AMERICAN CINEMA PAPERS
by Harlan Kennedy
Man was born free, and everywhere he is in movies. Colonization by big-budget cinema has now reached the deepest parts of the Amazon rain forest and the African bush. The noble savage, scarcely disturbed as a mainstream utopian icon since the heyday of the Rousseaus (Jean Jacques and Douanier) is reawakened by the cryogenics of filmmaking. Eureka! Fitzcarraldo, Greystoke, The Emerald Forest, Out of Africa, and most recently, The Mission (and, in their different ways, Gandhi and The Color Purple). Primitive grace is in, imperialism and sophistication are out. Blessed are the meek and multicolored, for they shall inherit much movie work in the late Eighties.
The cinema acts in mysterious ways, its work as a cultural mirror to perform. No decade ever goes by in which the anxieties of society are not reflected up on the movie screen; the images, however, do not reflect a single slant or viewpoint on contemporary concerns, but a whole pattern of contraries. Inside the framework of historical happenstance, the movie zeitgeist becomes a vast play of views or ideologies.
In the Eighties, contraries thrive: xenophobia vs. charitable zeal; peace vs. the sword; we-can-teach-them-something vs. they-can-teach-us-something. It's the age of Band Aid and "Let's bomb the Libyans' It's the age of Mexican Earthquake Relief and "Let's zap Nicaragua." And in the cinema, it's the age of The Emerald Forest and Rambo, Out of Africa, and Jewel of the Nile. Movies in which the dark-skinned foreigner is a vicious infidel or warmonger jostle with movies in which he's a sacred primitive, the better part of ourselves that we somehow left behind on the trip up the ladder of evolution.
Western cinema's relations with the non-white underdeveloped world get more broadly xenophobic the further East they go: The Southeast Asia of Rambo is an exploding hellhole in which murderous yellows are stopped only by white American muscle and missile power. The South America of The Emerald Forest and The Mission, by contrast, is a forgotten Eden, in which numinous natives nourish the world as it was and should have remained before whitey came along.
Beneath this ultima Thule lies a more ambiguous mass of tenebrous aliens: those of the Middle East and Africa. Here the moral barometer is less decisive, and is vertical, not horizontal, in tendency. Nasty darkies cluster in the north – the power-crazed Ay-rabs of Jewel of the Nile and the Palestinian psychos of The Delta Force – while utopian natives are found in the south, the atavistic otherworld of the Masai and Kikuyu tribespeople in Out of Africa.
Clearly this filmic map of Third World amenability has not drawn itself up by accident. The black spots are those where the West has had more than a little trouble with the locals: Vietnam, the Eastern Mediterranean. The Edens are those places where native hands have reached out to do business, not rebellion.
But are the blacks or Indians lucky enough to find themselves in these movie Edens actually any better off? The black characters, who are strongly in the foreground in Isak Dinesen's Out of Africa, which paints them in vivid and richly mixed psychological colors, recede right into the background in Sydney Pollock's movie. They become merely part of the landscape and its mystical measure of man's potential for strength, grace, and innocence. They are a moral and anthropological backdrop before which the whites conduct their gavotte of 20th-Century angst and romance. (In the book, the Kikuyu servants Kamante and Lulu have at least 50 times more prose devoted to them than the shadowy Denys Finch Hatton, who flits in and out as little more than a double-barreled gent with a fondness for huntin', shootin', and flyin'.
Thus instead of being the story of a woman who discovers the mysteries of Africa and the complexity of beliefs and emotions that make up a primitive culture, the film is about two diselemented Westerners preserving a white aristocracy of feeling (white-tablecloth romance under the stars) and culture (all those books and gramophone records) even out there in the burning Bush.
In this way, a distanced or sentimental view of the "noble' savage can virtually nullify him as a living character. He becomes an inert paradigm for Paradise on Earth, leaving the white characters to get on with their more flawed, more tortured, but so much more interesting and upstaging lives.
In The Emerald Forest, the natives are not wallpaper; in fact, there is a serious bid to grapple with their culture, morality, and mystical traditions through the eyes of a Tarzanic white foster child. Director John Boorman sends his only begotten son, Charlie, into the prelapsarian wilderness, where he plays not a redeemer among sinners but a sinner among redeemers. His original sin is being born white, Anglo-Saxon, and the son of a jungle-raping dam builder.
The boy is washed clean in the dark river of mysticism and magic. He goes naked. And he, a sinner turned redeemer by the kiss of primitive innocence and the return to nature, then redeems his own father (Powers Boothe). In short, this is the New Testament in reverse. The son is sent forth not to save the world but to be saved, and then he in turn saves the father.
It is not over-fanciful to discover in Boorman's film – and in Werner Herzog's Aguirre, The Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo, Hugh Hudson's Greystoke, Roland Joffe's The Mission, and other "primitive grace" movies – an attempt to create a new vehicle for religious feeling in the godless late 20th Century. The essential components of a religion are to offer stories about the source of life and the beginnings of a people, an ethical and moral matrix, and a communications network between the finite and the infinite by way of ritual.
The noble savage movies provide all three. The world's endangered primitive peoples live at the source of life. (We're told in a voiceover in The Emerald Forest that "60 percent of the world's oxygen comes from the Amazon rain forests." This is unconstruable for the layman – would we all stop breathing if they disappeared? – but it is a statement designed to have great mystical éclat). Second, the tribe's threatened survival is a living appeal to quasi-Christian virtues of charity, mercy, and love. Third, ritual thrives here as in few other communities in the modern world.
The Mission seems to sense this newborn neo-Christian religiosity. The movie's entire topography is designed according to religious symbolism. The opening scene shows a crucified white man pushed out into a river on his floating cross by Amazon Indians. We then watch him tossed down river, through rapids, and finally over the huge waterfall that is the film's scenic enterpiece: centerpiece and spiritual dividing line. Most of the white men and the urbanized Indians live below the falls. The primitive Indians and the virtuous Christian whites live above them. It's a geographical Genesis in which "above the falls" and "below the falls" mean "before the Fall" and "after the Fall."
In their high-ground Garden of Eden, Father Jeremy Irons and his Guarani Indians tend the perfect agrarian community, where free will and egalitarianism, "capitalism" and "communism" coexist. It is a community spontaneously evolved and immaculately conceived in a politically nondoctrinal natural world. Not surprisingly, the men from the corrupt or corruptible white race – first Irons, the new mission leader, later De Niro, the Spanish mercenary turned Jesuit – have to work hard even to reach this utopia. They must scale a whopping bluff, hard by the falls, which makes the cliff in The Guns of Navaronne seem like a gymnasium climbing frame. As with Powers Boothe in The Emerald Forest or Klaus Kinski in Fitzcarraldo, the initially undeserving white man must go through hell and high water, and any other hazards the movie can invent, to reach the native's cradle of life and innocence.
But the film itself never reaches it. The Mission, like its peer pictures, once again presents the Indians as fictive devices rather than as flesh-and-blood people. They sing their glowing chorales, they tend their terrestrial paradise. But they have no inner life: they are pawns in a parable. No animating human complexity is allowed to stir in them, and the film takes care to stifle any hint of a contradictory tension between innocence and barbarism. Mid-film, someone asks, "Why does the Guarani parent so often kill his own children?" Comes the answer, "So that the family can more swiftly run when attacked by the white man." So by a little sleight of hand with situational ethics, even the murder of Indian by Indian can be laid at the door of the white intruder.
Even if we accepted the shining goodness of the Guarani as a symbolic given, the film never resolves, though it briefly raises, the problem of whether Christianity enhances or corrupts their moral state. When the Spanish troops come to root out the mission by gun and sword, the Indians decline Father Irons' urgent invitation to Christian passivity and take to arms, along with the reawakened military spirit of Robert De Niro. At this point it becomes clear that the function of the Indians in The Mission is twofold. In part, they are residents of a clear symbolic address: Heaven on Earth, Amazon Rain Forest, South America; in part – and perhaps more important, though more covert – they are a collective human compass needle. They register the conflict of beliefs and temperaments between Irons (man of peace) and De Niro (man of war struggling with his chosen cross of Jesuit observance), and they record our own swiveling sympathies between the two.
In both capacities, the Indians are functions rather than characters, emblems rather than human beings.
This is true also in the films of that founding father of modern jungle cinema, Werner Herzog. Although in Herzog's South American dreamworld, the native's symbolic role is more oneiric and less glibly schematized than in The Mission or The Emerald Forest, the Indians still wear the unimpeachable noble savage garb – whether they work with unbowed pride and impassive zeal for Fitzcarraldo's Sisyphean dream of hauling a ship over a mountain, or with the celestial aloofness of the native guides who play their flutes – as Aguirre's boat pushes on toward destruction.
To his credit, Herzog – and Hudson, for that matter – muddies the portrait with token ambivalence. The Indian's aristocracy of nature is limned by its eerie unpredictable violence: there is a zeal for camouflaged murder that has arrows whistling out of the riverbanks in Aguirre, and a devouring superstitiousness that cuts loose Fitzcarraldo's ship toward a near-fatal whirlpool.
But in the end, Herzog's Indians fall into much the same radical-romantic trap as John Boorman's and Roland Joffe's. Even when murdering or mayheming, they are painted as more patrician than the white man, mainly because they are incomprehensible – to the white audience back home. Because, Herzog suggests, we do not understand the way the Indian thinks and feels, we cannot pillory him (as we can the white man) for shallow or vicious thoughts and feelings. And in an age of Western self-doubt or self-contempt, the lacuna in our understanding of another race becomes the vessel into which we pour all our own missing virtues and ideals. Bad conscience rules the dramaturgy. In movies like Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo, or The Emerald Forest and The Mission, the Indian is not only the "other" that we are busy eradicating; he is the symbol of our lost, ideal selves we want to reclaim.
In short, the lost world in today's jungle movies is not so much the standard old ethno-topographic time warp as a symbolic world of lost or forgotten human ideals. To venture into that lost world is perhaps to rediscover them, and perhaps to risk a fatal impact of colliding creeds and cultures in doing so.
The very landscaping of the noble savage films contributes to this theme. With dependable regularity, the geography in these movies divides into two main arenas: the rain forest itself and the river coursing through it. The rain forest is the unconquerable otherness of Nature, where the white man can lose his bearings and his identity. (In The Emerald Forest, the kidnapped boy almost literally disappears into the jungle, erased from the eye as magically as the Invisible People who capture him.) The river is the thoroughfare on which white man and native can meet or collide. It is on the river that European troops stage the decisive part of their battle in The Mission; on the river in Fitzcarraldo that the Indians and Klaus Kinski meet on equal terms of distrustful wonderment; and on the river, below a crashing waterfall and amid whistling arrows, that Powers Boothe rediscovers Charlie Boorman in The Emerald Forest.
Water is usually the white man's only route into the jungle and his only escape from it – an ambivalent symbol. It can represent grace, salvation, baptism, a mystic initiation (the laving jungle cascade in The Emerald Forest, the idyllic pool abustle with flamingos, etc., in Greystoke). But it is also the thread that pulls the invading white man through the virgin forest, tainting the environment. The big river that is dammed up in The Emerald Forest becomes the jungle's despoiler. The river brings the Eden-desecrating whites, with their guns and gung ho, in Greystoke. And in Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo, the white man uses the river as his road to preposterous, unwieldy dreams: whether it be of El Dorado, the kingdom of gold, or of planting La Scala in the heart of the Amazon.
It is in the river (as leitmotif) that the religious and colonial impulses of the jungle movie come together. For the white man, the river is a means to conquer and be conquered. He comes to possess, exploit, and (wittingly or unwittingly) corrupt the old-new world of the jungle. But he stays to be possessed, by an environment close to the source of life and full of disarming magic – a cradle of innocence, ritual, and mystic wonder.
Hidden inside this picture of natives as the guardians of a lost, priceless, primitive culture, there is also the symbolic notion of the North American Indians' diaspora: rescued from long decades of being shot by John Wayne or, worse, sympathetically anthropologized by Ralph Nelson (Soldier Blue) or Arthur Penn (Little Big Man), the Red Indian has fled south and become, at least for the cinema's purposes, the Amazon Indian. It is as if the movies, realizing in their secret heart that they have spent 50 years happily slaughtering the redskin and then ten years (in the liberal-backlash Sixties) essaying a token contrition, have now dismantled the Western altogether and established a Mission for Distressed Indians, down South America way.
How convenient for the paleface, after all, if the red man and his whole conscience-vexing race could be swept off the known map and down into the unknown: much like the inconvenient characters in today's TV soaps. For Dallas and Dynasty, South America is the great write-out: "that bourne from which no traveller returns," a vast disposal dump for the likes of Grandpa Ewing and Baby Blaisdel. There you can rub characters out and the place is so inchoate and remote that you don't have to ask questions later. "What happened to him?" "He went to South Amerca" "Ah."
Where better to send the Red Indian, who has given America (by which we mean North, of course) a double dose of guilt, first by being all but wiped out in the last century, then by being obliterated all over again on the movie screen? Down in the Amazon, he can either be forgotten about altogether or transformed into a noble, glittering, forest-haunting icon. Or better still: he could harass or wipe out the white man whenever he trespasses on Indian territory. Geronimo! Anything goes, without reservations. Our consciences can be salved by mirror-writing the Indian wars on the other side of the equator.
Even with filmmakers who attempt compassion (like Boorman) or surreal complexity (like Herzog), the unconquerable problem in portraying primitive people remains. The white man cannot, or will not, find the key to transforming him from a symbol to a human being. He remains a colonized being, victim of the white man's well-meaning patronage with cash or culture, and victim – as film crew after film crew steps into the steaming tropics – of the Big Glass Eye Which Stands on Three Legs. The white man, even though he is racked with guilt and good intentions over anything to do with the Third World – indeed because he is so racked – sees the native not as a fellow man but as a virtue-bearing chess piece in the game of reclaiming his white conscience.
This colonization by canonization is not simply confined to the Africa of Greystoke or Out of Africa or the South America of Boorman, Joffe, or Herzog. It can even penetrate the Far East, where the more usual noises are those of Sly Stallone grenading or machine-gunning whole villages. In the Cambodia of Joffe's The Killing Fields, we have an almost definitive play-off between the saintly native and the exploitative white man: Dith Pran (Haing Ngor), all stoicism, selflessness, and wan, big-hearted smiles, and Sidney Schanberg (Sam Waterston), intrepid New York Times news hound, roiled by guilt over his exploitation of Pran – is that what journalists do, or merely Americans?
Yet the irony, amid all these tales of the irresistible force of American or Western adventurism meeting the immovable mystery of native grace, is that mainstream Hollywood has yet to step firmly into the fray. The noble savage movies, though often co-funded by American money and endorsed by American participation (actors De Niro, Waterston, and Boothe, and Schanberg himself as éminence grise on The Killing Fields), are almost all written, produced, and directed by Britons (give or take the odd Munich mystic). Maybe U.S. filmmakers are more wary of the pitfalls and potential oversimplifications – especially in South America, which may be a dreamworld separated by an ocean for Europe but is a potential nightmare of a neighbor for the U.S.A.
Perhaps America is wrestling with the problems and paradoxes of ethnic entente in its own land. One reason why Hollywood on occasion zooms in on the black as a subject and neglects the North American Indian is that the black demands attention. Both the South Bronx and Watts permit daily egress. But the Red Indian has a token parcel of territory that, however derisory compared with his former kingdom and however much a paleface's payoff, he can still call "home." It also renders him invisible. The constantly frustrated energy with which the black has fought to become an equal citizen in the U.S. (often needing the battering ram of the civil rights movement) is bifurcated by the equal and opposite energy needed to rediscover who he is. One way or the other, looking forward or back, he must find a home.
In his search, the black must parse the meaning of what white Hollywood (Out of Africa, The Color Purple) and TV (Roots) shows him. Hence, in part, the bizarre geographical cross patterns of modern filmmaking, whereby Europe homes in on remotest South America and shows scant interest in its nearer neighbor Africa, while America is more interested in far-flung Africa than in the landmass to the south.
As for the success with which the white man follows the black man in his search for old roots and new homes, that is another matter. Or rather, it is the same matter all over again as with the noble savage films. Steven Spielbergs The Color Purple is a whopping attempt at top-level interracial accord. It is a chart-topping filmmaker's bid to argue 1) that ultimately America is one big happy family, ready to embrace the underprivileged minorities it creates; 2) that the rest of the world should embrace its own geopolitical mess; and 3) that a movie about blacks can be made without either political agitprop or sanctifying exoticism.
But as in the jungle movies, there is the vitiating sense of a hand and heart reaching out to a people without the brain following as well. Spielberg tries to bring Alice Walker's characters to life but brings them instead to Movie Life. Schematic and sentimental, The Color Purple is mixed not from the raw colors of black experience but from the laboratory colors of past films. It's Song of the South stirred in with Gone with the Wind, plus a dash of Duel in the Sun, The Southerner, Sounder ...(Spielberg is on record as having directed Whoopi Goldberg's performance with instructions like, "Now I want Ray Milland in The Lost Weekend"). And when movie invocations run out, there are popular literary ones. The scene of Sophie's aborted reunion with her children becomes an animated Dickensian postcard: all smiling children's faces and twinkling Christmas trees, while the mayor's wife (Dickens' bullying landlord) screams, "Out into the snow with you."
The white cinema's current fascination with nonwhite and primitive cultures is combined with a pathological shyness of reality in the way it depicts them. In any context in which a racial group is depicted near to its roots as a discrete and authentic community or culture – where its members are not absorbed into a mainstream WASP genre like the cop thriller or knockabout comedy – the white man's screen opts for sentimentality or schematism. It presents the black, the Indian, or the Oriental either as a symbolic token in a game of white redemption or as a martyr in the ethnic wars.
Even TV's well-intentioned race-accord epic Roots reeled out its line for honesty and realism but too often reeled it right back in having caught only sanctity and simplification. The blacks wore halos of victimized nobility, while the liberal-minded white acting fraternity gathered round to play the villains (Ed Asner as snarling slave trader).
Thus the most conscientious bids at culture reclamation on the "other races'" behalf end up looking like exercises in retroactive righteousness and self-flagellation. The British screen has long been prey to this problem in its long-running series of Indian Raj movies and teleplays, known in the trade as A Jewel in Gandhi's Passage. In these works, the saintly wog puts himself up for martyrdom by the Britannic rotters who have overrun the Subcontinent. And the Brits hold back from slaughter or genocide at the last moment, struck clean between the eyes and spiritually disarmed by the native's nonviolent nobility.
Gandhi's "passive resistance," born of a moment in political history, becomes an oddly prophetic phrase for future cinema. The Indians in India, the Indians in the Amazon, the blacks in Blixen-era Kenya, the poor dark folk in The Color Purple all passively resist the probing of the white man's camera – not least because that camera probes only as far as it wants to. Then, like the British in India, it backs off, feeling transcendently smug about its abdicatory selflessness, though all it has actually done is to withdraw the invader's hand without ever having had the greater courage of holding it out for true understanding.
The need to be politically acceptable or à la mode means that today's British movies about India reek of present-day self-righteousness built on historical self-criticism. In a similar way, the civil rights movement in America, which began the whole process of shaking the white man's conscience and unshackling the black man's militant pride, means that white cinema's depiction of nonwhite racial groups may long be inhibited or distorted by the pressure of having to toe the proper political line and the horror of seeming to be illiberal.
Yet together with these nay-saying mandates – "Thou shalt not offend," "Thou shalt not misrepresent, "Thou shall not appear racist" – goes a more positive fascination with alien cultures in today's Western cinema. What draws the white Westerner to the remoter nonwhite peoples is the suspicion (fear, hope) that they bear within them both the distant past and the not-too-distant future of the planet. As primitive communities, they form a link with our oldest human origins. As the Third World, they are a key to the political ecology of the next decade and next century. Look forward or back, they are inescapable.
The ethnic explorations (however perfunctory) in the noble savage movies are an extension of the atavistic impulse that has plunged some Eighties filmmakers into prehistory. But whereas those products (Quest for Fire, Iceman) have mostly died at the boxoffice due to lack of any rapprochement with modern experience – what are troglodytes to us, or we to them? – the concatenation of remote peoples with emissaries from a recognizable, near-modern Western world (Out of Africa, The Emerald Forest) is more alluring.
But there is still a missing life spark. In the nonwhite primitive peoples depicted by white cinema, there is no real sense of human autonomy. They are cunningly jointed marionettes moved around the puppet stage of Western drama and conscience therapy. They are colonized not militarily but mimetically. And the white man controls his subject by denying him all moral or psychological complexity. The natives are either nasty subhumans fit for the flamethrower (Rambo) or they are noble savages touched with superhuman sanctity. In The Emerald Forest, they are both. One tribe is virtuous, magical, and pacific (the Invisible People), while the enemy tribe (the Fierce People) is greedy, brutal, and warmongering.
No shade of life-giving ambiguity dims the Manichaean opposition. Only upon the white man is bestowed the supreme gift of a mixed, protean, fallible humanity. Perhaps in the late Eighties and Nineties cinema, with Joffe's The Mission once more probing South America and Herzog himself about to take a third plunge into the rain forests, the Third World will at last take on a third dimension. Perhaps the white man, having extended the hand of recognition, peace, and good intentions, will extend the gifts of complexity, spontaneity, and truth.
COURTESY T.P. MOVIE NEWS.
THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN THE OCTOBER 1986 ISSUE OF FILM COMMENT.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.