Media Jones

More bang for your media buck

Hollywood's finest arms bazaars; Salman Rushdie rocks ('n' rolls); book, music, and film reviews

Cinematic Firepower

Who needs arms shows when the raw destructive potential of the finest U.S. military hardware is on display--for any aspiring tin-pot dictator to see--in the latest action flick? Just load up that VCR, park your power-mad heinie, and check out the high-powered goods that the military-entertainment complex has to offer. -- Rachel Hartigan

Godzilla Roland Emmerich. 140 minutes. TriStar Pictures, 1998. Ignore the fact that most of the weapons featured here are ineffective against a giant radioactive reptile. Check out what they do to New York City! Heat-seeking Sidewinder missiles--perhaps not the best choice against a cold-blooded creature--knock the top off the Chrysler Building. Then F/A-18 Hornet jets pulverize Madison Square Garden, while swarms of Apache helicopters dart through the urban canyons, strafing highrises. The city is laid to waste by the firepower meant to save it.

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Top Gun Tony Scott. 110 minutes. Paramount Pictures, 1986.The F-14 Tomcat is a magical jet. It seduces its pilots, in the words of one naval commander, into "writing checks your body can't cash"--to wit, attempting a 4G negative dive close enough to the enemy jet to flip off its pilot and take his picture. The jet is also effective at bringing down Soviet MiGs, buzzing control towers, and wooing brainy instructors.

True Lies James Cameron. 141 minutes. Twentieth Century Fox, 1994.The U.S. Marine Corps' Harrier jet is more than just a hit-a-spindly-Florida-Keys-bridge-dead-on kind of plane. As piloted by Arnold Schwarzenegger, it can also hover beside a Miami skyscraper and blast out its windows. Observe that the jet maintains near-perfect control as Arnold rescues his surly kid from a crane while fending off a knife-wielding terrorist.

Independence Day Roland Emmerich. 145 minutes. Twentieth Century Fox, 1996.The F/A-18 Hornet fighter jet is a mixed bag: not so hot at penetrating the force fields of alien motherships, but dyn-o-mite against the flying saucers that spew out of them. Note the plane's unparalleled maneuverability as Will Smith weaves through crevasses and under falling rocks in an effort to evade an unearthly pursuer. Even wan President Bill Pullman succumbs to the lure of the jet: "I'm a combat pilot," he says. "I belong in the air!"

Broken Arrow John Woo. 108 minutes. Twentieth Century Fox, 1996.OK, so you can't actually buy the fictive B-3 bomber featured here (it's a slight exaggeration of the Air Force's B-2 Stealth bomber); then again, the real deal costs more than many a Third World GNP. But live the fantasy: This sleek, sinister baby packs a wallop--two nuclear warheads--and zips through the air undetectable to radar. Alas, it is just as susceptible to cockpit fistfights as the next bomber, slamming into the side of a mountain in a $2 billion explosion after dueling pilots Christian Slater and John Travolta wrestle for the controls.

books

Inside Sudan: Political Islam, Conflict, and Catastrophe By Donald Petterson. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1999. 208 pages. $25. Approximately 2 million Sudanese civilians have died from the famine, disease, and violence caused by the 16-year civil war between the Islamic government and separatist rebels in the south. And the author, the last American ambassador to complete a post there, fears that prospects for peace in the region are slim.

In this political memoir, Petterson describes his ultimately fruitless efforts to improve relations with Sudan's fundamentalist dictatorship. Despite the inherent dangers of the post, he embarked for Khartoum in 1992 and for the next three years persisted in making diplomatic overtures--a task made all the more difficult in 1993 when the United States named Sudan a state sponsor of terrorism. His full accounts of meetings with Sudan's president and foreign ministers, as well as with rebel leaders in the southern war zones, provide a compelling entrZe into the country's quagmire and offer a unique glimpse of the inner workings of U.S. foreign policy.Ê--A.F.   -- A.F.

Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World By Mark Pendergrast. New York: Basic Books, 1999. 568 pages. $27.50. Read Uncommon Grounds too literally and you'll find that coffee sparked the French Revolution and fed the industrial one. This is the chaos-theory approach to history: Because the subject was present means it had to be essential. But anyone doubting the global import of a cup of joe should consider this: Coffee is the "second most valuable exported legal commodity on earth (after oil)."

Pendergrast's account satisfies because of its thoroughness. He lets complex issues--coffee's role in economic development, labor exploitation, and environmental degradation--remain complex as he explores the intricate relationships among farmers, governments, corporations, and consumers.

And from seemingly every country and decade since the time of Mohammed, Pendergrast unearths coffee-based trade wars, health reports, and cafZ cultures, bringing to light amusing treasures along the way: In 1674 English women tried to keep their husbands out of coffeehouses, claiming the drink was enfeebling. Not so, the men responded--coffee "makes the erection more Vigorous" and "adds a spiritualescency to the Sperme."Ê -- S.W.

Speak Rwanda By Julian R. Pierce. New York: Picador USA, 1999. 304 pages. $23. Most Americans witnessed the Rwandan genocide--if at all--through news briefs and body counts. In this stark, compelling novel, Pierce traces the course of the country's violence through the eyes of 10 characters, five Hutus and five Tutsis. Their voices convey the horrors--as seen by both the victims and the perpetrators--with an immediacy that no reportage could achieve.

The massacre of thousands of Tutsis seeking refuge in a church is achingly retold by three characters: ImmaculZe, a Tutsi mother whose account ends as she is beaten to death; Augustin, a Hutu soldier who refuses to help finish off the survivors ("They hear a moan and go after it with their pangas jabbing, like they were spearing fish in a pond."); and ImmaculZe's 12-year-old son who describes--in a searing six-page stream of consciousness-- being buried under a mass of bodies as they are hacked to death.

Pierce makes judicious use of his poetic license, revealing the humanity of the killers as well as the victims. These are not faceless bureaucratic abstractions; they are neighbors, just a hoe's length away.Ê -- A.P.

music

Stereotype A Cibo Matto. Warner Brothers, 1999.Cibo Matto's 1996 debut LP, Viva! La Woman, was a brilliantly goofy hip-hop/ jazz-pop pastiche that celebrated the female appetite--literally. But with singsong raps about cake and exhortations to "Know Your Chicken," the New Yorkby-way-of-Tokyo team of Yuka Honda and Miho Hatori got pegged by some critics as cute foodies with more style than substance in their Mixmaster.

Stereotype A evinces a satisfying evolution. Lyrically, Cibo Matto seem to have retired their chef's hats, but their charming collages prove they're as omnivorous as ever. The duo craft memorable songs using retro tools, yet go easy on the irony that's an earmark of the current era of nothing-is-original pop. Brassy, sunny bossa nova ("Flowers") segues into frenetic wah-wah funk ("Lint of Love") so breezily that acknowledgment of their wildly different styles seems beside the point. And the talents of auxiliary songwriters--including Honda's boyfriend Sean Lennon--simply expand Cibo Matto's sonic palette further.Ê -- A.Z.

Speaking in Tongues David Murray. Justin Time, 1999.A jazz "postmodernist" since the days when the term was still cool, Murray is one of today's most formidable tenor saxophonists. His muscular, squalling sound bears influence ranging from R&B and gospel to the surreal squeals of the '60s avant-garde.

With Speaking in Tongues, Murray presents a full album of spirituals--each interpreted with a heavy dose of electrified soul. His bluesy expressiveness and sense of humor shine most brightly on a funky version of "Amazing Grace," in which his solo strays from the basic groove into increasing abstraction, then returns to end the tune with a series of infectious percussive tongue slaps. On several cuts, Murray is content to share the spotlight, laying out entirely on a soaring interpretation of "Blessed Assurance" by trumpeter Hugh Ragin and allowing the throaty gospel voice of Fontella Bass to shine through in all its glory on "How I Got Over."Ê -- A.R.

The Return of Koerner, Ray & Glover Koerner, Ray & Glover. Red House Records, 1999 (Elektra, 1965). While their rock 'n' roll contemporaries were leaning on blues forms to forge a new genre, Koerner, Ray & Glover were working reverently within the blues tradition, sparking revival with an artistic energy that sounds as fresh today in reissue as it must have with the album's 1965 release.

Return of is an album of driving, foot-stomping, aggressively acoustic blues that seamlessly meshes original composition with material from the great bluesmen Leadbelly and Blind Willie McTell. The trio shine individually, working in point and counterpoint--and only rarely in concert. From Ray's haunting field holler "Looky, Looky Yonder" to Koerner's explosive picking on "You've Got to Be Careful" to Glover's lyric, bending mouth harp on "Packin' Trunk," this is an album of remarkable breadth, much more than the sum of its parts.Ê -- T.D.

film

Return With Honor Freida Lee Mock and Terry Sanders. 102 minutes. Ocean Releasing, 1999. This award-winning documentary begins with images of jets soaring through the clouds. But this feeling of elation is forcefully brought down to earth as pilots start to recount the terror of being shot down over Vietnam. Twenty-six aviators relate tales of the solitary confinement and torture they endured in the "Hanoi Hilton," as the camp where they were imprisoned was dubbed. They explain the language they developed of tapping on the cell walls, communication that allowed them solidarity with people they never saw but whose moods they knew intimately.

Oscar-winning filmmakers Mock and Sanders refrain from addressing the war's larger implications, an approach that provides their film with a commendable focus but subtly imparts a discomforting patriotic gloss. Still, the movie is deftly edited, employing archival footage to dramatize the content of the interviews.Ê -- T.L.

Reviews by Tim Dickinson, Anne Fulenwider, Todd Lothery, Alastair Paulin, Andrew Rosenblum, Speed Weed, and Andi Zeisler.

Media Picks

Salman Rushdie: Banned, on the Run

Salman Rushdie is the rare novelist -- famous as much for his life's story as for his life's work. The Iranian fatwa, issued 10 years ago in response to his novel The Satanic Verses, put a price on his head and irrevocably transformed his world. He has spent most of the past decade living as a fugitive, shuttling between secret residences, constantly escorted by armed guards. Rushdie is only now -- following the partial lifting of the fatwa last September -- cautiously rebuilding a public life. Yet for all the trauma of the fatwa, it did not quell his pen -- Rushdie wrote two novels and a book of short stories during that time -- and neither did it dim his appetite for controversy. He continues to raise eyebrows and hackles with indomitable glee. When Mother Jones spoke with him in New York City, Rushdie was kicking off a publicity tour for his new book, The Ground Beneath Her Feet -- a decidedly apolitical love story of an Indian rock 'n' roll duo who venture to America in search of fame and fortune. -- Lakshmi Chaudhry

You seem to have moved away from overtly political themes in your writing. Do politics interest you less now?

The answer is, I can't tell -- though it may be that the next novel I write will be highly political. I just don't know. The subject of love has become more and more central to my thinking in the last five or 10 years -- it's one of the things that helped me survive what happened to me. And also, in my personal life, I was very happily in love after a period of pain. The spirit of the book arises out of that feeling of having been loved.

The idea of celebrity is central to your new novel. In the United States, at least, there has been a trend toward celebrating fame for its own sake.

It's not just America. I saw a documentary from England a while ago in which a graduating class of high school kids was asked what they wanted to be, and something like three-quarters of them answered that they wanted to be famous. I mean, as if that were a career. Famous for what? didn't occur to them. What they wanted to be was famous -- and anything would do. Performing a blow job on the president, or murdering your wife. Albert Schweitzer or Monica Lewinsky, same thing. It is the curse of our time.

What would you attribute that to -- a decline in our morals?

One of the things about morals is that they're always declining. I can't think of any time in the history of at least the 20th century, probably longer, when anybody has talked about a period of increasing and improving morals. [Laughs.] It's in the nature of morals to decline.

I don't think it has to do with a crisis of morals; I think it's actually to do with a crisis of criticism -- an inability to put weight on things. Everything is so relativized. I think we've got ourselves into a terrible jam there, with all kinds of ideologies that have taught us not to be judgmental. Not being judgmental also in a way means not thinking.

You're also a celebrity -- more so now than before the fatwa.

But I keep trying to get out from under it. To be famous for the wrong thing is not particularly pleasant because it gets in the way of the thing that you actually value, which in my case is my writing. That's the only thing I want people to pay attention to. And this huge access to a dark fame cast a cloud over my writing for a while. Your friend Christopher Hitchens wrote recently that most of the people who oppose you -- say the mullahs in Iran -- haven't even read The Satanic Verses. But isn't that also true of people who support you?

Some people supported me because they wished to support the principle of free speech. You don't have to read a novel in order to support somebody's right to write it. Of course, I would much prefer, and so would my accountant, that anyone who wanted to speak up on my behalf buy a copy of The Satanic Verses first. The question of people not reading a book before they condemn it -- I used to get really exercised about that. But then I realized that that's been true at the times when other books were attacked -- whether it was Tropic of Cancer, or Lolita, or Ulysses, or any of the other books that have become causes cZl?bres in the 20th century. The precondition for attacking a book is not reading it. It's certainly a precondition for burning a book.

God forbid they may enjoy it.

This is the thing. People inside the Muslim community do enjoy The Satanic Verses and have written to me to say so. The book does have a large number of Muslim readers.

Your new novel is also the first that takes place in the United States. What is your relationship to America?

I've been coming to the United States since I was in my early 20s. In fact, I'm rather surprised I haven't written about it before. I've always felt very at home here. It's partly because of a sense of being a mixture, or jumble, myself and feeling that it is reflected everywhere on the streets of New York. And feeling normal rather than exceptional for once in my life, because everyone is as odd as me.

You've criticized American imperialism in the past, but in a recent essay, you wrote that the United States is the best guarantor of freedom in this world. How do you resolve that tension?

Looking at it from a European perspective, every time there is a problem, people turn to the United States to help sort it out. You would think that some people would have argued that what's happening in Yugoslavia is essentially a European problem. But in fact what happens is that Europe can't address it without the backing and military power of the United States. There are two contradictory pieces of rhetoric going around. If we're going to say that we actually need America to intervene when these crises occur, then perhaps we should be a little less quick to condemn America for its cultural intervention. In the world as it is we can't do without the power of America to help resolve thorny questions.

Does your view shift when you look at it from a Third World perspective?

Oh, absolutely. I think the recent attacks on Saddam Hussein, for instance, without any clear goal, which achieved more or less nothing, seem to me to be an example of an intervention that one could criticize. So I'm not suggesting that one should cease to be critical, and cease to have that rigorous standard which one applies to these events. All I'm saying is that there is a kind of knee-jerk reflex at the moment to condemn American intervention at the same time as asking for it.

When the fatwa was issued, the Indian government -- out of respect for its Muslim minority -- banned The Satanic Verses and refused to let you enter the country. In February you finally got an Indian visa, but from a right-wing Hindu government with an anti-Islamic bent. Do you intend to go back?

Frankly, I'm of two minds on whether to go to India or not. I wanted to go back to India to renew old ties and friendships and to be in places that I love. But I certainly don't want to go to be a political football. I think I've been abused enough.

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