Push/Precious and The Hurt Lockdown

The Hurt Locker wins Best Picture at the 2010 Oscars

Put the hurtin' on Best Picture: The Hurt Locker

I am experiencing delayed-onset Oscar Fever via disjointed YouTube clips due to the Cablevision flap – or whatever it was that interrupted the ABC signal on its way to my rabbit ears and sturdy little DTV digital converter box, where it could have slid down the series of wires and flickered onto my screen in I guess pixels now!  showing me a bunch of people in gowns and black suits, wearing diamonds, weilding gold statues.

Hollywood’s biggest night.  The Oscars.

I have pretty much caught up – the beginning musical number with Neil Patrick Harris was really (can I say this?) gay (I think that that’s what Antonio Banderas was mouthing when the camera showed him). There was what is now being called a Kanye West/Taylor Swift power struggle over the acceptance speech for Best Documentary Short.  Well, hopefully this will get more people to watch the film, Music by Prudence, which I am looking forward to watching – hopefully this behind the scenes drama will get it to Blockbuster!

By the way: how crazy is it that you can now “Kanye West” somebody – which means a racially tense grabbing of the spotlight on a live awards telecast.  It should mean also to make a radical statement on a disaster-relief telethon (too bad nobody really Kanye Wested any of the Haiti events, frankly, because the IMF and the World Bank and thus the United States DO NOT Care About Haitian People.)

Mo’Nique also won big in the category of Best Supporting Actress for Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire. When I saw her stirring acceptance speech I immediately thought about MY FRIENDS that I sat around with when we were fourteen and talked about how we were going to become famous.  Yay Mo’Nique!

In her wardrobe, speech and backstage chat, Mo’Nique referenced Hattie McDaniel – the first African American woman to win the award for her performance in Gone With the Wind.  “She is on my mind tonight,” Mo’Nique told the press backstage after her win, “And she should be on your minds as well.”

And how.  Gone With the Wind is an indelible part of Hollywood legend and iconography.  Though nowhere near as flagrant as the hate-mongering Birth of a Nation (itself still celebrated as a feat of early cinema), Gone With the Wind – like all movies – and definitely Awards shows serve like time-capsules of how the situation is on the ground: play the role of Mammy onscreen, win an Academy Award for it.  So now we have only the fourth African American woman to win the award, and she plays a mom that has turned on her own children, three generations after Hattie McDaniel and so many other women played an exaggerated Mammy to white children who are pampered like Vivian Leigh – the servant to a child.

So then we had The Blind Side with Sandra Bullock, who plays the matriarch of a Taco Bell franchise-owning millionaire clan who take in a young African American man who later goes on to play in the NFL (based on a true story!).  After breaking on the scene sixteen years ago in Speed, Bullock’s bus finally pulled up (screeched to a halt?!) when she won Best Actress for The Blind Side Sunday night. (Clooney barely clapped when they showed the clip from the film as a Best Picture nomination, but who can blame him? It featured what Mos Def might call “corny color jokes” – yikes).  She dedicated her Oscar to the mothers who take in babies with no place else to go, presumably including African American and Latin American, Asian babies who have impoverished mothers or mothers who won’t take care of them.  Hattie McDaniel, you’re on my mind.

A big winner was the Iraq war film The Hurt Locker, with screenwriter [embedded Playboy journalist] Mark Boal and director Kathryn Bigelow winning statues, as well the film itself taking home the Best Picture trophy, which it will proudly display on its video rental boxes.  When the triumphant cast and crew took the stage, co-stars Jeremy Renner, Brian Geraghty and Anthony Mackie hugged one another like brothers in combat as they celebrated like bros in a manner that recalled the scene in the movie in which they celebrate surviving an unexpected standoff with faceless Iraqi insurgents after they stumble upon Ralph Fiennes and a bunch of British special forces who are mysteriously dressed like Iraqis (Agent provacateurs? In the movie’s most interesting moment, we wonder).

Celebrated for giving audiences all of the taste of the Iraq war with none of the getting dirty or shot up or messed up or “politics,” The Hurt Locker is the story of a bomb-diffusing Army unit’s three members, as they count down the days until they can go home.  And then [SPOILER ALERT] one of them gets home, takes one look at his little baby son and wife that played on Lost and turns right back around to the war.  Enlisting.  Again.

Like so many people in the Army were forced to do through in the real world through the policy of “stop loss.”  In December 2009, Army Specialist Marc Hall was jailed in Liberty County, Georgia for refusing to re-deploy to Iraq after being stop lossed – oh, and spitting an angry hip-hop song about it didn’t help him stay out of jail either.  Read more about Marc Hall here.

Maybe we should have followed Serget JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) home instead – it didn’t seem to sit well with him what had gone on the past couple years.  But unfortunately, his character isn’t as fleshed out as it could have been in the writing, even as Mackie embodies the tense  manner of his occupation within the occupation as a man of color, making the movie that much more interesting.

But Staff Sergent William James is the hero of the movie, maybe named after the Varieties of Religious Experience guy, as being in the Iraq war is his form of religion, apparently, or as the opening quote hints bleakly, context-lessly, his drug.  Wait a minute: he does help the Iraqi people through diffusing the bombs that are being set off in their midst.  That are meant for him.  An important thing to do.  His character, interestingly enough, is never directly shown killing anyone.  Not so for his co-unit people Sergent Sanborn and Specialist Owen Eldridge who do kill, left and right.  James actually tenderly coaches Sanborn through sniping the “insurgent” Iraqis who hole up  in an isolated stone fort in the middle of the desert.

Whoa so the best we can do in this war is tread water harm-wise like James, get an adrenaline rush and make a few buddies?  Does that make sense to do?

Oh, and another thing about Staff Sergent James: His methods are unorthodox.  He’s crazy. Renner’s male bonding scenes with Mackie and Geraghty feel put on, like acting class exercises where he plays the coolest guy in the room.  But this crazy bastard might be just what we need.  Sort of like a metaphor for Bush’s and now Obama’s war?  It’s kind of gross.

Following the blueprint of – as journalist John Pilger puts it Hollywood’s “pity the invader Vietnam war tragedies,” but dialing down the Army-is-absurdity of its predecessors (though did anyone else catch a weird Chaplin Tappan character reference to Catch 22?)  – this is tragedy lite – the kind of movie you make when the war is still going on.  What is the word for that?  Propaganda?

More Asians depicted most centrally as children (see Tropic Thunder): the Iraqi character with the most lines is a young boy who is sadistically murdered by the ghostly insurgents – who are these people intent on tearing their country apart?  At least in David O. Russell’s superior Three Kings we got the “What’s the matter with Michael Jackson?” scene with Mark Walhberg forced to guzzle crude oil.

But nope, in The Hurt Locker, all the tragedy lies with the Americans.  We don’t get to see the people whose country is being occupied.  It’s a desert cypher, as incomprehensible as Japan to Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson in Lost in Translation.  It’s as though the U.S. has the lockdown on feeling of hurt from this war, and with more than one million Iraqis dead since 2003 – how can that possibly be true?

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Tropic Thunder and Post-Racial Blackface

by Lauren Pabst

 

Robert Downey, Jr. has received an Oscar nomination for appearing in blackface in Tropic Thunder.

The reason that this is acceptable is that Downey, Jr. is not himself wearing blackface. Rather he is playing a character who dons blackface in a ridiculous illustration of Method acting (akin to gaining or losing enormous amounts of weight and other physical transformations undergone for high-profile film roles). You see, this is acceptable because the joke isn’t about blackface. The wearing of blackface is incidental, just another example of actors arrogantly stretching to play characters they don’t resemble.

Okay.

Sounds like a Hollywood inside joke. And, indeed, the entire film Tropic Thunder (written and directed by Ben Stiller, a Hollywood insider from birth) plays like a big inside joke, nudging at an absurd and Machivellian studio system, while at its core, performing exactly to the specifications of banality, violence and cynical lowest-common-denominator humor to earn its own blockbuster status.

The film follows five actors playing actors, who set out to film a movie version of a former Green Beret’s memoir of the Vietnam War (which later turns out to be phony). The actors, whose director is desperate for “authenticity” are dropped into the jungle for some guerrilla-style filmmaking and accidentally find themselves in the middle of a Thai heroin smuggling operation. Body parts fly, Stiller is kidnapped, and hilarity ensues.

It is significant, the way in which the film incorporates blackface into its arsenal of irreverence, which also mocks developmentally disabled people, but in a similar round-about way. Stiller’s character (a Tom Crusie-like Hollywood megastar) has played a developmentally disabled farmhand, referred to several times in the film as a “retard,” which led disability rights groups to call for a boycott of the film. The filmmakers again justify this by explaining that the joke was really on actors who play mentally disabled characters as a ploy to win awards. But still, the image of Stiller, aping a mentally challenged person, decked out in a blond bowl-cut wig and buckteeth.

Like this piece of mockery, blackface is incidental in the film, just a piece of background on which the filmmakers can riff. The comedy playbook they are working from assumes an absolute saturation of its public with the tiresome swamp of that old “political correctness.” Tropic Thunder celebrates an apex of thoughtlessness in the guise of biting satire; but in the end, it’s like an US weekly reader dissing and devouring every page. It’s embarrassingly obsessed with the target of its bile; Hollywood.

The presence of Brandon Jackson, a black actor, seems to have been written in to cool the sting of Downey, Jr.’s meta-minstrel show. Incidentally, Jackson plays Hollywood’s version of a closeted homosexual rap star. But apart from the character’s cringing accessories, (he peddles an energy drink called Booty Sweat, his name is Alpa Chino, he peddles Alpa Chino chinos, etc.) Jackson is given very little to do, other than put Downey, Jr. in his place.

But with Jackson firmly in place, critical acclaim for the post-modern blackface poured in. Stiller and the audacious gang had apparently pulled it off. David Edlestein, in New York magazine: “But there’s a bigger reason the portrait isn’t offensive: As much as Downey sends up the Shafts and Super Flys, he respects the beauty and weight and potency of the archetype. He drops his voice an octave (at least) and what comes out is gorgeous. He really does make a damn fine Negro.”

Are we beginning to see how that nebulous idea of “post-racial” America is functioning in popular culture? Blackface is a punchline, but for a joke not concerning black people, so we are free to sit back and enjoy the fine performance. (That just happens to be in blackface.) Yes, it’s outrageous! But the filmmakers are perfectly aware of how offensive it is! Wait, why aren’t you laughing?

Like on TV’s The Office and Family Guy, it seems that the sheer outrageousness is accepted as the means through which ethnic humor loses its sting. Trespassing in these taboos seems now to equal “edgy” comedy. The problem is that, especially with such a topic as blackface, the historical context is way too significant and relevant today to gloss over in such a thoughtless way.

For a critical and visceral look at the painful importance of the device of blackface (and its modern-day pop cultural offspring), nothing can beat Spike Lee’s Bamboozled (2000), which not only places the Kafka-esque entertainment industry under a much sharper satirical scalpel than do Stiller et al, but does so with much more style and sensitivity. Bamboozled examines the many different shades in which the idea of blackface (ironclad white control over depiction of black people in entertainment) appears in the entertainment industry – past and present. Though the film was criticized for being didactic and preachy, perhaps Lee simply chose to scream his points in the face of so much deafening mainstream silence on the theme. In dealing with the subject of blackface, Lee is as sincere as Stiller is jaded.

But Tropic Thunder doesn’t just decontextualize blackface. It also paints a nasty coat of irony over a formerly sacrosanct cult of mainstream moviemaking; the “pity the invader” Vietnam War tragedy.

From Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter to Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July, there is a long tradition of American G.I.s as tragic heroes in Vietnam War movies, as the macho posturing of John Wayne in World War II movies gave way to a more introspective art form that tried to salve the emotional wounds suffered by the U.S. population in respect to the Vietnam War.

The “pity the invader” trope is examined by investigative journalist John Pilger in the documentary Vietnam: The Last Battle (1995). In this documentary, Pilger returns to Vietnam (from which he did courageous, entirely “unembedded” reporting during the war itself), only to find the neo-liberal economic policies of globalization trying to succeed where bombs and chemical weapons failed.

In Pilger’s words:

“The history of the war has been rewritten by Hollywood, with a series of films that have blended Rambo and self-pity, a potent combination. The message has been sometimes crude and sometimes subtle, but always the same. America made mistakes, but it was really the fault of the Vietnamese for defending their country. In other words, the crusade was flawed, but it was a noble one.”

Hollywood’s depiction of the Vietnam War has always been overwhelmingly one-sided and with Tropic Thunder, even this reverence for the American victims of the war is tossed away. This has resulted in a new generation (in the military is largely made up of a small percentage of the population kept in a perpetual economic draft) tricked into laughing at scenes of death and jungle warfare with the flimsy justification of identifying with the inside jokes of the Hollywood elite. No matter how much Entertainment Tonight or TMz we consume, we are not the insiders. The joke is largely on us.

We have been bamboozled into laughing at war. Perhaps not actual war, but a depiction of war, full of evocative images and symbols full of significance.

For example, a thoroughly retro device is woven through Tropic Thunder: the depiction of the Southeast Asian villains as children. The Thai heroin processing plant is presided over by a stock image of a child soldier, a pint-sized tyrant, complete with beret, scar and cigarette. That the film chooses to go there is very weird, for multiple reasons. The classic 19th Cenutry theme of European colonial literature depicting the strange, non-European people they encounter as backwards children, or in childlike terms (Kipling, Defoe, etc.) is an eerie image to revive in these neo-colonial times.

This is underscored when the heroin gang turns out to be obsessive fans of the Stiller’s character’s developmentally disabled farmhand movie. (They even hit the floor in genuflection when Stiller is revealed as the star of the movie, an embarrassing bit of retro buffoonery). Soft-pedaling, the film still makes the point of intellectual inferiority for the gang even in the movie’s own film-obsessed terms, i.e. they worship the dreck of Hollywood, a strong condemnation indeed from this erudite bunch of filmmakers.

The comedic depiction of child soldiers has to be placed in the context of the Western media’s current obsession with child soldiers in the on-going wars in several African countries. There is a great lack of knowledge in mainstream America of the foundations and details that characterize these conflicts, and indeed, the political situation of African countries in general. The Second Congo War (1998-2003), also known as Africa’s World War, which resulted in over 5 million civilian deaths, is particularly absent from mainstream media’s radar. (To learn more, listen to the excellent radio documentary, “The Ravaging of Africa,” by Canadian journalists Kristin Schwartz and Asad Ismi.)

The Western media does have a relative obsession with child soldiers, as opposed to the context and history of conflicts that have produced them. Decontextualized first person accounts often find their way into the consciousness of Americans without a proper explanation of the conflicts themselves.

Back in Tropic Thunder, Stiller’s character is brainwashed by his captors and in his cracked mental state he begins to yearn to adopt a toddler of the group. Stiller seems to just want to mock the current Hollywood trend of international adoptions. Indeed, international adoptions are problematic, not because people in wealthy countries adopting children from the Global South don’t provide loving homes, but for the simple fact that taking the children of a country suffocated by poverty and instability wrought by colonialism and its new incarnation, globalization, should provide no excuse for the lack of awareness of the extent to which wealthy countries and economic systems still have their collective economic foot on the necks of these “developing” countries.

But Stiller brings up the topic purely for laughs. The film’s action-packed climax sees Stiller being literally stabbed in the back by that same toddler, whom he then flings into a river, much to the delight of the audience at the screening I attended. The child is, of course, seemingly unharmed, and crawls over to a riverbank to pout among the rubble. A toddler sitting alone in the rubble of a Southeast Asian village? This image seems designed to rub out the harrowing pictures of Vietnamese orphans wandering alone in the aftermath of U.S. bombings.

Bombarded though we are by images, we can’t overestimate their enduring power on the screen to desensitize us to reality. Downey, Jr.’s neo-blackface situates the the movie squarely within the queasy belief system of “post-racism,” whereby the presence of a black actor blunts the offensiveness of a white actor in blackface. There is also a “post-war” mentality, represented by a pop cultural yearning for “Hollywood insider” status that allows for laughter at scenes of war. But the U.S. is very far from a post-war nation – it is actively engaged in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (not to mention the sales of arms to numerous other war-torn countries around the world), which employ the same strategy of state-of-the-art weapons technology against people that characterized the U.S.’s war on Vietnam.

The transgressions of Tropic Thunder are symptomatic of this bored and cloistered cultural moment. Pop culture vehicles like this fancy themselves “above the rim” of political correctness, but their ham-fisted irreverence in respect to the weighty, complex topics of racism and war is like delicious sugary salt – gobbled by some, poured into wounds the wounds of others, the world over.