Sunday 24 November 2013

Out of Africa (1985)

Romantic and uplifting, Out of Africa tells the true story of Karen Blixen, Baroness and Badass. Watch! As Karen whips lions in the face! Stare aghast! As she sharpshoots more lions in more faces! And be amazed! At how she macks on aaall the fine, handsome men of colonial East Africa.

Beginning in snowy Denmark in the early 1910s, Karen (a wonderful Meryl Streep) realizes that things with Random Danish Hunter Man are not working out, and so she'll settle for Hunter Man's Brother as her husband-to-be. That is, the sardonic Swedish aristocrat, Bror Baron Blixen (Klaus Maria Brandauer) - at least, we think that's his name. The newly-minted Baroness Blixen then sails down to East Africa, where - still reeling from the X-hour journey - the Blixens are officially wed and welcomed into Your Favorite Expat Group. Except this expat group is quite fun, what with the adorable British dinosaur, Lord Delamere (Michael Gough), the sexy Oxford Orientalist, Berkeley (Michael Kitchen), doing what all good Oxford Orientalists of Times Past did (learn the local language, love the local people, and march around conquering things), or the also sexy American, Robert Redford (Robert Redford).

Actually, Redford is supposed to be playing another British aristocrat, Denys Finch Hatton, but - after reading Finch Hatton's Wikipedia page - we've decided he's actually just playing Robert Redford.

Anyway. So many men to choose from! And so much work to be done! Karen immediately establishes herself as Badass Fem Lady, thus dispelling some of the immediately problematic aspects of this film for a PPCC's tender, post-colonial, feminist soul. When Mr. Bror Baron tries to throw his weight around, Karen throws it right back at him! When Bror Baron confronts sexy Robert Redford, demanding to know why he wasn't consulted that they should get all up to the lovemaking (uh, spoiler? but come on, you know what this film is about!), Redford said he "did ask... and she said yes." YES! When colonial noob Karen stumbles into the "Men Only" bar of the colonial club, and is promptly thrown out, we realized this movie was actually going to throw us a few feminist bones now and again. Indeed, it passes the Bechdel Test! And the bar scene is eventually reversed in one of those great Bar Scene Where -Isms Are Challenged things.

What we found surprising (and refreshing) about this film is that - kinda like a few other sweeping colonial-revival 1980s epics - this actually feels like a relatively even-handed, sympathetic and smart portrayal of early 20th century East Africa. We see intelligent details, such as the way Nairobi subtly changes over the years that Karen is in Kenya. Or the presence of the Indian Kenyan community. Or the burgeoning development projects, such as Karen's school. Or the commodification of the safari. We have interesting musings on the glamor of the Maasai, the issue of land grabbing, and - best of all - the opportunity Kenya provides for Karen to break out of her conscripted gender role and, well, whip a lion in the face if she has to. Damn, girl.

The performances are uniformly strong, with Meryl Streep obviously reigning supreme. This movie really is hers, and she is lovable, inspiring and smart. We found Robert Redford a bit stale, he's essentially just a beefcake (though his liberal attitudes towards relationships - we're all just free birds! - were interesting). Much more intriguing was actually Klaus Maria Brandauer as the adulterous Baron Blixen. This could have easily been a straight villain role. Indeed, when we read the wiki article about Karen Blixen long ago, we read him as such. For the love of God, he gives her syphilis! So it was surprising and surprisingly tender to see how honest, adult and even caring their marriage of convenience is portrayed to be. There was a real energy between the two actors. Another intriguing, though small, role was the somewhat tragic, but oh, so charming, Michael Kitchen as Berkeley. Indeed, though Redford is on the cover, much of the film has Karen (and us!) gazing lovingly at Berkeley. Given that some homies on the Internet have created animated GIFs of Berkeley scenes, we take this to mean we're not alone.

BUT! BIG BUT OF CONCERN. Isn't this all very problematic?! We loved the uplifting, positive spirit of the film. This is an East Africa which is beautiful and kind, with lots of love and warmth. Thus, it's already a MUCH nicer portrayal of the region than, say, this or this. But - well, is it legit? Or is it all just whitewashing colonialism!? Let me know, Internet!


Filmi~Contrast said...

I can't really comment objectively on the "whitewashing colonialism" bit . . . but given my film watching habits, I often think about this question . . . and therefore this response will probably be unforgivably long, माफ़ कीजिए :)

I do think there should be some sort of hypothetical logical formula (like the Bechdel test applied to "colonial" or "exotic" setting films) to tell whether or not a film or a book is offensive in it's portrayal of the "Other's" cultural beauty. Something along the lines of "If I lived in that country, how would I want my country to appear to people on the other side of the world?" Personally, I'd rather see a film that saw the beauty in my homeland, rather than just focusing on my country's systemic problems.

Is it irresponsible to ignore a country's systemic problems in a narrative that just happens to be set in that country? I don't think so. Relevance to the story one sets out to tell is everything. If it's a relevant problem, show it. If not, don't be "that guy" pointing out the blemish on a stranger's face.

At the end of the day, it's jarring and uncomfortable seeing oneself reflected in someone else's eyes . . . through film or any other medium. But the more films that get made by X country about Y country (however flawed the representation), and vice versa, the more inter-cultural understanding and dialogue will occur. And that's a good thing, anyway you swing it, I think.


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Annie said...

Meryl- I was sooo disappointed! Maybe her accent was spot on but otherwise ack no, she is far too much the Actor. Robert Redord was meh. This was the full Hollywood treatment down to Denys being played by an American and its portrayal of Africans.

But Michael Kitchen shall always rock!!

And the best gif set on this is Meryl being quite awesome as an interviewee and explaining why she wore a low cut blouse to meet Pollack, because you know Karen, Sexy, Important for Hollywood!