10/9/12

The Invisible Native-American Spectator(s)

I want to make it clear about one thing: I never believe or advocate that anyone should employ film theory and criticism as a tool of film censorship. As a scholar and filmmaker of East Asian descent, I have no trouble with watching a Hollywood film — historical or contemporary — that grossly misrepresents a character of Asian descent. I would feel somewhat uncomfortable in the movie theatre when people laugh at that character or even yell out racialist slurs. I would look closely the way the film image is constructed and how the mis-representation itself may serve as a “performance,” and that the film, by means of performing that mis-representation, may open up a new discourse by renegotiating our affects towards such representation. I may even laugh at the performance uncritically at first, and then examine why, despite my critical distance towards it, my body involuntarily laughs at the other’s construction of my self.

But how far a critical distance have film scholars built for ourselves?

I had an opportunity to watch the film Hand’s Up (Clarence Badger, Paramount, 1926) last night amid a sizeable audience, among which there were top film historians and restorationists. The vast majority of the spectators were either Europeans or North Americans of European descent. In the film, a confederate spy Jack (Raymond Griffith) is captured from a stagecoach by a group of (imaginary) “Native American” warriors. But the chief is perplexed by a pair of dice that Jack carries inside his jacket, which he “mistakes” as a pair of good luck charms. Our resourceful Jack then explains to the chief the art of crap-shooting, wins all the clothes from the chief and becomes the new chief himself. To celebrate Jack’s inauguration, the warriors dance around him, only to be stopped by Jack, who teaches them how to tap-dance — an art form of African-American origin.

From a critical perspective, the scene plays with — or some might even say “camps up” — the idea of racial performance, mutual borrowing, and the unmarked “white man’s” role in the social discourse of cultural “love and theft,” which conveys an art form from one socially-othered group to another. But despite my seeing this scene as one that can generate a potentially rich critical discourse, I was genuinely disturbed not by the image — but by the seemingly uncritical laughter around me. I am sure that many people, like my friend and I, would go home and think about this scene in a critical light — in a way much more sophisticated than I do. Yet, I somehow can’t help but be reminded by that laughter that in the movie theatre, many laughing spectators genuinely believed that the “Native-American spectator(s)” is or are invisible, that all our bodily affects participated voluntarily in the construction of “whiteness” as a comfort zone that puts our critical distance under erasure.

10/2/12

Watch this if you can find it.

I will never see this show, because I’m not in the habit of going to the theatre (and don’t live in New York), but I was glad to read that a Broadway adaptation of the documentary film, “Hands on a Hard Body” is about to open. Maybe the film will find a new audience and be available for streaming somewhere (it’s currently not available for rental on Netflix or Amazon).

Short plot summary: a car dealership in Texas runs an endurance contest in which contestants must keep a hand on a brand new fully loaded pickup truck. The last person standing wins the truck.

I remember watching the film when it showed briefly in a theater in L.A. back in 1997. The audience laughed  derisively (“look at those hicks!”) when the interview subjects waxed philosophical about the meaning of the contest in their heavy Texas drawls. But the film itself never demeans its subjects. My sense was that the filmmakers went into the project with a certain ironic distance but then got pulled into the human dramas playing out in this manufactured microcosm. A real gem.

10/1/12

Looper

Maybe it’s inevitable that time travel movies, in which the same events happen and re-happen with difference, seem so well suited to structuralist taxonomy.  The defining element in terms of plot is, of course, the fantasy of altering the past (personal, historical or otherwise), which creates a pretext for the relatively novel prospect (in mainstream film, anyway) of segments of narrative repetition.

Thematically, the film must also take a position on a broader question – namely, can the past be altered, or will time-travel simply provide empirical proof that we are on the traintracks of fate?

On this question, time travel movies are split:

Tragedy – Fate. Sorry, everyone.  Examples: La Jetée (Ohhhhhhh.), Donnie Darko (Awwwww.)

Satire – We can change things, but boy do we mortal fools make a hash of it.  Examples: Primer (What jerks!), Timecrimes (What a jerk!)

Romance – Hooray, the universe bends to our will! Examples: Star Trek IV (Save the whales? Have saved the whales), Back to the Future (Save the 50s!)

Comedy: Are there none, or can I simply not think of any?  Commenters’ choice!  (But let’s not have any Hot Tub Time Machine nonsense.  Risible though the gang’s adventures might have been, the movie goes in Romance and you know it.)

 [Hi! I’m future you.  Unless you’re careful, you’re about read a sort of spoiler of the film Looper, only in the sense that you’ll have an account of the general attitude the film takes toward the possibility of changing the past, present and future.  I read it the first time around, and found that it enhanced my eventual viewing of the film.  But, you decide, McFly. ]

So, Looper.  Romance aged in a Tragedy-Oak barrel.  While reviews of time travel movies often consider the degree to which the movies take time travel “seriously” in the sense of coming up with plausible technological explanations, there is another tendency amongst the tragic films to take time travel “seriously” in the sense of being grimly reverent toward the subject.  Looper maintains that attitude in a way utterly unlike the giddy freedom promised by most of the Romantic time travel tradition.  The will to power is dangerous and tends to ironically replicate precisely the outcomes individual actors seek to alter.  And yet, in Looper, the force of fate is less law than a center of gravity escaped not by rushing ahead, but by reflection.