Mugabe and the White African

January 17, 2012 § Leave a comment

If you’re looking for a villain everybody can agree on, it’s hard to do better than Robert Mugabe. Who’s going to defend somebody who’s publicly claimed Hitler as a role model? Who tortures, rapes, and kills his political opponents? Who ignores unfathomable unemployment, inflation and AIDS rates in his country, Zimbabwe, while amassing a personal fortune rumored to be northward of a billion dollars? And who’s put into place a land appropriation program designed to wrest control, often by bloody, violent force, from white landowners and corporations, and place it into the hands of black Zimbabweans? Well . . .

That last policy is the focus of this documentary, which profiles one of the last remaining “white African”-occupied farms, owned by Michael Campbell and his family, as they attempt to hold their own–in the courts and on the “streets”–against Mugabe and his men. The Campbells are portrayed as salt-of-the-earth, god-fearing folks who came by their small, family-run farm honestly and are now unfairly having it stolen from them. Unfortunately, the film not only leaves out background information about the Campbells and Zimbabwe itself that is vital to understanding Mugabe’s policies, it actively tries to push us to align ourselves with the Campbells. By doing so, they not only managed to silence Mugabe–not a huge loss as far as I’m concerned, although the documentary does suffer for it–but also the native Zimbabweans who are caught in the middle of Mugabe and Campbell. We hear almost nothing from the black farm workers Campbell employs, or the guards who he hires to defend his family–and we hear literally nothing from the black Zimbabweans who have been on the receiving end of Mugabe’s land appropriation, or those starving in the streets as unemployment soars over 50 percent. Those perspectives would have been valuable to have, as would have the story of how colonialism played out in Zimbabwe, and how the Campbells benefited from that. But instead, what we get, over and over again, is the insistence that Mugabe’s policies are “racist” because they discriminate based on skin color–and who wants to risk being labeled a racist by questioning that maybe things are more complicated than that?

Here’s the more complicated truth: The Campbells’ farm is not a small, family-run farm, but a veritable 3000-acre plantation employing over 500 workers. Campbell even owned an adjoining hunting safari. Campbell believed that blacks couldn’t run farms on their own, that they needed whites to show them how to do it, and to be in charge. Campbell bought the farm during Ian Smith’s rule in Zimbabwe, then Rhodesia–likely on the cheap, since Smith was an unrepentent racist who sought to keep whites in power and land in their hands. In fact, during Smith’s regime, land was still being taken from black owners and “redistributed” to whites like Campbell. Smith’s policies clearly worked, since on the eve of Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980, whites–who make up less than one percent of the population in Zimbabwe–owned about half the arable land in the country. It’s extremely frustrating to watch Campbell and his family bemoan the land appropriation and Mugabe’s “racist policies” over and over, when land appropriation and Ian Smith’s racist policies are exactly why they own that farm in the first place.

In fact, Campbell’s historical ignorance is a recurring theme. At one point, he laments the fact that you can be white and American, or white and Australian, but not white and African–why not? Wait–really? The reason you can be white and American, or white and Australian, is because the white settlers in those countries managed to so thoroughly exterminate the native populations that they no longer possessed the numbers to put up a fight over who has the right to call themselves “American” or “Australian.” Surely that’s not what Campbell’s suggesting should have happened in Zimbabwe?

Okay, so Campbell’s a historically naive bigot. Whatever, he’s one character in the film, right? The problem is that he–and his family, who hold similar views–are the only voices we hear. At one point, he questions his workers on their views, in a joking, we’re-all-in-this-together tone, but they simply laugh and nervously eye the camera. Other black Zimbabweans are likewise silent. And the filmmakers only provide the audience with information that confirms Campbell’s views, purposely withholding information about Zimbabwe’s colonial past that might muddy the issue. We’re obviously meant to ignore all that. We’re obviously meant to side with the historically naive bigots, because the only other alternative the filmmakers present is to side with the man who styles himself after Hitler.

And the most frustrating part about all of this is that including that information wouldn’t have done all that much damage to the cause they’re pushing. You’re still up against the guy who wants to be Hitler! All you have to do is take one look at the Campbells after they’ve suffered a brutal attack at the hands of Mugabe’s men–beaten until their brains swell, a hot poker stuffed down the throat of Campbell’s wife–to understand that the way Mugabe is conducting his land appropriation campaign is not okay. Nobody is going to say that this is simple two-wrongs-make-a-right business here. But the filmmakers don’t trust their audience to make that call themselves, God forbid, so they do it for them. The result is a documentary that verges on pushing a pro-colonialist agenda–not exactly what I think they were intending.

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There is no rape scene in Gone with the Wind.

June 1, 2011 § 1 Comment

Gone with the Wind is something of a cinematic Rorschach test, and its ability to be all things to all people is a part of its long-lasting appeal. It’s racist, except when it’s not: the horrors of slavery are glossed over, the semi-complexity of the novel’s characters is reduced to stereotypes in the film, and the black actors were treated poorly at the premiere and, on some occasions, on the set–but the film was one of the only ones of its time to actually give black actors something to do besides stand in the background and smile ingratiatingly, and it led to Hattie McDaniel’s famous first Best Supporting Actress win. The film is pro-Southern, except when it’s anti-Southern: the antebellum South is romanticized (knights and ladies fair, a dream remembered, et cetera) but it also very blatantly spells out the fact that the South failed because they were cocky, ignorant bastards who were too wrapped up in their ladies fair and their code of chivalry to see the forest for the trees. It’s sexist, except when it’s not: Scarlett and Melanie are extremely strong female characters in different molds, with Scarlett breaking all the confining conventions to which her gender is held, and the focus on how war affects women was quite revolutionary for its time–but there’s a definite Taming of the Shrew vibe, and demure Melanie is clearly set up as the ideal of Southern womanhood, with even Margaret Mitchell herself expressing wonderment (a little disingenuously, in my opinion) at why Scarlett turned out to be so well-loved by so many. And then there’s the little matter of that rape scene . . .

There’s only one small problem with that: there is no rape scene in Gone with the Wind–and whenever anybody describes the staircase scene as such, I have to fight the urge to tear my hair out, weep, beat my chest, et cetera. To be fair to them, it’s easy to mistake the staircase scene for a rape scene when Rhett carries Scarlett kicking and screaming up the stairs–but to be fair to the movie’s directors, too, there’s not much more they could have done with the source material to make the scene clear, short of slapping a voice-over on it. It’s a scene that essentially requires you to be in the heroine’s head in order to parse what’s going on–and thus it’s one of the few scenes in the book that doesn’t translate well to the screen. Here’s Mitchell in that deliciously purple scene:

“Up the stairs, he went in utter darkness, up, up, and she was wild with fear. He was a mad stranger and this was a black darkness she did not know, darker than death. He was like death, carrying her away in arms that hurt. She screamed, stifled against him and he stopped suddenly on the landing and, turning her swiftly in his arms, bent over her and kissed her with a savagery and a completeness that wiped out everything from her mind but the dark into which she was sinking and the lips on hers. . . . She was darkness and he was darkness and there had never been anything before this time, only darkness and his lips upon her. She tried to speak and his mouth was over hers again. Suddenly she had a wild thrill such as she had never known; joy, fear, madness, excitement, surrender to arms that were too strong, lips too bruising, fate that moved too fast. For the first time in her life she had met someone, something stronger than she, someone she could neither bully nor break, someone who was bullying and breaking her. Somehow, her arms were around his neck and her lips trembling beneath his and they were going up, up into the darkness again, a darkness that was soft and swirling and all enveloping.”

And then, of course, the infamous morning after:

“Oh, she should be ashamed, should shrink from the very memory of the hot swirling darkness! A lady, a real lady, could never hold up her head after such a night. But, stronger than shame, was the memory of rapture, of the ecstasy of surrender. For the first time in her life she had felt alive, felt passion as sweeping and primitive as the fear she had known the night she fled Atlanta, as dizzy sweet as the cold hate when she had shot the Yankee. . . . When she thought of meeting him again, face to face in the sober light of day, a nervous tingling embarrassment that carried with it an exciting pleasure enveloped her.

‘I’m nervous as a bride,’ she thought. ‘And about Rhett!’ And, at the idea she fell to giggling foolishly.”

That’s not a rape. In fact, that this scene is not a rape illustrates the entire point of the 700-page story: that Rhett is Scarlett’s perfect match specifically because he’s the only one that can meet her on her level, beat her at her own game, turn her darkness into light. Does the scene start ugly? Definitely–and the altercation leading up to it, where (in the film), Rhett tells Scarlett to “observe my hands, my dear. I could tear you to pieces with them, and I’d do it if it’d take Ashley out of your mind forever. But it wouldn’t. So I’ll remove him from your mind forever this way. I’ll put my hands so–one on each side of your head–and I’ll smash  your skull between them like a walnut, and that’ll block him out” . . . is, in my opinion, even uglier. But an ugly, nasty scene though it is, it’s not a rape scene. Is Rhett a bastard and a half here? Yes–a drunk, emotionally abusive bastard, but not a rapist. Nobody has sex against their will in this scene. Scarlett is carried up the stairs against her will, but carrying someone up the stairs against their will isn’t rape, and she’s happily succumbed to the idea of sex long before they get to the top step.

While we’re on the subject of forgotten tropes, here’s another one: the forced seduction. While most common in romance novels, it enjoyed its heyday in movies, too, and Gone with the Wind is its prime example. Forced seduction stemmed from the pre-sexual revolution days when Good Girls Didn’t, which, for writers, raised the question of how to get a good girl (or, in Scarlett’s case, a wildly independent one) into bed with the leading man when she had no logical reason to be there. The admittedly imperfect solution they came up with? Have the leading man force himself on her. Of course, he can’t actually force her to have sex, as a real hero, no matter how unchivalrous, would never have to resort to forcing women to have sex with him–so a forced seduction is something that starts as a rape but transforms into consensual sex at some point before penetration. This was intended to take just enough culpability off the woman that her reputation remained undamaged, while still allowing the man to cling to the shards of his respectability–and whatever plot point needed to be fulfilled by the two characters coming together could still play out. This trope became mostly unnecessary after the sexual revolution and basically died off in the film world after that, although–oddly–it lasted well into the 1980s in the realm of romance novels.

I’m certainly not arguing that the story doesn’t showcase sexism in other ways, or even that the staircase scene isn’t plenty sexist in its own right–but it’s not rape. Blindly worshiping Gone with the Wind displays a lack of brain power, but roundly condemning it is just as easy, and often, just as wrong. Margaret Mitchell’s magnum opus, and the movie based on it, are two of the most morally ambiguous pieces of pop culture the 20th century produced. A little deeper digging is in order here.

Best Coast: Teen Movies and the California Dream

May 23, 2011 § 2 Comments

When did the east coast versus west coast thing start? During the California gold rush, did moms try to persuade their sons to stay home in the east with arguments like, “Well, sure, the weather’s great and you can get rich out there, but it costs three dollars to buy an egg, an anyway, I hear all the women are shallow gold-diggers and prostitutes”?

I thought of this recently while I was watching Teenage Rebel, which played up the east coast versus west coast tug-of-war in a way that portended The Parent Trap. The Parent Trap, in turn, takes the rivalry almost as seriously as Biggie and Tupac. But these two films are far from the only offenders. (A more modern example: The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.) When I was growing up, I read a lot of really formulaic girls’ series fiction–and in every single series, there was usually a character meant to stand in for the coast opposite of wherever the story took place. In the Baby-sitters Club books, which are set in Connecticut, the west coast is represented by the transplanted-from-southern-California, beach-loving hippie Dawn, who only eats health food. Invariably, if a character is meant to stand in for the west coast, she is: a) blonde, b) laid-back, c) from California (Washington and Oregon do not exist in series fiction, point blank), and d) a natural beauty. In return, east coast girls are allowed a little more variety in home states (New York, Massachusetts and Connecticut are popular, but Vermont and New Hampshire are also allowed, as are the occasional appearances of Philadelphia and D.C.)–but they are consistently brunette and uptight. Alternately, for Sweet Valley High fans, it’s a running joke that if a female character from the east coast shows up, she will be a manipulative dark-haired snob whose entire purpose in the narrative was to ruin the (blonde, Californian, naturally beautiful) Wakefield twins’ lives. As a kid, I wondered where this trope had come from, and blamed it on the Beach Boys. Now I know better: it came from the movies. The Midwest, which had been the default setting for many movies in the 1930s and ’40s, was by the late ’50s being phased out in favor of an east/west culture war. And Hollywood, sick of the east coasters treating them like some backwards cow-town that knew nothing of class or elegance, came down pretty hard in favor of California–and convinced generations of movie-lovers of the certainty of Californian superiority as a result.

“Ohh . . . Boston.”

The Parent Trap is the quintessential realization of this trope. While the twins were, for the sake of the plot, required to have the same hair color, almost all other coastal stereotypes apply. Susan, the California twin, is the laid-back, outdoorsy, “modern” one (as evidenced by her short haircut) who lives with her father on one of the most gorgeous ranches ever committed to screen, where she enjoys activities like camping and horseback riding. Sharon, the Boston twin, is the “proper” one, as evidenced by her old-fashioned dresses and aversion to slang–as well as that fussily decorated Boston brownstone where she lives with her mother (whom you can bet she calls “Mother” rather than “Mom”). And while the point of the story is that the twins eventually rub off on each other and each reach a happy medium–while finagling and scheming to get their parents back together, naturally–it’s no surprise that they ultimately end up one big happy Californian family. (Of course, with that ranch, who can really blame them?)

The Parent Trap‘s California ranch.

That California wins out in most of these bi-coastal dilemmas was not always a given, but a device that coincides with the growth of Los Angeles and the rise of Hollywood itself. Prior to the 1960s, the Midwest was the American ideal. Back then, girls’ serial fiction heroines like Nancy Drew and Cherry Ames almost invariably called the Midwest home–as did big-screen serial leads like Andy Hardy. Even all-American beauty Barbie originally hailed from the dairy state. But starting in the 1950s, Midwestern heroine Nancy Drew was replaced with a new ideal: Gidget. In the Gidget films and follow-ups like the beach party movies, teenage culture and California culture are depicted as being virtually synonymous. Old teenage film cliches like the big dance and the malt shop were replaced by the bonfire on the beach and the surfing lesson. California was shown as some sort of latter-day Garden of Eden, and teenagers were its Adam and Eve. Most of this was simply due to laziness: screenwriters wrote what they knew, and there was no reason to head off to Idaho or Iowa to see what teenagers do in locales where surfboards are scarce. But certainly there was an element of self-satisfaction, too.

Unfortunately, this has led to a lack of balance. Midwestern teenage protagonists have all but disappeared from the screen since John Hughes stopped featuring the Brat Pack, and even east coast adolescents have been increasingly marginalized, mostly only popping up in darker teen films like Cruel Intentions where sunny California would ruin the carefully cultivated atmosphere. Your best bet for a non-California setting is one where the movie’s based on source material that dictates otherwise. And even that doesn’t always work–the 2007 Nancy Drew movie relocated the girl sleuth and her father from Midwestern River Heights, where they’d lived for three-quarters of a century, to boring ol’ southern California.

Filmmakers, I’m begging you: bring back the Midwestern heroines! I won’t even complain if you take the lazy way out and use “Midwestern” as shorthand for “naive” or “average” and “east coast” as a synonym for “sophisticated.” Just give us some face time. At this point, I might not even cringe too hard if they’re shown doing nothing more exciting than riding on tractors. Just leave Nancy Drew out of this.

Elizabeth Taylor: The Girl Who Had Everything

March 24, 2011 § 1 Comment

 

Did you guys hear that Elizabeth Taylor died?

I read a lot of film blogs, and every time somebody dies, the vast majority of these blogs post some kind memorial tribute. Ostensibly most of these film bloggers read other film blogs too, so it shouldn’t escape their notice that somehow their memorial sounds exactly like everybody else’s memorial. “Elizabeth Taylor’s acting career began when she was only a child, when she appeared in National Velvet. Over the years, we saw her grow into a beautiful young lady in Father of the Bride, and then watched her evolve into a legitimate movie star in films like Giant, Cleopatra, and BUtterfield 8.” Throw in a few references to “eight marriages” and “violet eyes” and bam–there’s your five-minute tribute post. Memorials for lazy bloggers.

What’s the point? It would be one thing if it were somebody like, say, Ernest Borgnine or Deanna Durbin, on whose acting careers casual movie fans might need a refresher. But this is Elizabeth Taylor! This is one of the top five iconic Hollywood actresses of all time! People who need to be reminded that Elizabeth Taylor starred in the most over the top production of Cleopatra the world has ever seen are not reading film blogs! Give your audience something interesting to read. Give us something that doesn’t start with National Velvet and end with “legend.”

So in the spirit of a tribute, here’s mine.

The first Elizabeth Taylor film I ever saw was Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. The second I ever saw was Cleopatra, and I’m glad that wasn’t my first–not that I didn’t enjoy it, because I did, but it was designed to be more spectacle than movie. Watching it, my jaw dropped in scene after scene, the director unveileding yet another jewel-encrusted, mammoth-sized set that would never be seen again. Probably the costumes in the Roman triumph scene alone were worth more than I’ll ever make in a lifetime. The scale of that movie, the sheer enormity of it, completely dwarfed Taylor’s presence. She didn’t have the kind of command, the stage presence, to hold her own on a set like that. To be fair, most actors don’t. But nevertheless, I’m glad that my introduction to Liz Taylor came in a film that was almost its exact opposite, a film that consisted mostly of two actors yelling at each other in a white room.

As a Tennessee Williams fan, I have to say that this is kind of an abortion of a film adaptation. I have no idea why production code-era Hollywood kept trying to adapt his plays into films. The challenges of eliding themes like homosexuality or prostitution when those are necessary (but oblique) plot points is beyond the talents of most filmmakers. Still, Kazan managed it (relatively successfully) with A Streetcar Named Desire, and I’m guessing the studios were hoping for another such hit with Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Tin Roof is no Streetcar. In casting Taylor, producers opted for a movie star rather than an actress, and it shows. Still, she and Newman are compulsively watchable, even when all we get to see them do is stand around in an empty room and hiss at each other for ten minutes at a time. (And that is most of what we get to see them do.) Elizabeth Taylor’s beauty has a chance to shine in the spare settings. She isn’t quite as stunning as she is in A Place in the Sun, but her beauty has mellowed, begun to settle over her like an old favorite sundress rather than a sequined ball gown. The film starts to fall apart when she leaves the screen in the second half, although I’m not sure whether that’s due to her disappearance or due to the sentimental, tacked-on ending where Brick and Big Daddy make up.

I’m glad that was my first Elizabeth Taylor film, because it led me to appreciate her more in later movies I saw. Giant currently holds first place in my heart, but you know what I think I like best about Elizabeth Taylor? That I’ve only made it through her greatest hits–and that means that I have plenty more of her films to discover. Here’s to you, Liz–and to our cinematic future together.

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