The Great American Novel Project: Absalom, Absalom!

September 30, 2012 § 2 Comments

Absalom, Absalom!

This isn’t my first attempted Faulkner novel. It is my first completed Faulkner novel. (Related: It’s also the book that derailed my Great American Novel Project for the better part of a year and a half.) To me, reading Faulkner is like trying to wade through the most impenetrable swamp in the South for a year and a half straight, and while occasionally there are some cool things during your trek, and the scenery’s great, by the time that year and a half is up, you’re soaked through, miserable, and have been so focused on the task at hand that you’ve completely missed the signposts alongside the swamp telling you a) what’s ahead of you, b) why you’re in the swamp and c) how to get out. Normally I like dense writing–two of my favorite books are Possession and The Secret History–but apparently I’ve come to the outer reaches of my limit, and Faulkner is it.

Thank god for Shreve, Quentin’s roommate at Harvard, the ultimate recipient of the tale the Compsons are weaving in Absalom, Absalom!: his entire purpose in the novel seems to be to repeat back to Quentin what he’s been saying in plainer terms for the benefit of the reader. (There are actual points in the narrative where Shreve interrupts in order to say, “So what you’re saying is . . .?”–so the next time your writing instructor dings you on an As You Know, just tell them that Faulkner did it, too.) When you’re spending all your energy trying to figure out which character Faulkner is even talking about, it’s tough to simultaneously follow his metaphors. To be fair to Faulkner, that’s part of his goal–the obscuration of Absalom‘s events is a necessary part of his exploration of how we attempt to reconstruct the past. As always with Faulkner, the prose is incredible. The plot, once you sort it all out, is compelling. And the broader Southern themes of the novel–slavery as the downfall of the South, the region’s inability to come to grips with its own demise, the myriad versions of Southern history and what they all mean–are fascinating even now that many of them have been well-trod. (At the time Absalom, Absalom! came out and those themes were fresh, this novel–and particularly its closing lines, which are a neat summary of Faulkner and his entire oeuvre for me–must have been thrilling.) Intriguingly enough, Faulkner has said that the “true version” of his characters’ history is there in the pages, between the lines, for any reader conscientious enough to go back and look for it. All the same, I probably won’t be that reader.

Previously: The Great Gatsby
Next: the first book of John Dos Passos’ U.S.A. trilogy, The 42nd Parallel

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Green Fire

April 7, 2012 § Leave a comment

Stewart Granger, wooing Grace Kelly in Green Fire: “In the meantime, there’s all this. A classic setting: man, woman, tropic night, beautiful river. . .” Yes, folks, that’s right–Stewart Granger identified the Jungle Love genre half a century before I did.

And Green Fire is a worthy addition to the canon. A rare example set in the New World rather than Darkest Africa or the steamy jungles of southeast Asia, it nevertheless covers all the necessary tropes: a love triangle between middle-aged men and a 20-something leading lady; a beautiful Colombian setting (filmed on location); a substantial population of brown people to work the coffee plantation and the emerald mine and, when necessary, to wave guns around threateningly; a cave-in and an eventual landslide, along with the ongoing threat of the rainy season, an ostensibly Hispanic villain played by a WASPy former Yalie. No royalty, but we do get emeralds, which has to count for something, right? I’m going with “Right.”

The run-down: Granger is an emerald miner-slash-adventurer in Colombia. His claim borders a coffee plantation owned by Grace Kelly and her brother. Granger aims to romance Kelly, but his devotion to the mine ends up alienating him not only from her but from his business partner as well. Meanwhile, a group of bandits led by a man called El Moro is terrorizing the miners, trying to take the emeralds for themselves.

Green Fire wears its white savior complex on its sleeve. It’s paternalist, colonialist, and misogynist. Not only that, it’s horrifying from an environmentalist standpoint, what with all the mountain-decimating and river-rerouting. So of course, I loved it. I don’t know why I even try to justify it anymore: it turns out I just like racist, sexist movies in spite of themselves. And apparently we can add “environmentally destructive movies” to that list.

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.

White Folks in the Tropics: a Cinematic Celebration

April 4, 2011 § 2 Comments

I’ve discovered a new mid-century film subgenre! For the time being, let’s call it Jungle Love. (No, not that kind of jungle love. Given that the title of this blog includes the word “sex,” though, I have plenty of kinky Google searches leading to it. Might as well add to it!) This subgenre I’ve discovered combines elements of the romance, adventure, and melodrama genres into one entirely new fusion. Here are the essential elements:

  • Pretty white people. Often, a 25-year-old actress paired with a 50-year-old leading man.
  • An exotic, tropical setting largely populated by brown people. Often a plantation. India or Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) is the most common, but the rest of Asia, Africa, or even the Caribbean can substitute in a pinch. (For some reason South America is vastly underused for this purpose–maybe because the Brits never owned it.)
  • Romantic Complications. Usually this takes the form of a love triangle, but it can also consist of double love triangles (whoa!), love quadrangles, or simply one of those classic I-love-you-I-hate-you, back-and-forth pairings.
  • The interference of nature: generally a natural disaster, a plague, or a wild animal attack. Some ambitious films (I’m looking at you, Rains of Ranchipur) manage to cram in all three. This interference is generally meant to up the emotional stakes for the romantic leads (and maybe even kill off the unchosen party of a love triangle), but to a post-colonial viewer, just highlights the extreme self-centeredness of the protagonists, who keep blathering about their love lives even as thousands of “natives” die off in the background shots.

Bonus points awarded for:

  • Minor royalty.
  • Prostitutes/”good time girls”/”companions” (if we’re in the Hays Code era).
  • Blackface. Or yellowface . . . in most cases, literally orangeface, as the 1950s Hollywood attempt at making white characters look Indian was to spray them with a particularly garish, neon shade of self-tanner.

Need examples? Keep reading.

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