Archive for October, 2014
As Asian American film scholar Celine Parreñas Shimizu notes, there is “a long tradition in Hollywood movies of iconic portrayals of Asian American men (as) rapacious and brutal, pedophiliac, criminal, treacherous and also romantic, and quaint. Sexuality and gender act as forces in the racialization of Asian American men.” Sadly, despite tiny steps towards improvement, Asian male representation in Hollywood still remains timidly entrenched in stereotypes. Sure, John Cho is the leading man in Selfie, (although he’s already starting to be a bit stalkerish), and Glenn (Steven Yeun) from The Walking Dead is still alive and human (though there are persistent rumors of his imminent demise), but on the big screen the ridiculously hot Lee Byung-Hun is still playing the bad guy (most recently in the upcoming Terminator: Genisys) instead of fulfilling all of our fantasies as a romantic lead.
Strangely enough, our modern era is in some ways more regressive than, say, 1959. Althought the 1950s weren’t known for their progressive portrayals of Asian Americans in Western films, in that year Asian men appeared as objects of desire in two significant movies. In 1959 the Hawai’ian born Sansei actor James Shigeta made his big-screen debut in Sam Fuller’s film The Crimson Kimono, playing a Los Angeles detective assigned to the case of a murder of an exotic dancer. The film is an engaging cop movie but it’s most notable for its portrayal of a love triangle involving Shigeta, his white partner Sgt. Charlie Bancroft, and Bancroft’s girlfriend Christina, who is also white. Unlike most such romantic conflicts involving an Asian man opposite a white guy, in this case Shigeta got the girl, which made The Crimson Kimono a groundbreaking anomaly in Hollywood. James Shigeta was a co-winner of the 1960 Golden Globe Award for Most Promising Male Newcomer and he would go on to a moderately successful career as a romantic lead for a few years but he never became the superstar that his good looks and charisma would indicate. Like most Asian American men in Hollywood up until and after that time Shigeta ran into the impenetrable glass ceiling of racism.
1959 also saw the depiction of another desirable Asian male, in Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour. In that film Eiji Okada plays the intensely romantic Lui, a Japanese architect who has a brief and torrid affair with a Frenchwoman played by Emmanuelle Riva (seen most recently in Michael Haneke’s Amour). With a screenplay by noted Asiaphile Marguerite Duras (L’Amant/The Lover; Un barrage contre le Pacifique/The Sea Wall), Resnais’ film depicts Lui as suave, tender, and desirable, which contrasts greatly with the ways that Hollywood has typically portrayed Asian men. Okada is particularly swoonworthy as he and Riva’s character passionately discuss love, war, genocide, and beauty, against the backdrop of the site of first the atomic bomb attack. With the ruins of Genbaku Dome in the background, the film also utilizes a nonlinear narrative structure that links the European front, as exemplified by a long flashback set in France, to the Pacific theater, with Hiroshima repping for all of Japan. Set some fifteen years after the end of World War II, the film emphasizes the human cost of the war even many years after its ceasefire, as both Lui and Elle have been scarred by the loss of loved ones in the conflict. Elle fetishizes both her late German lover and Lui, as she is drawn to them due to their difference and otherness.
Now releasing theatrically for the first time in years in a new 4K digital restoration, Hiroshima Mon Amour remains fresh and relevant both thematically and stylistically (it’s regarded as one of the most influential films of the early Nouvelle Vague, or the French New Wave). It’s also an example of an early representation of an Asian male as not a caricature, a villain, or a clown, but as a fully fleshed out, highly desirable romantic lead. Now if only Hollywood could get a clue and do the same in the 21st century.
Opens October 31
3290 Sacramento St.
San Francisco CA
Jeff Chang’s latest book, Who We Be: The Colorization of America (St. Martin’s Press), dropped last week and it arrives as the United States is in the midst of another particularly fraught period of racial politics. As recent events in Ferguson, MO have indicated, Chang’s book argues that we as a country and a culture are a long way from becoming the post-racial society supposedly heralded by the election of Barack Obama, yet despite the seemingly dire straits that we’re in, all is not hopeless. In WWB Chang recounts the effects of the changing demographics in the U.S. since the mid-twentieth century, from desegregation through multiculturalism to the shooting of Trayvon Martin and beyond, investigating the ways in which visual culture intersects with current and historical events.
WWB is an amazing tome, encompassing topics as broad as the civil rights movement and as focused as Budweiser’s “Wassup” ad campaign. The book is an outstanding look at the ways in which we as a people in the United States since the mid-twentieth century have moved through a sea change of perceptions, representations, and reflections of racial relations.
Beginning in the 1960s, Chang’s book interweaves topics as diverse as the Republican Party’s “Southern Strategy,” the 2001 World Trade Center attacks, the subprime mortgage scandal, Occupy Wall Street, and the psychology of advertising. Chang focuses on a range of culture creators including cartoonist Morrie Turner, whose comic strip Wee Pals featured a multiracial cast of kids, Faith Ringgold, an early advocate for the Black Arts Movement, Daniel Martinez, known for his performance art/museum tag/culture bomb from the 1993 Whitney Bienniel, and Shepard Fairey, designer of both the Andre The Giant “Obey” street art campaign and the 2008 Obama “Hope” image.
Chang does a great job exploring the ways in which real life, visual art, and commerce interact and influence each other. For instance, Chang explores a proto-multiculti Coke ad campaign from the early 70s that tried to latch onto the youth culture and nascent ethnic studies movement of the time but that didn’t mention any of the harsher realities of, say, the Watts riots. Another section of the book drills down into the racism and elitism of the 1980s and 90s New York visual arts scene, including a particularly culturally tone-deaf incident surrounding the white artist responsible for “The Nigger Drawings.” Chang closely examines this volatile period during which contemporary arts gatekeepers like the New York Times, gallery directors, and curators were forced to confront their biases against creative work by artists of color and queer artists, which reached a crescendo during the controversial 1993 Whitney Bienniel, which was vilified by the art establishment as “a theme park of the oppressed.” Chang then discusses the ways in which these so-called culture wars in turn lead to the commercialized multiracialism of the United Colors of Benetton “Colors” magazine and ad campaign.
Chang also astutely looks at what he calls “the paradox of the post-racial moment,” wherein the U.S can elect Barack Obama president, yet still has trouble reconciling Obama’s biracial identity. Chang’s analysis is particularly keen when exploring the current confused state of race relations in the U.S., describing what he calls the tendency for many people to be “colormute,” that is, to avoid talking about race for fear of being accused of racism. He ironically notes the convoluted logic behind those who frown on discussing race in any way, stating, “If bad people had used race to divide and debase . . . then good people would be polite to never acknowledge race at all. It was better not to say anything than to risk being seen as a racist.”
Chang concludes his book with two contrasting case studies–a detailed look at George Zimmerman’s murder of Trayvon Martin and the rise of the DREAM Act, the proposed federal legislation that addresses the citizenship status of undocumented young people brought to the U.S. while children. By juxtaposing these two cases Chang emphasizes the fact that, while the Martin killing demonstrates that the U.S. remains far from being a post-racial society, there is still reason for hope, as seen in the increased activism by immigrant youth of color under the DREAM Act.
Chang’s writing is clear and accessible, and his analysis is thoughtful, concise, and innovative. Though by no means a dis on the theory queens among us (and you know who you are), after recently wading through a few visual culture publications, it’s a pleasure and a relief to read an author who writes with clarity without sacrificing intelligent intellectual commentary. Who We Be is a significant and essential addition to the study of contemporary U.S. art, culture, and politics.
Jeff Chang is on a book tour to promote WWB! Find out more here.
The Mill Valley Film Festival’s 2014 edition starts this weekend and as per usual it’s a star-studded affair, with guest appearances by the likes of Hilary Swank, Jason Reitman, Billy Joe Armstrong, Ellie Fanning, Laura Dern, Metallica, and many more Hollywood glitterati. The program also boasts an outstanding lineup of documentaries, including several by local filmmakers, so the reasons for driving across the Golden Gate Bridge (or the Richmond/San Rafael Bridge, depending on your homebase) are manifold.
This year the festival is spotlighting Spanish-language cinema from around the world, including the excellent documentary Que Caramba Es La Vida, an intriguing portrait of the fierce and talented women mariachis of Mexico City. Directed by veteran German filmmaker Doris Dörrie, the movie documents the experiences of several female performers working to make a mark in a field dominated by men. The film is shot mostly verite-style with no narration, as each of the women describes how she came to be a mariachi and why she continues in the business. Some come from mariachi families, with parents or grandparents who performed before them, while others are the first in their families to perform. A particularly compelling story is that of Maria del Carmen, a mariachi singer who lives with her single mom and young daughter in a small apartment in Mexico City. Del Carmen’s mother recalls that even as a girl, her daughter Maria had a voice “that went right through you,” and this is pretty apparent after hearing del Carmen soulfully belt out a couple songs in the Plaza Garabaldi, which is home to scores of mariachi bands plying their trade every night. The film depicts del Carmen’s everyday performance prep routine, as her mom and daughter help her with her makeup and hair, as well as revealing her concerns for her daughter’s future as a female growing up working-class in Mexico. The movie also follows Las Pioneras, a group of older female mariachi groups whose members who are now in their sixties and seventies and who started out as mariachis in the 1950s as teenagers and young women. The last quarter of the movie follows the Dia de los Muertes celebrations in Mexico City, neatly contextualizing the mariachi tradition. Que Caramba Es La Vida effectively looks at some of the social and cultural milieu surrounded the women, including the effects of drug dealers, misogyny, poverty, and crime on their ability to keep performing.
Mexican music of a different sort is profiled in For Those About To Rock: The Story of Rodrigo y Gabriela. Rock journalist and first-time director Alejandro Franco narrates his very accessible portrait of the popular Mexico City guitar duo, from their roots in the capital listening to thrash and heavy metal like Megadeth, Metallica, and Slayer as teenagers. Both subjects are fluent in English and were raised in middle-class Mexican families, so their stories for the most part are very different from their mariachi counterparts in Dörrie’s film. The film is a standard biopic of a successful musical outfit so, unless you’re a big Rodrigo y Gabriela fan, the movie is less compelling than Dorrie’s movie. The film starts out strong, quickly and succinctly contextualizing the Mexico rock music scene, but bogs down in the middle as it becomes a fairly linear recounting of R&G’s career.Although the film is about musicians, one of its shortcoming is that there isn’t actually enough of R&G’s music in the earlier part of film, so if you’re unfamiliar with the duo you might not know what the fuss is all about. The film makes the mistake of telling and not showing, which weakens its impact—there are a lot of talking heads explaining things and not enough things happening instead. Whereas Que Caramba takes place on the streets and in the plazas of Mexico City, For Those About To Rock happens mostly in recording studios, backstage, and at clubs, and concerts, and is more of a fannish tribute about legend-building than an incisive look at the duo. There is also not much dramatic tension—the director refers to the story as a “fairy tale’ and it’s presented as such, with R&G destined to achieve their rock star ambitions. The viewer learns very little about either musician’s personal life or any deep, compelling reasons for why they make music other than “it’s fun”, and the film lacks a strong sense of a cultural context for who they are and where they came from. The film ends with about ten minutes of live concert footage that only underscores the relative paucity of music in the rest of the film, which may be enough of a reason for admirers of Rodrigo y Gabriela to watch the film.
The Mill Valley Film Festival eleven days beginning on Oct. 2 in various theaters in and around Mill Valley. Go here for complete schedule and ticket information.