Tuesday, November 06, 2007

A Polemic Against Being Too Po-Mo and Po-Co

(Believe it or not I started writing this on Sunday, this week, and every week until Dec. 22, will be the weeks from hell.)

One of my favorite things to do on an otherwise unobligated weekend night is to work until 9 pm, and then walk a few blocks to the downtown part of Liberal College Town where there are about three movie theaters within a block of each other and see what I can catch. If you wait until after 9 pm, your choices are pretty limited, but they aren't always bad. Plus, if you see movies alone, the only person you have to worry about disappointing is yourself--and I get more than a little pleasure from saying "man that movie sucked" and then writing a long snarky review reveling in its suckitude.

That was the benefit to Friday night's movie, Elizabeth: The Golden Age, which I couldn't get anyone to see with me anyway. For some reason, I am hard pressed to find movie partners who really like costumed period melodramas. I have no idea why. What to say about Elizabeth: The Golden Age that hasn't been said before? Is it basically Elizabeth: My So Called Life and "unnecessary"? Is it a rather dubious historical allegory for contemporary geopolitics?

Whatever. I didn't mind the frustrated romantic subplot that ran awkwardly alongside the story of England's defeat of the Spanish Armada. If we were only interested in political history, we would watch a documentary on the History Channel (which has a lot of the personal history too, history is not divorced from the people who populated it--that's economics and political science!). There is nothing wrong with "humanizing" a queen, and indeed it's a little demeaning to refer to a monarch acting with feeling and jealousy as being "adolescent pique." I am sure Henry VIII would be described as just an emo teenager, too. Court and Courtship go hand-in-hand when political stability depends on succession. Blah blah, holy wars, but while it may be heavy-handed to belabor the point that many die in the name of religious fervor, the fact remains that for many countries, "God" and "state" and "sovereign" are interchangeable terms. And as to this movie being "unnecessary"--well, true that the first Elizabeth was very fine, as was the HBO miniseries with Helen Mirren. But dude, this is not like a "remake," it's part two of Shekhar Kapur's project of re-telling the story of Elizabeth from coronation till...well, I don't know what part three will entail. And who says that art must be "necessary" in order to be valuable or important?

How many movies are there about dead monarchs? Tons, considering how outdated constitutional monarchies are to begin with. Granted, it's still a viable, if my dispreferred, political paradigm. I'm a small-r (democratic) republican! If I had to live in a monarchy I'd probably revolt, or be even more revolting than I am now. But I really like historical dramas--especially ones about kings and queens. Just as long as they're not directed by Ridley Scott or starring Russell Crowe, Orlando Bloom, or Brad Pitt. Or Angelina Jolie. No one too "modern." I've read Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain. Yea, verily. I love The Lion in Winter. I dig these movies about empire and imperialism. They're rich with history and politics and art.

I guess I have fully assimilated or something, because I feel no post-colonial anxiety. By fully-assimilated, I mean of course that I am SO American that I don't feel umbrage at watching those monarchists parade around onscreen. We won the Revolutionary War, all is cool. I am but nominally Vietnamese, having been born here and being allergic to shrimp, so I don't react all that much to French literature or film. So yes, I like literature of empire and movies about empires.

Being myself a walking anachronism, I have trained myself not to watch these movies anachronistically. I resist the urge to Santayanaize and say "ah, yes, history repeats itself" and compare the current world order to ones centuries past. Dude, we're in a totally different geopolitical frame with different types of state/non-state actors, deal. I also resist moralizing the past, and while it was cringe-inducing to see captured Native Americans brought forth to kneel before Elizabeth, I didn't think "oh well, they lost me there." You can't view history anachronistically. Colonialism happened. Whatever you think of it now (and yes, I think it's bad), doesn't mean that you should think depictions of it are without merit, or literature/art from that period as irredeemably tainted. It's ridiculous to disregard all literature/art from a century as too infected by racist imperialism as to be without any artistic merit or value. Dickens wrote "Perils of Certain English Prisoners," yes--a shockingly racist polemic, to be sure--but he also wrote Our Mutual Friend and David Copperfield. To reject art produced in or about the period between the 1500s to the 1900s--dude, that's a lot to disregard. Being entirely too post-colonial and post-modern mens that your cultural knowledge begins in the 1970s? That's like going to a Sargent in Italy exhibit and complaining that it was too "Euro-centric" and oppressive. It's dumb.

I liked Elizabeth. It was visually stunning and had very fine acting. Clive Owen with a rakish smile and intense gaze, hanging off of a mast with his waistcoat blowing. Did you hear me, people? Clive Owen on a ship. Cate Blanchett was burning bright, with a slightly aged and wearied face and brittle temper. Abbie Cornish wasn't annoying--in fact, she was kind of okay. Geoffrey Rush is always awesome. Burning ships are truly awesome, even for one who kind of hates Pirates of the Carribbean and that weird hipster obsession with pirates (and ninjas). It was pretty well done, and I was rather satisfied with it.

Even more enjoyable was Saturday night's movie, The Darjeeling Limited. It was intended to be the mutually agreeable, "fun" post-dinner/pre-gelato choice. There are few movies that can be mutually agreed upon by two people of different aesthetic tastes and worldviews. He is Bauhaus, I am Prarie School; he is Reggae, I am Indie Rock; he's the economist, I am the sociologist; he's micro, I'm macro; he's the Utilitarian, I'm the Romantic, but we both say "toe-may-toe." And I think Wes Anderson movies have something for everyone--everyone who is a little too fond of irony, obscure movie references, weird music picks, and their own discerning tastes. Which is everyone of a certain level of education and pretense.

All I can say is, good thing I didn't see it with a post-modern, post-colonial, I-worship-at-the-altar-of-Edward Said-and-Franz-Fanon po-mo/po-co person. Although Jonah Weiner does not explicitly reference Said and Fanon, his review of the racial themes that undercut Wes Anderson's movies owe much to post-colonial theory. Weiner decries "an obnoxious element of Anderson that is rarely discussed: the clumsy, discomfiting way he stages interactions between white protagonists—typically upper-class elites—and nonwhite foils—typically working class and poor. "

I actually like Anderson's films. And I'm very well versed in post-colonial theory (even if I do not much care for it any longer). But I don't have a problem with how his characters date women of color after being spurned by white women. I don't want to graft identity politics onto romantic/casting choices. I am an equal opportunity dater/hater.

I prefer the dripping-with-irony "winking" at the brothers' misguided fetishization of India with their "spiritual journey" to pretending that such fetishization doesn't exist. And better that than the whitewashing of Eastern philosophy and orthodoxy, for all of those bourgie yuppies who unself-consciously have Deepak Chopra, Dalai Llama, Thich Nhat Hanh and Pema Chodron books and tapes on their shelves. Peter buys a poisonous snake. Jack seduces an Indian woman, wondering if she can fix him. Francis organizes one spiritual awakening ceremony after another. It a self-conscious film without being overdone, and that's more than I can say about most films out there attempting to deal with multi-racial casting and the "global" world.

What I like best about Wes Anderson movies is the stories about the weird, broken, dysfunctional families. I like them because they are funny and witty. I like the tightly-arranged visual shots that are so appealing and delightful. I like the costumes. I like the dialogue. I liked this movie in particular, and am glad that the conversation afterwards did not devolve into a "what the hell is wrong with you for supporting white yuppie patriarchy" shouting match.

So far, trying to see movies with another person is working out. The next movie I want to see is "I'm Not There," just to see Cate Blanchett play Bob Dylan. We will see if I can get anyone to see that with me.


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