review

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The Independent Culture
Looks like Jackie Gleason's patio," said Bob Hope standing in Tiananmen Square for a television special which followed the thaw in relations between China and the United States. That scene in Fine Cut (BBC 2) was quickly followed by a sequence in which Uncle Sam dished out hamburgers to eager Peking citizens, a weird encore of Communist street-theatre, in which star-spangled top-hatted figures crouched wretchedly before the righteous anger of the people. Both clips were evidence (reassuring, with two hours ahead of you) that Richard Gordon and Carma Hinton's film was not going to be too pious in its account of the 1989 protest movement. It also alerted you to the fact that the huge public space in which the events of that year took place was a stage, a platform for performative arguments about what the country should be. The Gate of Heavenly Peace was a remarkable film, questioning about the way in which the events in Tiananmen Square were presented to an international audience, an exemplary reminder that history is never as neat as we would wish it to be. Without exculpating the Chinese authorities it showed you the roots of their terror, how the sight of marching students brought back memories of the savage righteousness of the Cultural Revolution. And without condemning the protesters it revealed how quickly the movement became weakened by infighting and doubt. "Often we had to suppress three or four coups a day," recalled one participant, a vivid irony that summed up the impossibility of keeping any mass movement pure.

What many Western reporters saw as a homogeneous movement was actually divided and confused. Some protesters wanted material improvements ("Nike shoes and more free time" said one) while others wanted to awaken the soul of China. Some were political pragmatists while others were bent on confrontation and martyrdom: Chai Ling, a self-appointed Joan of Arc, explained her strategy to a foreign journalist. "How can I tell them that what we are actually hoping for is bloodshed?" she wept, intoxicated by a sense of destiny. Later, as if in a miniature replay of recent Chinese history, there were denunciations of "traitors" and accusations of corruption. All this withdrew the possibility of simple allegiances, the Western agit- prop of noble students against despotic authority, but it left you with many small heroes, people who had thought deeply about how to live a decent life and whose moral clarity had survived the failure of their cause. It also left you with a large question, never stated but never far away: what would you have done?

If Tiananmen Square offered China a national theatre in which to act out a sense of itself, the same might be said of British cinema before and after the Second World War. The South Bank Show's profile of John Mills (ITV)- who taught not a few cinema-goers how to be British - was unfortunate in following hard on the heels of last week's programme about Victoria Wood - the similarities between the two films (popular entertainers, dressing-room scenes, clips from the current theatre tour, biographical recollection) suggesting that formula had defeated invention. They even ended in a similar way, with the subject walking away from camera into the distance, but the subtle differences between the two shots demonstrated their distinct themes. Nigel Wattis's final sequence was one of meaningful dullness, Victoria Wood crossing the road and dwindling until she looked like any woman in the street - a reminder that her comedy grows out of pedestrian experiences. Bob Bees's film noted how John Mills had exemplified a particular idea of the national character in his films - whether approving, as in war-time morale-boosters such as In Which We Serve, or doubtful, as in peace-time satires like Oh What a Lovely War!. So it seemed fitting that he should exit into the very epitome of sentimental patriotism - a classic English garden, embowered with roses.

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