Tag Archives: racism

Yellow Fever

Sunny Chae as the Chinese prostitute in Deconstructing Harry

Woody Allen’s movies see the world through nostalgia-tinted lenses. Sometimes this has positive consequences, as when they delve into the annals of history: Zelig, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Shadows and Fog, Bullets Over Broadway, Sweet and Lowdown. Each of these films recreates the past (as well as its attendant cinematic/theatrical traditions) with affection and detail; in each case, Allen’s nostalgia and encyclopedic knowledge are assets. But more often, especially when his films are set in the present, this nostalgia is blinkering. It’s embarrassing. And, when it’s coupled with the solipsism that pervades Allen’s films, the consequences are disastrous.

For example, I’ve noticed a strain of really noxious, nostalgia-inflected Orientalism in Allen’s films from the ’90s.* Granted, Allen’s not the only filmmaker who indulges in this. American pop culture has exoticized Asia, using Asians as villains or comic relief, since its inception. But I’ve been struck by how consistent these examples are—how these three films from the same director, made across seven years, convey precisely the same racist mindset. The films and offending scenes are as follows:

  • During a montage of Halloween performances by little white kids in Allen’s musical Everyone Says I Love You (1996), three of those kids—dressed in stereotypical Chinese robes and conical hats, but mercifully free of yellowface makeup—sing a few bars from the jazz standard “Chinatown, My Chinatown.” (This is followed by more white kids performing “Chiquita Banana,” complete with maracas.)
  • In one of the vignettes that form the spine of Deconstructing Harry (1997), a young Woody Allen stand-in named Harvey (Tobey Maguire) is advised by a friend to spend $50 on a Chinese prostitute (pictured above). She’s “schooled by tradition in the art of pleasing men,” says the friend, and a narrator (voiced by Allen himself) later describes her as Harvey’s “oriental passport to paradise.” The woman, played by Sunny Chae, has four short lines. All of them mention Harvey.
  • The final and biggest example is from Alice (1990). Discontented bourgeois wife Alice Tate (Mia Farrow) is, like Harvey, advised by a friend to visit the herbalist Dr. Yang (Keye Luke) at his office in New York’s Chinatown.* There, Yang dispenses hypnosis, magic herbs, and fortune-cookie wisdom in broken English. Although he has hints of personality—sage, enigmatic, stern yet supportive—he’s still strictly a plot device, existing only to facilitate Alice’s self-discovery.

So what do these scenes and characters have in common? 1) They’re reductive, drawing their notions of “Chinese identity” entirely from stereotype; 2) the stereotypes they nostalgically employ are based in decades-old racist imagery; and 3) they represent Chinese people and culture as tools, adding color to and/or fueling the plots of white stories. (Another commonality: cringe-worthy musical cues. You know the kind.) Everyone Says I Love You is alone among the three in that no Chinese actor is ever actually onscreen—as far as the film’s concerned, China could be a made-up country, fabricated by jazz musicians for the sake of entertainment.

In the other films, however, Allen trots out real, tangible people to act out stereotypical roles. On the basis of their accents and epicanthic folds, he identifies Chae and Luke as alien, exotic, mysterious. In Deconstructing Harry, these traits are fetishized. The prostitute’s “oriental” eroticism not only makes her an especially satisfying lay, but also amplifies Harvey’s postcoital guilt. This is that solipsism at play: the prostitute is only a projection, a one-note fantasy that Harvey desires just as he loathes himself for that desire. Of course the prostitute doesn’t get an identity or any desires of her own, because this is Harvey’s story.

It’s much the same with Dr. Yang. His screen time may be greater, but the character (and by extension, all of China) is still an appendage to Alice’s white self-absorption. Like similar stock characters—the “sassy gay friend,” the “magical negro”—his inner life is negligible and his outer behavior is devoted to helping the heroine. Alice, meanwhile, gets to have neuroses and adventures. She gets the semblance of a full, real life. Granted, caricature can be a powerful tool in comedy, and it’s pivotal to many of Allen’s best jokes. But this isn’t merely caricature. It’s racial cartooning, with some very clear, off-putting implications.

Furthermore, it’s bad writing. It lazily condenses a whole continent into a vague construction informed by badly dated pop culture. It lacks even the most tenuous relationship to reality. I go to fiction (yes, including Woody Allen’s) searching for some kind of truth, and these Orientalist cartoons do not ring true. Hell, they’re contradicted by my own experiences of having real Asian-American friends, ones with multiple traits per person, whose lives do not revolve around servicing my sexual or emotional needs. I love many of Woody Allen’s movies and I even love his nostalgia. But sometimes, he serves as an aggressive reminder that you can’t learn everything about the world from jazz and old movies.

*This is my obligatory note that yes, it can be tempting to draw biographical parallels between this Orientalism and Allen’s relationship with Soon-Yi Previn, but I have absolutely no interest in doing that.

**Chinatown, that enclave of exoticism tucked inside the American metropolis. Cf. the title and climax of Allen’s The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, if you dare.

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Mummy Dearest

A lot of horror movies require you to dig for subtext. Not so with mummy movies, however! In something like Hammer’s The Mummy (1959), the monster is a walking mass of anti-colonial rage, his significance lying right on the textual surface. This is a paranoid fantasy grown out of imperialist guilt—a “Return of the Oppressed,” to paraphrase Robin Wood. And the mummy here is an Egyptian variation on the golem, a weapon of revenge acting on behalf of an ethnic Other.

The plot of The Mummy is generated, beat for beat, by the same formula as Universal’s Karloff-starring Mummy, or miscellaneous creature features made between the two, or even slasher movies of the ’70s and on. A family of genteel archaeologists violates a tomb; a sinister Egyptian tracks them back to England; and then they’re murdered one by one. First the patriarch, who’s already mad from the sight of the reanimated, shuffling mummy. Then his brother, strangled to death at the family’s estate. And finally the son, played by Peter Cushing, who proves troublesome. He’s our “final boy,” you see.

I enjoy Cushing as a horror hero because he’s so unconventional. Hatchet-faced with a receding hairline, he always looks a little skeletal and cerebral; nothing red-blooded about him. In The Mummy, he even gets a limp as a result of his father’s tomb-violating zeal, compounding this impression of frailty. He’s mutilated by England’s decadence just as he represents its future. He’s a pale contrast to Mehemet Bay, the mummy’s fez-clad puppetmaster, with whom he argues archaeological ethics. The latter is played by George Pastell, who’s actually from Cyprus, but swarthy enough to be Egyptian by Hammer standards.

This “swarthy enough” mindset pervades The Mummy’s casting, which colonizes Egyptian identity on a metatextual level. The mummy himself is Christopher Lee, who’s British to the core but spends most of his screen time plastered with bandages. (Lee would go on to portray another ethnic villain, Fu Manchu, in the mid-’60s.) And Cushing’s wife is the white-as-snow Yvonne Furneaux, yet she turns out to be a dead ringer for Ananka, the ancient object of the mummy’s forbidden love. It’s racial sleight of hand, encompassing this “Egypt vs. England” tale entirely within the sphere of whiteness.

In the end, of course, Egypt is defeated. The wife is used as bait—a “beauty killed the beast” tactic familiar from King Kong and films of its ilk—resulting in Bey’s death at the mummy’s hands, then the mummy’s re-death via police ammunition. His battered body tumbles to the bottom of a rural bog, the ideal resting place for a monster that might need to be resurrected should a sequel roll around. This resolution morally validates Cushing, his family, and their actions. It insists on the legitimacy of their cultural theft, since 1) they’ve reaped knowledge and 2) Bey’s revenge has been so disproportionately violent. No need to dig: this is as semiotically explicit as horror gets. “Hail Britannia,” indeed.

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Link Dump: #72

It’s Tom Waits holding a kitty! Have you ever seen anything cuter in your life? Aaahh I just love it. And now, some links:

We have a pair of “pussy”-themed search terms this week: the anatomically unlikely “man sticks his head all way in womans pussy” and the emphatic mantra of desire “i really truly do enjoy touching tickling kissing a female lesbian pussy.” I think the doubling on “really truly” and “female lesbian” are my favorite parts.

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Link Dump: #71

This week’s kitty comes from a great Movie Morlocks piece about Harry Dean Stanton. You wouldn’t think that kitty could get any cuter, but then oh my god it’s being held by Harry Dean Stanton! Sooo cute. And now, sooo many links:

I have a pair of bizarrely spelled search terms for you this week: “puccy steert” and “fuc ma back puss a suc ma koc.” You heard it first here, folks: “suc ma koc.”

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Oscars ’11 Post Mortem

Before we all forget about last night and dive head-first into 2012, here are my takeaways from the 84th Academy Awards. First I’ll list off a few tidbits that made me smile, then I’ll bitch to my heart’s content. (If you’re curious, I’ve also reviewed 8/9 of the Best Picture nominees.)

Things I Liked

  • It was quick! Fewer “educational” montages and less pre-award banter meant that this year’s ceremony was just nigh interminable instead of actually interminable.
  • The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’s win for editing. Not only was it deserved, but it was a rare surprise on a night that had about two of them. I would’ve welcomed more variety like that.
  • Brad Pitt gushing about The War of the Gargantuas. To think: this bedrock of my childhood was also, per Wikipedia, this demigod’s “inspiration to go into acting.” Maybe we’re not so different after all!
  • In fact, all of the “my first movie” interstitials. They were candid and fun—i.e., the polar opposite of a typical Oscar segment. And they showcased folks like Gabourey Sidibe and Werner Herzog, so we all win.
  • The women of Bridesmaids. Maya Rudolph cracking dick jokes! Rose Byrne and Melissa McCarthy playing some weird Scorsese-themed drinking game! Can we get them to group-host next year?
  • Michel Hazanavicius’s last words of the night: “I want to thank Billy Wilder, and I want to thank Billy Wilder, and I want to thank Billy Wilder.” This flood of gratitude closed the show out on the highest note possible.

Things I Didn’t Like

  • Billy Crystal. Maybe I’m just in the wrong demographic. I have no built-in fondness for Crystal and don’t remember his prior hosting gigs. But when his jokes weren’t corny, they were tasteless, and they were all punctuated by a self-satisfied chuckle. Not to mention the blackface. I guess his Sammy Davis, Jr. impression is an old SNL thing, but why bring it back now?
  • That fucking “magic of movies” montage. Bad enough to have a montage with no point beyond “um, movies?”; even worse when the choices are so arbitrary. It had clips from the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s (favoring Best Picture winners), plus Twilight and The Hangover, and stretched back no further than 1969’s Midnight Cowboy. The lesson? The Academy’s fine with saluting pre-1970 film history, but only when it’s wrapped up in a cute little pastiche.
  • The Cirque du Soleil, whose performance had something to do with North by Northwest, I guess? Anyway, it ended up being a few more wasted telecast minutes.
  • That goddamn theme from The Artist. I’m already not a huge fan of Ludovic Bource’s Oscar-winning score, but hearing a piece of it repeated—with its implicit message of “Silent movies are kooky!”—every time an Artist team member won became grating. I get it already! They were kooky!
  • Meryl over Viola. I love Meryl. Love her in Death Becomes Her, Adaptation., “Bart’s Girlfriend,” etc. But she’s a one-woman awards dynasty. She isn’t “due” (she already won Best Actress in 1982, for chrissake) and she doesn’t need the career bump. Viola Davis, meanwhile, is a 46-year-old black woman who’s received only a handful of substantial screen parts in her lifetime. Winning would’ve made her the second woman of color to receive the award ever. So basically, fuck the Oscar electorate. Fuck them so hard.

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Uphill Battle

We love stories about ambition. About men (always men) who dream and build the impossible. The messianic wonder of Lawrence of Arabia; the phallic hugeness of the Empire State Building or the Washington Monument; the anything-for-spectacle expedition of King Kong; even the improbable triumph of the Founding Fathers who stitched a new nation together out of some squabbling British colonies. In that same tradition, Werner Herzog forged the delirious man vs. nature fable Fitzcarraldo (1982).

Here, the man with the plan is industrialist Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald, called Fitzcarraldo by the Peruvians. He’s played by Herzog’s “best fiend” Klaus Kinski, whose intense blue eyes and shock of blond hair contrast jarringly with the Amazon rainforest. Obsessed with the opera—especially turn-of-the-century tenor Enrico Caruso—he pledges to build an opera house in the city of Iquitos. This unfeasible dream and its financial burden lead him to an untapped grove of rubber trees, accessible only after crossing a steep strip of land with a steamship. It’s a brazenly stupid act, but he does it, and he carries the audience with him.

Like the earlier Herzog/Kinski collaboration Aguirre, the Wrath of God, Fitzcarraldo is defined by its eccentricity. Herzog maps incongruous aural textures onto one another, layering the dazed Popol Vuh score, the dubbed-in German, the buzz of the rainforest, some Caruso arias, and Kinski’s plaintive yowls. Broadly speaking, too, it’s about incongruity. Through sheer force of will, Fitzcarraldo brings his European clothes, machinery, and music into hostile territory where they do not belong. His faith in opera blinkers him, leading him into a morass of hubris and monomania. For Herzog, manifest destiny is a symptom of mental illness.

In the national myths I mentioned earlier (Lawrence, skyscrapers, Kong, George Washington), we’re absolved of moral responsibility for the sake of adventure. In stark opposition, Fitzcarraldo’s sociopathic self-obsession contaminates all of the film’s thrills and spills. His naked contempt renders the story’s underlying mechanics visible: how racism and genocide are yoked to imperialism; how a lone, self-aggrandizing white man rides on the backs (and land) of non-white laborers. How the whole film, like the actions of missionaries and conquistadors everywhere, is premised on a self-destructive delusion.

And that delusion is suffocating. Even with Amazonian aerial shots galore, Fitzcarraldo feels claustrophobic, since we’re always rooted in its title character’s headspace. During the film’s centerpiece sequence, Herzog shoots the aggregation of pulleys dragging the ship, the army of native “bare-asses” recruited to work them, and the ship’s incremental motion with a mix of fetish and fascination. It’s painful to watch, because it twists traditional audience response: do you recoil or marvel? Does the grandeur justify the futility?

Based loosely on a true story, Fitzcarraldo is infamous for its troubled production. Even if original stars Jason Robards and Mick Jagger hadn’t left mid-production, Herzog still had the self-assigned, Herculean chore of pulling a steamship over a hill, sans models or visual effects. But as he said during an investors’ meeting when the project was in danger of collapse, “If I abandon this project, I would be a man without dreams, and I don’t want to live like that.” In this respect, then, it’s also an autobiographical meta-narrative about the audacity of filmmaking—of squandering millions to physically reproduce nonexistent worlds.

Unlike so many artists, Herzog doesn’t romanticize the act of creation, but rather recognizes its selfishness. Throughout his work, it feels like a fundamental, akin to breathing. He films violently, even destructively. (Just look at Les Blank’s making-of documentary Burden of Dreams, or his hellish relationship with Kinski.) The ethos of Fitzcarraldo reminds me of a quote from William Faulkner: “If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is worth any number of old ladies.” For both men, writing or building or filmmaking are anything but benign; they flow from dark, atavistic drives. Werner Herzog would not hesitate to rob his mother.

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Disney Revisited: Dumbo

Some thoughts after rewatching Dumbo (1941)…

  • It resembles Pinocchio much more than Snow White or Fantasia. This is not an overwhelming, ornate work of art; it’s a series of cute vignettes that feels like an hour-long short subject. The modest animation style and slight narrative compound this impression. It’s the same story as Pinocchio, but on a much smaller scale.
  • Nuanced character animation is reserved for the animals. Dumbo, Timothy Q. Mouse, and especially Mrs. Jumbo are all drawn with faces and bodies that convey a full range of emotions. Human beings, meanwhile, are rendered through blur, shadow, or extreme simplication. This disparity results from Dumbo’s low budget, but it also clarifies where the film’s sympathies lie, as human beings become the distant, indistinct Other.
  • Episodes move visually from chaos to order. In one scene after another, frenzied motion plays out onscreen, culminating in an image of relative stillness and composition. Mrs. Jumbo’s outburst, for example, ends with the ringmaster in the center of the frame, standing in a bucket of water, and when Dumbo accidentally triggers the destruction of the circus, the scene ends with him peeking out from under the collapsed tent, still waving his little flag. These are self-contained cycles of tension and resolution.
  • The “Pink Elephants on Parade” musical number transmutes intoxication into nightmare. In keeping with Dumbo’s episodic format, it has only a loose connection to the broader narrative (in that the post-“Elephants” hangover teaches Dumbo that he can fly) and is primarily a chance for the animators to cut loose with champagne-induced hallucinations. Elephants metamorphose, explode, and coalesce in increasingly threatening configurations. It’s the movie’s clear visual high point.
  • The crows are overt racial caricatures. Granted, their depiction isn’t hateful or negative, but they’re still totally rooted in stereotype. In their mannerisms, dress, and dialect, they cater to white audience assumptions about African-American behavior, especially in the South. They’re cartoonish and reductive, traits that are certainly in keeping with the rest of Dumbo’s cast (cf. the human audience or female elephants), but only here applied to a real-life racial category.
  • Dumbo is an inert protagonist, defined by his suffering. Whereas Pinocchio was about its hero’s moral choices, Dumbo—another innocent whose story starts the day he’s born—never makes any choices. His entire life is mapped out by his mother, the other elephants, the ringmaster, and especially Timothy. He never acts of his own volition, but has success or failure visited upon him by fate. The closest he comes to acting on his own is during his (Timothy-guided) climactic flight: with no audible outside input, he spits peanuts onto the elephants who’ve persecuted him. It’s a Carrie-like burst of revenge and his only independent decision.
  • Consequently, Edward Brophy’s uncredited performance as Timothy drives the movie. Dumbo may be the star attraction, but Brophy is the lead voice actor. He propels the story with his Brooklyn-bred cadences, lending it narration and color commentary through his one-sided conversations. His streetwise, bubbly voice sets the film’s tone and attitude. It’s just as fundamental to Dumbo as the animation.

(This is part of “Disney Revisited,” my chronological film-by-film exploration of the Disney animated canon.)

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