Saturday 19 January 2008

Not an Essay: Race and film criticism

More often than not, the PPCC is confronted with the following line in English-language movie reviews:

"...[insert non-white actor's name] who is [insert said actor's homeland]'s answer to [insert white, American actor's name]..."

Examples include Tony Leung Chiu Wai as China's Clark Gable, Chow Yun Fat as China's Cary Grant, and, most recently, our beloved Shashi Kapoor as India's Robert Redford. That last one broke the camel's back, and the PPCC was forced to exclaim, "Oh, for the love of God!"

How infinitely irritable it is to constantly compare a non-American, non-white actor to the white, American actor he is presumably "aping"! How ethnocentric! And film critics who watch "arthouse" foreign cinema are supposed to be the intelligentsia?

Phrases like that imply that the best the Rest of the World can do is just give us cheap knock-off versions of Hollywood stars. As if the Rest of the World looks first and primarily to white, American Hollywood for its ideas, its inspiration, and its status. Consider the incessant disparagements of Bollywood being an infantile industry forever locked in the 1950s American musical. (As if Hollywood had a monopoly on song and dance in theatre/film!) Consider also the way in which Nanni Moretti's La stanza del figlio is presented in the American trailers. (It doesn't fit into the rigid Hollywood-defined genres, and so the trailer butchers the film so much it's about as accurate as this trailer for Sleepless in Seattle!)

The PPCC shares Amitabh Bachchan's (and many other Indian actors') irritation at being relegated to "non-American-ollywood" status. (That said, the PPCC still uses the term "Bollywood" to mean "mainstream, commercial Hindi cinema" - if only to identify it independently of Parallel Cinema.) The PPCC has also often been frustrated at American reviews' ignorance when it comes to evaluating foreign film. These, however, are lesser evils - in the end, an argument over implicitly patronizing semantics and, well, we can't expect everyone to know everything about everything. However, statements such as Toshiro Mifune is Japan's answer to Tom Hanks are just plain offensive. They are basically assuring the American viewer, "Fear not! You should give this weird foreigner guy a chance because he actually acts a bit like one of our actors!" Whatever happened to evaluating actors on their own merits, within their own cultural and historical contexts? Why this need to homogenize?

Eh? EH?

Disclaimer #1: The PPCC likes Tom Hanks, he's very earnest and charming, but he is unfortunately lightyears behind Toshiro Mifune. In fact, just daring to compare Toshiro Mifune to anyone is sacrilege.

Disclaimer #2: The PPCC is not multilingual, and so we can vouch that, while we've never seen the opposite ("Tom Hanks is America's response to Nanni Moretti") in foreign media we could understand, we accept that maybe somewhere out there, in some distant land, untouched by American cultural imperialism, there is a place where they wield the same sort of entitled ethnocentrism as certain reviewers!


Janeheiress said...

I'm with you in general. Maybe it stems from American film producers' efforts to "answer" every big film with an even bigger one, which usually ends up being an overblown disaster (the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels or Selznick's Duel in the Sun come to mind, although I'm not even a Gone With the Wind fan). But on the other hand, consider that almost every new actor of note in American cinema is compared to the screen legends, or even some other actor a mere 5 years older. It's our unfortunate nature to be comparative.

There's also the fact that most Americans won't go out of their way to see a foreign film unless there is an element of familiarity. If I had always intended to see a Chow Yun Fat film but hadn't gotten around to it (I really have), saw that comparison, then found myself in sudden desperate need of a Cary Grant fix, it would convince me to seek out one of his films (not that I agree with the comparison). But the fact remains that comparing something foreign with something familiar is a way of getting people interested.

Or maybe the American film industry just assigns their own motives to the rest of the world--how many recent Oscar winners weren't "aping" something else?

a ppcc representative said...

JaneHeiress: You make very good points! I still think it's all the Evils of Ethnocentrism, but that we should be comparative by nature and that some of these Chow Yun Fat-Cary Grant comparisons are even pretty accurate are true observations. In fact, both Tony Leung Chiu Wai and Chow Yun Fat are very Clark Gable and Cary Grant-esque, respectively, so that when I first came across the pairings, part of me had to agree.

I suppose the reason Shashi Kapoor-Robert Redford was the proverbial straw was that, in that case, I felt like they were forcing the Redford image onto Shashi to familiarize him to Americans - but that it was just that, forcing! Apart from both being handsome men with very straight eyebrows, there's little else they share. (At least, nothing springs to mind.)

Admittedly, my impatience with American reviews of non-American films has a long history, and this particular rant was partly fueled by a New York Times review of In Custody where the reviewer comments how one character is appalled by the rude hangers-on who "eat with their hands". Apparently that reviewer didn't realize that in many circumstances in India, including polite ones, you eat with your hands!

Anyway, welcome to the PPCC and thanks for commenting!

Adeline said...

Hi !

I entirely agree with you, I hate that kind of comparison.
to answer your "Disclaimer #2", here in France nobody says that "Tom Hanks is America's response to [some French actor]", but the media always state, when they speak about Bollywood, that "Amitabh Bachchan is the Indian Gérard Depardieu". Needless to say, French actor G. Depardieu has no common point with AB, except maybe their ages. So irritating !

Janeheiress said...

I guess I haven't seen enough of Chow Yun Fat or Tony Leung Chiu Wai to be familiar enough with their personas. (Maybe I shouldn't admit it here, but I've never seen a Shashi Kapoor film!)

I can definitely understand your frustration with reviewers. Their standard phraseology is pretty limited. I don't read many foreign film reviews of the 'professional' variety, but I'm coming from the perspective that when I watched my first Hindi film 6 years ago (Kuch Kuch Hota Hai--whose subtitles were in Malayan incidentally, and had to be translated into English by the only person in the room who spoke Malay), he called Shahrukh 'the Tom Cruise of India'. The movie was so corny I forgot all about it until a year and a half ago when at my book club a friend showed pieces of other Bollywood films. If I hadn't remembered the comparison I would've thought, 'What the heck is that guy doing in all these movies?' Anyway, I was amused, interest was sparked, I remembered KKHH and ordered it from ebay, and consequently fell in love with Bollywood. So anyway, I can understand comparisons based on fame level, but not acting style/ability.

That was a big tangent, but I just wanted to let you know how much I enjoy the great combination of humor and analysis in your reviews, and that your post on Howl's Moving Castle induced me to watch it and come close to being a Miyazaki fanatic.

a ppcc representative said...

A2line: Thanks for your comment, it certainly gives us a new perspective since no PPCC committee member speaks French, unfortunately. Though perhaps in comparing the Big B to Gerard, they're also trying to familiarize his level of fame - in that Amit ji is kind of like the biggest and of a certain generation and also exportable (though I'd argue SRK is more exportable than Amit ji...)

JaneHeiress: Thanks for your kind comments re: Howl's! Miyazaki is such an amazing filmmaker, I always immensely enjoy all his films. I still haven't seen Porco Rosso, though after curiousing around your blog and reading your thoughts on it, I'm DYING to see it. The PPCC loves visual metaphors and magical realism, so that the pilot gets the pig's face after seeing something traumatic is wonderful. Very pumped!