popularised. The CD version consists of 78 tracks, though the download version contains 99. Big names from previous generations of protest-musicians feature here: Patti Smith, Willie Nelson, Ani DiFranco (singing the union song Which side are you on?), Yoko Ono, and Joan Baez all leant their talents to this project. Even folk legend Pete Seeger- now in his mid-90s appears here, speaking on the track Industrial Park by his grandson’s band ‘The Mammals.’

Alongside those artists are tracks from more contemporary artists. Thievery Corporation and Third Eye Blind are probably the most recognisable names. Leftist punk rockers Anti-Flag, and rapper Immortal Technique are both here, and while the politics is good the heavy punk and hip-hop don’t slot in so well with an album that is mostly folk and progressive rock. Tom Morello, of Rage Against the Machine, now performs ‘World Wide Rebel Songs’ which makes for a better fit. Another great track is English singer-song writer Lloyd Coles The Young Idealists which exemplifies the album’s mood and musical style. Listening to this album you’ll also be exposed to some songs by lesser known artists such as Build the Sun and Jennie Arnau, as well as the novelty of a cover of Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are A’Changin’ performed by documentary film maker Michael Moore. [Read more…]

Album review: Born Villain

Byron Clark

Born Villain is the 8th studio album from shock-rocker Marilyn Manson, and the first released on his own label after his departure from Interscope records (who censored part of his previous album). Its been described as a come back album and this has led some critics to praise Manson’s return to form, and others to lament the sameness of this album- one described it as “Manson by numbers”. It certainly does sound familiar, though with a somewhat heavier bassline than previous albums- the track The Gardener could even be described as funky.
Lyrically though the album is something of a disappointment. There is some stuff that will shock and offend, but its shock for shocks sake. While its a stretch to describe Marilyn Manson as a political artist, part of his appeal was always his ability to hold a mirror up to society and cast a critical reflection. Manson was known for exploring the American obsession with the ‘three G’s’ Guns, God and Government- the title of his world tour a decade ago. His previous album, The High End of Low was his most explicitly political with songs like Black and White and We’re From America but there is little in the way of social commentary on Born Villain.

As a musician, Marilyn Manson is a good as ever. But the world now is a very different place than at the height of his popularity. Shock rock was a great way to draw attention to things that perhaps we’d rather not think about, but in the years since Manson’s 2003 album Golden Age of Grotesque one hasn’t needed to look to art to show us just how grotesque the modern world is. Since then we’ve been exposed to the photos of torture at Abu Ghraib prison, the Wikileaks video ‘Collateral Murder’  showing journalists being gunned down by American soldiers, and most recently photos published in the LA Times showing other American soldiers taking body parts as trophies. [Read more…]

Movie review: The Hunger Games

Ian Anderson

While far-right US commentators target venom at “Marxist” childrens’ films including The Muppets and The Lorax, number one blockbuster The Hunger Games should cause them more concern.

Adapted from a young-adult series by Suzanne Collins, the film portrays a dystopian future in which kids are sent to fight each-other to the death, as a reminder of the Capitol’s power. Collins says the original book series was inspired by channel-surfing between coverage of the Iraq war and reality television: “I was tired, and the lines began to blur in this very unsettling way.” This narrative, of young adults co-opted into a showcase that destroys many of its ‘heroes,’ could be extended into many areas; the sports industry, the record industry, or the Hollywood studio system which produced this adaptation. [Read more…]

Drugs in Organised Sport

 “Blood doping is a logical outcome of a sport where people push themselves to death for the enjoyment of fans and benefit of sponsors. Of the seventy top ten finishers in Armstrong’s seven Tour De France victories, forty-one have tested positive for PEDS. [Preformance Enhancing Drugs]”[1]

Joel Cosgrove

David Boon was reputed to have drunk 52 beers on the flight from Sydney to London in 1989

Within any discussion of modern day sport, the question of drugs comes up repeatedly. It is difficult to really get beyond the initial discussion: for, against, or on-the-fence, in regards to either the problem or the solution.

The reality is that since ancient times, strategies and theories have been developed in order to get an edge. While using magic mushrooms or whisky as performance enhancing aids might seem comical to the modern reader, they form part of a process that has led to academic Tony Schirato to describe as “…replacing this [pre-modern sport with] a level of professionalism, specialization, bureaucratization, and secularism never before seen in sport”.[2]Like every other part of human existence, capitalism has fundamentally changed the way we see organised sport.

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The Meaning of Sonny Bill Williams

The first international Rugby superstar with a wider appeal and awareness than rugby fans was Jonah Lomu. While terms such as ‘greatest player ever’ ‘living legend’ etc. can be bandied about easily enough, it is generally agreed that the power and influence of Lomu on the international rugby arena was immense. His sheer power, pace and image shocked and awed the international sporting world. Like with many sportspeople defined as ‘The Greatest’ it is not just the records that carry weight, it is the extraordinary effect of ‘the idea’ of the player on the wider viewing public that lifts someone above the shoulders of their fellow competitors.

Sonny Bill Williams (or SBW for the many readers, who I’m sure pay little or no attention to organised sport) is the second player following Lomu who most clearly fits the bill of ‘Superstar’. Yet this is a player who has played for the All Blacks rugby team for only two years, failing in his attempt to attain a starting spot in the team to Ma’a Nonu. Boxing aficionado and parasite capitalist Bob Jones has described SBW’s capabilities in his boxing side project as being “He can’t box. …but that’s hardly surprising given his novice status.”[1]. In his most recent fight against 43-year-old gospel singing, sickness beneficiary, Alipate Liava’a, he couldn’t even score a knockout, cue Jones’ negative reaction. However as spectacle SBW is a Superstar. With his boxing match raising over $350,000 for the Christchurch earthquake.[2] Alongside his boxing efforts, his every move is debated and discussed, in a manner far greater and wider than that of either Dan Carter and Richie McCaw, two All Blacks players, generally acknowledged as two of the greatest players to have played Rugby Union in any country in any time.[3][4]

[Read more…]