Archive for the ‘Postmodernism’ Category
Manipulation in film, not only of the objects within the frame but of the audience as well, has been the practice of film makers for decades. In Philip Kaufman?s Quills (2000), a biopic loosely based on the last years of life for the18th century author, the Marquis de Sade (Geoffrey Rush), the audience becomes not just an observer but an active participant in particular sexual acts through overtly suggested voyeurism. For what purpose does Kaufman so conspicuously manipulate the audience into committing these acts? In an ambitious argument for uncensored art, even when pitted against the utmost controversial fiction of the Marquis de Sade (a man who RollingStone.com calls ?one sick twist? (Travers)) Kaufman wants his audience to actively lust for things they cannot have. For this reason, I examine the transition from the experience of fictional freedom in the first scene involving Mademoiselle Renard (Diana Morrison) with the oppression of that freedom within the rest of the film. By beginning the story here, Kaufman demonstrates that in order to understand what can be lost through censorship, one must understand, first hand, what exists prior to that loss.
The poem ?The Critick and The Writer of Fables? published in 1713 by Anne Kingsmill Finch, Countess of Winchilsea, is an ambitious attempt at a satirical play on gendered and formal limitations of Augustan poetry. The critick is representative of a male poetic society, and yet by acquiring a voice from Finch within the poem, it appears to represent one side of Finch?s own internal debate in deciding where her writing belongs. She makes a case for a new style of writing by satirizing the forms already in existence. The poem, at once, exemplifies an Augustan commentary about poetic definition while it inserts the thinly veiled female object of Finch, the fable writer, as the subject in the style of the Romantic poets. Finch carves a place for her own poetry between the satirical, warring poet and the pastoral, peaceful muse, making room for her various resulting combinations. Finch?s poetry resides somewhere between two chronological, poetic traditions, as well as a gender division, without fully occupying any one more than another. It is in her displacement that she finds her own space.
From the beginning of Berman and Pulcini?s American Splendor (2003), we are presented with many versions of Harvey Pekar:
- A comic strip frames Harvey Pekar (Daniel Tay), an uncostumed kid on Halloween in 1950. When asked what he?s dressed as, we learn that this kid is no super hero. He cranks off, ?I?m Harvey Pekar. I?m just a kid from the neighborhood? and storms off with the voices of kids mocking his name in fading echos.
- If memory serves correctly, we hold that same external comic frame and fade the content to actor Paul Giamatti walking that same street?playing the film?s character “all grown up.”
- A voiceover of the real Pekar tells us Harvey Pekar is also a real guy and we eventually meet that guy in a sound studio being interviewed, documentary style, by Shari Springer Berman.
- Interspersed are comic renditions of the character talking to us in bubbles, telling us about who he is.
- Giamatti thinks in bubble text at the supermarket where the idea for American Splendor was born.
- We meet?the comic renditions?of Pekar again at the the train station when Joyce Brabner (Hope Davis) arrives for the first time.
- Later, we get clips of the real Pekar on ?Late Night with David Letterman.?
- Giamatti?also stages Pekar?s volatile GE/NBC blast on the same show.
- Last but not least, we see one more permutation when Giamatti acts repulsed while watching a play about Pekar played by Donal Logue when the voiceover adds that he, the real Pekar, wonders how he?ll feel seeing Giamatti play him in this movie.
The genious mix of reality and fiction is?enough to make my head spin…
Taking stock, a reflective exercise often assigned at the end of a class, is also a graduation requirement. This is my first draft. Tweaking to follow… although?references to?”navel gazing” and “mental masturbation” are definitely keepers.
The Collegiate Experience and My Intellectual Cosmos
This reflective essay has been assigned to help connect my Senior Seminar experience, with its focus on pre-romantic poetry, to the greater Saint Rose experience and thus my intellectual cosmos. To be honest, I find this task rather difficult. My trouble stems from the Senior Seminar portion of this ponderance. Let me first say that I have thoroughly enjoyed the intellectual, in-depth conversation every class has offered and that I find significant value in the exploration of early literary theory and the ability to measure today?s ideas by comparison. Still, I struggle to kindle some sort of greater passion for the subject matter in a present-day application that brings new awareness to light.
In my ideal world, Senior Seminar should be more than an entertaining intellectual exercise. I had hoped for a topic that would engage my passion, inspire me to action in righting some contemporary wrong and raise my own awareness as well as the awareness of those who read what new discoveries my research has to offer. Instead, I am reminded time and again, as we jest about the many ways in which poets have continually pondered their navels, that the struggle of the human experience merely shifts at a snail?s pace. Looking to history offers little more than greater historical knowledge of humanity?s slowly morphing circumstances, faulty attempts at understanding through overly general categorization, and constant repetition of these mistakes. While history is a fantastic place to begin, traveling back in time is not necessarily the best place to finish, at least in the opinion of this Saint Rose senior.
I still see things that are not here. I just choose not to acknowledge them.
- John Nash,?A Beautiful Mind
I?m your average Jane when it comes to movies. As a member of Netflix, I?ve opted for the one-movie-at-a-time-for-$6.99 package. The only technical film operation I am familiar with is filling my online movie queue, checking snail mail, and pressing “play.” Thank goodness for Richard Barsam?s guide, Looking at Movies: An Introduction to Film. Without it, the lexicon used both in the production/direction and analysis of film would be lost on me. The closest I have come to analyzing film technique, aside from story, is when I found porn in my genealogical research. Essentially, until now, I’ve prefered to see without really looking.
That said, and since?class didn?t officially have to write for today, I?m just going to wrap up Chapter 1, ?What Is a Movie? for myself. You?re welcome to read along.
To summarize ultra-simplistically, a film is both form and content inextricably intertwined on celluloid (unless it?s digital). That?s the easy part. It?s the myriad ways in which form and content can be manipulated that blows my mind:
Through the camera lens (as both perspective and frame)
Coexpressibility of time and space (parallel edits and montages)
Lighting (chiaroscuro: a term that describes contrasts of light and dark which I?m thrilled to recognize from an oil painting class)
Via the constructed illusion of realism and the opposite, or antirealism (fantasy, sci-fi, thrillers)
Striving for verisimilitude: a convincing appearance of truth based on ?realistic? expectations as well as a filmmaker?s and audience?s mediation of conventional and innovative cinematic language (scenes, sequences, dissolves, etc.)
Through a flexible dependence upon the conventions and overlap of genres and subgenres
Narrative or fiction (action, biopics, comedy, fantasy, film noir, etc.)
Non-fiction (factual, instructional, documentary, propaganda)
The conflation of both via historiographic metafiction (This note is my own written especially for Michael)
Animation (drawing, puppet or clay animation, pixilation, computer animation)
Experimental film (Un Chien Andalou ? An Andalousian Dog, as the book translates – is on?UbuWeb if you want to see it. The eyeball scene is a trip.)
In the end, it is all simply an illusion of movement ? but a complicated one at that. And so here we end where we’ll begin another day…
FoYoInfo: English Department Visiting Scholar
Jim Collins Lectures on Film and New Media
April 8th, 7-9 p.m. in Saint Joseph Hall
Does anybody wanna go?
(The old Postmodernism gang perhaps?)
PS: How odd to be reading?references to the filming of?Brokeback Mountain on the day that Heath Ledger was found dead.
Charles Baxter?s Defamiliarization: A Summary
In Burning Down the House, Baxter addresses the issues of stale character and meaning in fiction. Avoidance of overdetermined characters and events is achieved through what he calls defamiliarization. Only when this idea is employed does a piece of fiction become interesting.
To create fictitious people in the same way an elegy is written about the deceased is to create something flat. ?Such a recital is all overdetermined. All the arrows point in one direction? (31). A limited scope of the whole of the person is neatly packaged and presented as deemed fit by societal expectations. The result is a staging of what Baxter calls ?the show business of every day life? (29). This predictable approach, where characters are created according to form, is what detaches them from memory. They are ?overparented? by the author. Characters must be comprised of more than one side. A reader identifies most with interesting details of struggle and failure; otherwise a character has nothing to distinguish him or herself from the norm. As Baxter says, ?the difference between fictional art and public rhetoric is that in fiction, the arrows point in all sorts of directions? (32). In essence, the character becomes an identity with which the reader is too familiar.
The way in which an author creates meaning in a story can fall into the same trap. To focus on one ?truth? and fit the narrative neatly within the boundaries of that truth is to deny the reader dramatic tension. There is no learning involved. Modernists felt that ?truth had gotten stale? (36) and clich? so they broke the rules and shook their audience. After they ran out of rules to break, time passed and what they had produced had also become familiar. As Baxter says, familiarity means security and the ?power to predict? (38). In this attempt at newness, what becomes new also becomes old. Additionally, the avant-garde approach of innovation and marginality offers no real solution. To throw out the old for mere novelty simply creates and adds to the confusion avant-garde artists construct. Baxter believes we need an alternative approach and offers the solution of defamiliarization.
Defamiliarization is ?a technique for finding a certain kind of detail that resists the fitting of the object into a silhouette, that is, into a ready made symbolization? (42). Viktor Shklovsky calls the silhouette concept algebrization, ?the process of turning an event or familiar object into an automatic symbol? (41). This factor which can be plugged in to mean something familiar fails to add interest. Baxter combats this boredom with an idea of Gerard Baxter Hopkins, that ?images [become] memorable when some crucial part of their meaning [has] been stripped from them? (41). Mundane, predetermined meaning must be removed from objects and images to add unpredictability. Another form of defamiliarization is misalignment or diversion from a single truth via juxtaposed contradictions of emotion. People often feel many opposing emotional reactions when impacted by a single change in their lives. These combinations represent simultaneous forms of existence within one individual and create an unpredictable outcome. It becomes uncertain which emotion will rise to the surface and influence the next action. Another tool in the arsenal of defamiliarization is point of view. This provides the framework of observation and works best when the narrator doesn?t know what their own journey means. Their position offers a picture that is moderately strange. This speaks to the idea of renormalization, where ?moderately strange in the middle of ordinary is the lens for focusing the ordinary. Without it, the ordinary has nothing against which to define itself? (49). Ultimately, defamiliarization is about ?not finding ourselves where we expected to be but where we did not expect to be found, and at a moment when our defenses are down? (49).
Baxter, Charles. Burning Down the House. Saint Paul: Graywolf Press, 1997.
The Trappings of Race in Frank Wu?s Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White
The social commentary Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White by Frank Wu, is a valuable tool in the study of race construction in America. Wu not only provides interesting insight into the experience of being Asian American through the sharing of personal stories, he also employs his legal and scholarly skills of logic to articulate interpretations of, and to propose solutions to, the issues surrounding the disparity between race relations in America. Providing an effective balance of emotional engagement and analytical argument throughout the book, Wu?s use of Asian Americans to demonstrate the need for affirmative action is compelling and convincing, although his generalizations of whites through careless wording is troublesome. Also, in paying attention to the distinction between Asian Americans and African Americans, addressing the replacement of these problematic labels would have been a welcome addition.
To summarize, Wu uses the ?yellow? race to turn ?white? discrimination of both ?black? and ?yellow? in America in on itself for the benefit of the full spectrum, including ?red? and any other imaginative color label in use. His central argument states:
Asian American examples can enhance our awareness of the color line between black and white, rather than devalue the anguish of African Americans, because Asian Americans stand astride the very color line and flag its existence for all to see. If the color line runs between whites and people of color, Asian Americans are on one side; if the color line runs between blacks and everyone else, Asian Americans are on the other side. The line, however, is drawn in part by Asian Americans and in turn can be erased by us. (18)
Using this logic, Wu unveils the Asian American ?model minority myth? for the socially constricting racial stereotype that it is, regardless of the positive or negative responses it generates. Wu believes it should be rejected by all, including those Asian Americans who benefit from it, because it is a gross oversimplification of a massive population, it harbors a subversive negative commentary about African Americans by way of unfair comparison, and it has the effect of subverting the experience of racial discrimination of Asian Americans as well as turning them into a threat for whites (49).
In order to peel away layers of discrimination, Wu addresses two interesting questions often asked of Asian Americans. When the question ?Where are you really from? is posed by an American, it reinforces the idea that Asian Americans are perpetual foreigners based on race. This doubt of citizenship stems from an baseless fear of a foreigner?s lack of national loyalty, allowing for significant cultural events like the internment after WWII to the everyday practice of discrimination at present. To remedy this, Wu believes that minorities should be granted and must participate in the making of political policy and immigration law with as much of a right as those who ?were here first.? The other question aimed at Asian Americans is ?Do you eat dogs?? Wu says the implication of asking this, while the cultural practice exists, is the accusation and indication of a less civilized or savage race. To combat questions like this, Wu suggests adopting a new combination of assimilation and multiculturalism since neither has been effective on its own.
When addressing the topic of racial profiling, Wu dismantles what he calls rational discrimination and asks that we perfect it by relying on logic rather than what history dictates when making damaging determinations about stereotypes. He sees the use of stereotypes as a self fulfilling prophecy which produces the result it seeks. We must resist the urge to repeat our mistakes, otherwise, those who discriminate miss out on the experience of enriched diversity while those who are too often discriminated against suffer from a wound that, constantly re-opened, festers with negativity.
Ending on the power of coalitions, Wu argues that Asian Americans, in joining with other groups across racial lines, will be more effective in reaching their goals, but coalitions can only go so far until whites acknowledge and shift their attitudes relenquishing their power of privilege. In a somewhat clich?d ending, in part because it is based in truth, Wu places faith in the youth of America with their strength, passion and detachment from the past to restructure the mistakes of previous generations.
What I think Wu does best in this work, which I have not addressed in my summary above, is to leverage the position of Asian Americans against the black and white color line in order to revitalize an old argument for the continued importance of affirmative action in America. As he explains the obvious, that ?the crux of affirmative action is the use of race to respond to racial disparities? (167), he asks that we consider the floating position of Asian Americans in quota arguments in order to identify the ways in which they are used to leverage power by whites. Too often the end result is the exclusion of blacks and various other minorities from particular institutions and to exonerate whites from fixing systemic disparity riddled by these covert acts of racial discrimination. In either of these outcomes, the impact on Asian Americans and blacks is doubly negative. Blacks are held to a standard which is neither equal nor realistic, especially when the Asian American ?model minority myth? is a fallacy created, in part, to oppress blacks. Asian Americans who often proffer the advantage of white privilege in this arrangement are simultaneously placed at odds with blacks, Latinos, Hispanics, and others in a racial move they did not instigate. Ultimately, rather than to allow the continued negative practice of things like college alumni preference in order to secure positions for white families based on race rather than merit while closing doors to others, positive forms of affirmative action works to open those doors to ?others? that are otherwise closed. According to Wu, Asian Americans can play a specific and valuable role in the betterment of all American culture by unselfishly supporting affirmative action, even if it provides no direct benefit to themselves, because shouldering the shared responsibility in the name of a greater societal good will debunk whites arguments against the success of this measure and set a worthy example to follow.
While Wu?s argument is solid, what becomes problematic is his sloppy wording. Statements like the following present a problem:
Asian Americans also disprove the claim that it is affirmative action rather than racial discrimination that makes whites resentful of people of color? So if Asian Americans accept the same duty as whites, without begrudging the gains of other people of color, whites hardly have any cause for complaint. (71)
This generalization is cause for one of those moments where I, as a white American in support of affirmative action, cringe. Even with my recollection of Wu?s claim that he is ?taken aback by the inference that [he means] to cast aspersions on all whites by discussing some whites? (25), I cannot let this slide, if only for the reason that quotes like this constantly get pulled out of context much in the way I have done here. Taken aback or not, had Wu said ?some whites,? or even ?many whites,? this statement would have been accurate. The accuracy would not only relieve me from feeling unjustly categorized as I don?t fit his description of a resentful white begrudging the successes of people of color, but it would spare Wu the negative perceptions that take him aback. I could be argued that this is Wu?s attempt at educating whites on how it feels to be accused of being flawed based on race alone, to de-doxify white ideology in order to reveal its power and limitations, particularly as he refers to our ?postmodern world.? Still, I suspect the move is largely unconscious. Wu himself argues for a strong dose of honesty which impacts a person differently than a gross generalization when, earlier in the book, he likewise makes reference to generalization using terms like ?always? or ?never? as a way to confine a person to one position. Wu is aware, on an intellectual level, that the same argument holds to true in general reference to an entire population. Subconsciously, it would appear that he reveals his referential flaws in not a racist but a racial sense.
?I?d also like to point out that while Wu pays attention to the distinction between Asian Americans such as Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and others in several of his arguments, he never addresses another kind of flawed wording. While the umbrella term ?Asian American? refers to a genealogical track back to the origination continent of Asia, ?African American,? as used to describe blacks, makes no distinction between those people from the continent of Africa or those from places such as Haiti, the Dominican Republic or Jamaica. Truth be told, people of variously perceived races come from many different countries and making ?African American? referent to a single continent of origin for all blacks the greatest assumption of all. Likewise, the same logic applies to all ?fill-in-the-blank? Americans and is applied unevenly across nationalities because many fall under the indistinguishable umbrella of ?Caucasian.? That said, before America can adopt new ways of embracing ?the other? we must first remove these archaic, loaded and tired terms from our vocabulary and begin to refer to people as what they truly are. We must come to a point where the all inclusive term ?American? finally stands alone.
Wu demonstrates a strong ability to articulate the poignant and complicated issues surrounding race and, moving beyond mere identification, offers some challenging but logical solutions. In opening up this discussion, it is interesting to note that Wu is unable, as of yet, to recognize his own trappings within racial language. As much as we identify otherness in order to distinguish our own sense of self, the language of otherness must eventually come to represent inclusivity by achieving a greater level of accuracy. Generalizations cannot continue to be made in the name of making a point and, although Wu says minorities must denounce the derogatory and stereotypical labels cast upon them, such a ?spic? and ?chink,? to recognize the inaccurate language we use to distinguish groups without derogatory meaning is important as well. ?Asian American? is strictly a racial label when used to describe second and third generations of Americans with no ties to what is assumed their ?homeland.? Wu comes close to addressing this in his last chapter but then misses the mark. If he can see how this label fails in terms of Asian Americans, why does he not apply the same logic to ?African American?? Listing my concerns is not to say that this diminishes the value of Wu?s work (particularly since I recognize the ways in which I fall into the same traps myself – even here). On the contrary, to analyze Wu?s linguistic operation within the text is as informative as the text?s intended content.
Postmodern Realities in the Film The Last King of Scotland
To examine Kevin MacDonald?s The Last King of Scotland, a 2006 film based on the 1998 novel of the same name by Giles Foden, is to explore the implications of historiographic metafiction?as well as its limitations. This film, in particular, offers an interesting vantage point having been produced for Western society while simultaneously popular within Uganda. To reach some determinations, I will begin by addressing the ways in which fictional Scottish doctor, Nicholas Garrigan, helps to reveal the problematic Western representation of Uganda?s former president, Idi Amin, a dictator known as the Butcher of Africa during his rule from 1970-1979. I will also examine the repercussions of Garrigan?s insertion into the story and the ways in which his presence impacts the Ugandan nation?s sense of history. By doing so, I intend to make a case for the ethical handling of postmodern art in order to avoid further Western colonization.
This film?s popularity in Uganda is undeniable, as is the reason for it. According to the New York Times World Africa video, ?The Last King of Scotland Opens in Uganda? by Jeffrey Gettleman, nationwide accessibility to the DVD had been prevalent prior to the official release thanks to the influx of pirated DVDs from the Chinese underground. For the equivalent of 20 cents, as opposed to the inaccessible $5 admission to Uganda?s only theater, masses of people have continued to file into small huts lined with wooden benches to see their history (Gettlemen). National interest signals the grand scale of a Western cultural impact upon this African nation and the social effects are important to explore in order to avoid future erasure of Uganda?s historical heritage.
The reason for this film?s popularity is the disparity of historical knowledge that spans the generations. Seemingly not addressed for the youth by their education system, it appears that Ugandans are using this film to fill in their historical gaps, many referring to the ability for children to learn about their country (Capturing Idi Amin). According to the Washington Post article, ?In Uganda, ?Last King of Scotland? Generates Blend of Pride and Pain Crowds Flock to Oscar-Honored Film About Idi Amin,? Timberg explains why this film is so important to them:
For Ugandans too young to have clear memories of Amin?s reign, ?The Last King of Scotland? gave them a welcome dose of insight into their own national history… After seeing the movie, said Alice Mwesigwa, 32, ?it was, ?Wow, this is real.? (Timberg)
Anyone over twenty remembers Amin in some way. Mwesigwa has her own experience to compare with the film and comes to an interesting determination about reality. But is this real? Does this film constitute Uganda?s history? The answer to that question is not so clear.
Reference to the story as ?real? is problematic in that?certain elements of the story are obviously not real. While contamination of reality is inherent in any narrative, this particular?process begins with the novel. In the interview ?Giles Foden, The Last King of Scotland? conducted by BoldType, the English author (who spent a portion of his early life in Africa) is asked whether his portrait of Amin is based on ?research, memory, imagination, or a combination of all three.? Foden answers:
All three, but trying to keep the research at bay was a problem. I kept discovering these amazing things about Amin which I wanted to put in the book. This was disturbing, as I felt like I was being ?dictated? to, or suffering the kind of demonic possession that Amin believed existed. Still, I guess I must have pulled through: mainly I tried to hang onto to the idea that this was a story. I wanted to make people turn the page. (Boldtype)
Foden embraces the stereotypical ideas surrounding the dictator, those of his disturbing behavior and belief in demonic possession, and applies them to the research process itself, as if the unearthing of facts is somehow unearthing Amin?s power and forcing Foden?s hand in what to write. This interpretation reveals the lens through which Foden performed his research, indicating his own biased making of meaning through his processing of facts. Foden also reminds us that his novel is?ultimately a story designed to sell and entertain, a process that allows him to distill Amin?s?many advisors down to the fictional Dr. Garrigan. Screenwriters further distill Foden?s entire novel down to a screenplay where the collective influence of the director, producers, actors and editors departs from the novel and adds their own impact to the film.
When Ugandan viewers make meaning of the final product based on their own cultural experience, they seem to confuse the film The Last King of Scotland with history and reality. This confusion is understandable and reflects the concerns of theorist Frederic Jameson. As stated in Postmodernism or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism:
The new spatial logic of the simulacrum can now be expected to have a momentous effect on what used to be historical time. The past is thereby itself modified… the past as ?referent? finds itself gradually bracketed, and then effaced altogether, leaving us with nothing but texts. (Jameson, 18)
Jameson blames the postmodern, in this case historiographic metafiction, as?having foregone the signposts that had traditionally signaled the difference between?fiction and reality. Furthermore, Jameson would argue that the filmmakers are referring to a history that never happened, a simulacrum, a copy with no original. History has been replaced by the likeness of history.
In response to Jameson?s disapproval, one must question whose telling of history gets privilege. History has generally been the tale of the victor or dominant culture. Theorist Linda Hutcheon in The Politics of Postmodernism offers an alternative position in relation to Jameson?s argument:
Such a clashing of various possible discourses of narrative representation is one way of signaling the postmodern use and abuse of convention that works to de-doxify any sense of the seamlessness of the join between the natural and the cultural, the world and the text, thereby making us aware of the irreducible ideological nature of every representation – of past or present… postmodern fiction does not, however disconnect itself from history or the world. It foregrounds and thus contests the conventionality and unacknowledged ideology of the assumption of seamlessness and asks its readers to question the processes by which we represent ourselves and our world to ourselves and to become aware of the means by which we represent ourselves and construct?. (Hutcheon, 51)
Although the business of reality and historicity appears convoluted up to this point, to apply Hutcheon?s theoretical definition of historiographic metafiction allows for the elevation of the fictional Dr. Garrigan to the status of a useful tool used to explore the multi-faceted Amin and allowing for new interpretations. James MacEvoy who plays Garrigan says of his role:
This film is not just about Idi. It?s not just about Uganda. It?s about the way that Britain, and maybe the rest of the world… looked at Uganda because I?m very much Britain?s looking glass in the film? (MacEvoy, Capturing Idi Amin).
MacEvoy, through his character, reflects back the full spectrum of how the British government has played a part in Amin?s dictatorship. Garrigan has access to Amin in ways that Amin?s friends, family, government, subjects and the international community never have. Many individuals saw only the side that Amin wanted them to see. The British media saw only what they wanted. Garrigan sees all.
The most widespread information about Amin?s dictatorship consists of a collage of stereotypes. Jon Snow, a well known journalist in the United Kingdom with former access to Amin says:
In the early 1970?s there was still a lot of racism about and I think Amin appealed to a racist stereotype of Africa. If he hadn?t existed we would have had to invent him. He was a perfect kind of larger than life, ogreous, you, know, people eating monster of a dictator.? (Snow, Capturing Idi Amin)
The problem with this statement is that Amin was not always perceived as a ?monster of a dictator.? In fact, he began as a loyal soldier of Britain, escalating in status from mess hall duty to commander and eventually president. He was initially known as a charismatic and gregarious man by the British government. So what brought about the change? If the movie teaches us anything new about Amin, it is that he was largely invented by the media through a dance of push and push-back.
MacDonald, Whitaker and McAvoy met with journalist Jon Snow to better understand Amin?s relationship with the press. As MacDonald recalls from their interview:
[Jon] had got to know Amin very well when he was a young journalist? he talked very interestingly about how Amin had seduced him, how he had seduced all the press corps. So even when people went to Amin to ask tough questions, to say ?I?m going to find out what?s really going on in this country? I?m going to put him on the spot about his murders that we?ve heard about,? they would come away laughing. They would come away feeling that Amin was a decent guy. He was funny, and also the news desks back home would be saying, ?Give us more of that footage of Amin dancing, or footage of Amin in his kilt. We love that. It?s so funny.? And Jon Snow says that he still feels guilty about that, that the press betrayed Uganda or let them down, at the very least. (MacDonald, DVD Commentary)
At the very least, the press failed to represent an accurate portrayal of Amin?s wrath and fury but that is not the least of it. Because the media played a significant role in suppressing all but Amin?s folly, they essentially created the caricature he had become and drew a stereotypical shield of protection around a madman?s murderous activities. This stereotype became a veil used by Amin himself. Amin?s character became a Saturday Night Live skit. Song parodies surfaced. On the ?Sucks or Rules? website posted in November 2007, Amin?s image battles for votes against a picture of Bob?s bitch tits from Chuck Palahniuk?s contemporary film Fight Club. That this legacy of buffoonery continues today is lingering evidence of the enormous impact of 1970?s media.
This passage also reveals the reciprocal mastery of Amin?s personal representation, even at the time when his paranoia was out of control and there were international rumors surfacing about his massacre. He gave the press what they wanted and they settled for what he fed them, the ?charming fool.? While journalists had no direct hand in Amin?s slaughter, they cannot be exonerated from playing their part. Snow may feel some remorse about the veil that media cast over the truth, allowing the world to giggle throughout the massacre of an estimated 300,000 people, but he appears to have little understanding of the media?s own bloodstained pen if, in 2006, he can say that the media would have created Amin had he not existed.
Amin intentionally re-represented this stereotype repeatedly to the press, in part because his reality had become terrorized by it and, in part, because the exertion of terror at his hands had exceeded it. According to MacDonald:
Amin wore a distorted mirror reflecting back to the colonial masters in Britain what he had learned from them. He took ideas like bagpipes and kilts and imposed them into a completely inappropriate world? In some horrible way he was like a sort of puppet who has come to life. He was like a plaything of the Empire that turned around and said, ?boo.?? (MacDonald, Capturing Idi Amin)
Like Hutcheon?s example of the marionette in Lady Purple, Amin becomes the puppet of the Empire, a dually constructed reality as both the stereotype and the representation of that stereotype. In this sense Amin is himself postmodern, somewhat illusory with his multiple costumes and cultural allusions, a fractured identity representing something beyond explanation and yet harkening toward something familiar.
More than that, the very tactics the British taught him as a soldier in their colonizing army, using the power found in the barrel of a gun, are the tools Amin used to shape his own national and international identity. Which is Amin?s real identity, clown or tyrant? His is neither under the constraints of the small box of meaning he is placed within and both simultaneously. In revealing the construction of the real by the press and by Amin, we reach a new understanding that representation becomes its own reality.
In The Last King of Scotland, although Amin addressed the press with complete composure and charm, Garrigan allows us access to the extreme rage and paranoia Amin unleashes behind closed doors, as well as his genuine struggle, confusion and cries for help to his advisors. Whitaker says of researching his role of Amin through countless interviews with those who knew widely varied sides of him:
I wonder if we can look at Africa without the context of intervention? There is a schism in African history, and Amin was a big product of it? He?s not Satan? He?s not the devil. My search was to find the reasons he made the decisions that he did. (Haygood, 1)
Through Garrigan, we learn the secrets that Amin?s advisers kept while in fear of their lives during his rule. Amin felt betrayed by the British. Once embraced and empowered by the country that flat out ignored his first massacre while in their service during Uganda?s colonization, the country had finally turned its back to him at the time of Uganda?s independence. This is the information that Whitaker refers to as having fallen into ?history?s schism.? This interesting phrase implies a failure on the part of history in general, one that Garrigan?s story helps to supplement by revealing Amin as a multifaceted human being, lifting the veil from the limitations of media stereotyping and historical representation.
Although this new multifaceted representation of Amin is interesting, it does not come without a price. Regardless of the attempt to create a composite of Amin?s advisors through Garrigan, this character influences Amin?s decisions within the film and impacts storyboard situations that never actually happened. These events, in turn, fictionalize Amin?s story. Director Kevin MacDonald defends this by saying:
We have taken liberties, as the novel does and I think one of the reasons we feel happy doing that with Amin in particular is because there is something about [Amin] that is almost more fictional than it is real. You never really can pin down what the historical reality is. (MacDonald, Capturing Idi Amin)
This is Hutcheon?s point as well. One might consider this a small price to pay for the revelation of history?s limitations, and perhaps this is true in the case of the film?s attempt at respectful representation of Amin as a person. In other aspects of the film though, liberties are taken too far.
The story of Kay, one of Amin?s many wives, is as mythical and mysterious as Amin?s. Some suspect Amin killed her for being unfaithful, although, in Time Magazine?s 1977 article ?Big Daddy in Books,? Kay?s most probable story is summarized in a review of Amin?s former health minister Henry Kyemba?s novel, A State of Blood:
For once, Kyemba exonerates Amin: “I do not believe, as I first did, that Amin had a direct hand in Kay’s death.” Instead, he writes, she died during an abortion that was being performed by her lover, a doctor. Kyemba speculates that the doctor dismembered the body in an effort to hide it, but then changed his mind; he committed suicide a few hours later. When informed of his former wife’s death, Amin requested that the body be sewed back together; at the funeral, he raged to her assembled family about her unfaithfulness. (?Big Daddy in Books,? 2)
In the film, there is a departure from this story. Kay and Garrigan have a one night stand and consequently conceive a child. Garrigan asks permission to use the presidential hospital to perform an abortion in order to spare Kay and himself a torturous death at the hands of an angry Amin. When Dr. Thomas Junju denies them access to Amin?s hospital, Garrigan asks, ?What other choice does she have, some back street job in a village somewhere?? Thomas replies, ?It?s the only choice you?ve left her. But I don?t expect it had crossed your mind here to wonder, a white man with a black woman. What does she need with such things? (The Last King of Scotland). Junju brings up a new colonizing aspect to Kay?s story that had never existed prior.
This interpretation is not simply new, it is riddled with a new sense of conflict, invoking global dichotomies from black/white, masculine/feminine and colonizer/colonized to the ultimate life/death situation. MacDonald explains his intentions:
The man with the black woman was kind of like the racial, political element which has not really been a part of the story so far. And suddenly we see it all from a different perspective. We see him as the white man who has come in to rape and pillage the country in a way and to use a woman in a way that, you know, was the old colonial manner of doing things. You see Garrigan in a different kind of light.? (MacDonald, Director?s Commentary)
Kind of like? does not begin to describe the message MacDonald is sending. Kay is not Garrigan?s first Ugandan conquest, although she is the most important. Garrigan had been scooping up resident women as he pleases since his arrival in Uganda. As Amin and Garrigan?s relationship grows close and they enter a love affair of sorts, Amin?s wife Kay becomes the outlet for Garrigan?s sexual manifestation of that love. Although Amin shares a great deal with Garrigan, Kay is something Garrigan takes without permission, violating not only the Ugandan leader?s trust, but by ultimately destroying Kay?s well being. The resulting child, a symbolic zygote of cultural fusion at the most basic human level, is aborted before it can see the light of day. For her infidelity, Kay is dismembered; her limbs positioned in a gruesome and unnatural position, and put on display at the city morgue by Amin, an adulterer himself. The film?s message here is that, while men enjoy freedoms not afforded to women, women who don?t remain in their place will suffer the gravest of consequences. This is the ideology that is being consumed and reinforced in Uganda for mere pennies a viewing.
That the filmmakers struggled with the inclusion of the dismemberment scene offers little comfort. The only available commentary sympathetic to Kay?s cinematic plight is that of Forrest Whitaker:
Idi Amin kills her, takes the body, cuts her up and sews the parts on differently, which is one of the most gruesome images in the film. And I think that image will stick with people really strongly. And that?s, that?s not true. (Whitaker, Capturing Idi Amin)
With his consuming interest in bringing authenticity to Amin?s role, Whitaker?s tone here is remorseful, as if he finds this a tragic failure within the film. On the contrary, the actress who played Kay, Kerry Washington says:
There are things about [Kay?s] life that people are very sensitive about. People that remember her get very upset when they remember her and while it?s true that she did have an affair behind Idi?s back and she did become pregnant and seek an illegal abortion, she did not have an affair with a white man, which is, you know, I guess, dramatic license. (Capturing Idi Amin)
Washington?s remarks are flippant at best. In the case of Producer Andrea Calderwood, the same holds true when she says, ?We just felt it was such a powerful moment to dramatize Idi?s frame of mind ? we weren?t just being gratuitous about it? (Capturing Idi Amin). An awareness of the decimation of Kay?s memory exists on some level for these women, but not at the level it should. Amin and Garrigan are the prime focus, perhaps in part due to their gendered coding and internal acceptance of the message.
In the end, Garrigan is seen for the traitor he is to Amin and tortured. Hung from meat hooks through his bloody, pale, white chest with arms limply outstretch in the air, the imagery is strikingly Christ-like. Garrigan refuses to scream as if taking on the sorrow of the hundreds of thousands of slaughtered Ugandans, refusing to give Amin the satisfaction of watching him suffer the way he enjoyed watching his people suffer. Dr. Thomas Junju, the man who refused to help at the hospital, cuts Garrigan down and helps him to escape the country at the risk and eventual realization of his own peril. When Garrigan asks why Junju helps him after refusing to at the hospital, the Ugandan says,?Go home and tell the story to all. People will believe you because you are white” (The Last King of Scotland). This statement can be read in two ways, as a tool used to sell the film to Western audiences or as a commentary on how the world refuses to recognize the plight of Africans unless told by whites. These interpretations are not exclusive to one another. Although this is the case, in this instance the director offers a frank assessment of reasoning behind this telling of the story. According to an article in the Washington Post, ?[MacDonald] didn’t want a movie that fictionalized the story to the point where the white character becomes a heroic figure. ?It’s unfortunately the economics of moviemaking,? he says? (Haygood, 1). While meaning and interpretation of the film?s message essentially comes from within the text itself, it is difficult to ignore the operation of capitalism working to direct the tale in order to generate ticket sales.
With the film?s break from Amin and Kay?s lived experience, I return once again to the questions ?Is this real? Is this Uganda?s history?? It appears that the answer is no on the most literal level, yet, on a subversive level, the film wholly reifies dominant cultural realities. Theorists Horkheimer and Adorno, in Dialectic of Enlightenment specifically address the medium of film as a form of entertainment, calling out its false promise of cinematic escape from societal pressures while codifying the audience into believing existing social norms are okay and resistance is futile.
The ways in which this operates can be demonstrated through the specific relationship between Kay and Garrigan as outlined above. Horkheimer and Adorno explain:
In every product of the culture industry, the permanent denial imposed by civilization is once again unmistakably demonstrated and inflicted upon its victims. To offer and deprive them of something is one and the same? Precisely because it must never take place, everything centers on copulation. In films it is more strictly forbidden for an illegitimate relationship to be admitted without the parties being punished than for a millionaire?s son-in-law to be involved in a labor movement. In contrast to the liberal era, industrialized as well as pop culture may wax indignant at capitalism, but it cannot renounce the threat of castration. This is fundamental. (Horkheimer and Adorno, 1232)
This film?s message, not only of forbidden sex but of the forbidden combination of black and white, is imprinted upon both Western and Eastern cultures, reinforcing the ideology of cultural separation and domination of one over another. In this way, cinematic entertainment allows for now escape. ?The culture industry tends to make itself the embodiment of authoritative pronouncements, and thus the irrefutable prophet of the prevailing order? (Horkheimer and Adorno, 1234) We, as a newly global audience in this world of accessibility, do not confine our national ideologies within our own borders. While Western films offer the forbidden to reinforce that its attainability comes with sharp consequences, this Western message now dominates the globe.
What careful analysis of the film?s depiction of Amin reveals is that, rather than being a departure from contextualized history, or what?Jameson calls ?a ?revolutionary? break with the repressive ideology of?storytelling generally,? (Hutcheon, 47)?this film decenters the ideological notions of authenticity and subjectivity of film itself. In the handling of Amin, it demonstrates the power of news media?s influence of news media while simultaneously revealing that British news broadcasts offered no more objective truth than does this piece of fiction. Hutcheon would remind us that this is not an issue about media per se. Baudrillard?s theory of simulacra and media?s neutralization of the ?real? assumes that there was a ?real? to begin with. She instead counters that??there is nothing natural about the ?real? and there never was ? even before the existence of mass media? (Hutcheon, 31). Ultimately what we must understand is that narrative, whether in the form of historical record, journalism, cinematography or fiction, is inherently powerful in its representation but also has limitations.
For The Last King of Scotland, this is where the power of historiographic metafiction ends. Through the seduction and consequential murder of Kay as well as the depiction of Garrigan as the white savior of Uganda, the film becomes Western film culture?s colonization of Ugandan history working to reinforce the power of white dominant culture. Horkheimer and Adorno see the only ability to transcend made available through true art. This art:
certainly cannot be detached from style; but it does not consist of the harmony actually realized, of any doubtful unity of form and content, within and without, of individual and society; it is to be found in those features in which discrepancy appears: in the necessary failure of the passionate striving for identity. (Horkheimer and Adorno, 1232)
What Horkheimer and Adorno call for here, in essence, is the work of the postmodern. Like Hutcheon, they describe the kind of art that truly wrestles with and de-doxifies ideology in order to reveal its power and flaws. As The Last King of Scotland proves, the power of historiographic metafiction is reduced dramatically when it is centered on the laws of capitalism. Its ethical power to expose and inspire revolution against powerful ideologies can only be unleashed when art is produced for art?s sake and not for profit.
“Big Daddy in Books? TIME Magazine. Time Inc. Sep 19, 1977. October 24, 2007 This article covers breaking news of Amin in the 70?s as well as the rise in film and books addressing topics to do with the dictator. The review of A State of Blood, written by Amin?s former health minister, Henry Kyemba, is addressed in the majority of the article. This is where I pulled my information on Kay?s death from in order to compare it with the film?s version. Kyemba is an interesting author to cite since he acted a part in the film as well.
“Capturing Idi Amin? Special Feature Documentary. The Last King of Scotland. DVD. 2006. Two Step Film/BBC Scotland. 2007. Asking a question similar to my own, this film explores the implications of inserting fiction into reality. This is helpful in gathering many Ugandan viewpoints in reaction to the movie as well as what the people hope it will accomplish within their own country. It also provides access to Amin?s Minister of Health, and others who remember Amin.
The Last King of Scotland. Dir.Kevin MacDonald. Perf. Forest Whitaker, James McAvoy, Kerry Washington, Simon McBurney, Gillian Anderson. 2006. DVD. Fox Searchlight, 2007. Primary text.
Horkheimer, Max and Theodor Adorno. ?From Dialectic of Enlightenment From The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception.? Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent Leitch. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2001. 1223-1240. Horkheimer and Adorno?s theory says that the culture industry, specifically that of film, functions as more than a form of entertainment. They call attention to its false promise of cinematic escape from societal pressures and expose the ways in which it codifies the audience into believing existing social norms are okay and that resistance is futile. I specifically use the description of forbidden sex, offered and revoked within the film as a lesson for life.
Haygood, Wil. ?This Role Was Brutal: Forest Whitaker Tried to Humanize Tyrant Amin.? Washington Post. October 1, 2006. December 1, 2007 <http://www.washingtonpost.com> This article addresses all the ways in which Forest Whitaker educated himself on Amin in order to bring him to life. The portions useful to my thesis are where Whitaker says Amin has fallen into the ?schism? of history, a useful commentary about the limitations of history in general. It also depicts how Director Kevin MacDonald envisioned the story. MacDonald states that the ?economics of moviemaking? requires a white heroic figure. This falls in line with my use of Horkheimer and Adorno?s theory to prove that this film provides a certain cultural reality.
Gettleman, Jeffrey, Adam B. Ellick, and Courtenay Morris. ?The Last King of Scotland Opens in Uganda.? New York Times. February 21, 2007. October 26, 2007. <http://video.on.nytimes.com/> This video highlights the film?s premiere in Uganda and the reception of this western production within the country. There are several references to the accuracy of Whitaker?s portrayal of Amin and a young man who brings his young brother to learn Ugandan history. The most pertinent piece of information is the widespread DVD underground allowing nationwide access to the film. It demonstrates the grand scale impact of Western culture upon the Ugandan nation.
“Giles Foden, The Last King of Scotland.? Boldtype. December 1998. October 25, 2007 <http://www.randomhouse.com/boldtype/1298/foden> This interview with Foden explains his consolidation of Amin?s cabinet into the character of Garrigan and his process in selecting facts to include about Amin. This, in conjunction with Hutcheon demonstrates the fluidity of meaning surrounding facts in history and fiction.
Hutcheon, Linda. The Politics of Postmodernism, 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2002. Hutcheon explains historiographic metafiction which, through dedoxification and self-reflexivity, reveals the power as well as the limitation employed by the medium of narrative. I use this theory to defend the insertion of fictional Garrigan within the history of Idi Amin as the character provides a new view into Amin, the man.
Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke University Press, 1992. Jameson?s points about the postmodern confusion of fact and fiction and the lack of lived history being identifiable is one way to look at historiographic metafiction. With the loss of the referent, this explains the Ugandan?s conflation of fiction and history. It also contrasts nicely with Hutcheons? positive analysis of the postmodern as performing a very specific task.
MacDonald, Kevin. ?Director?s Commentary? The Last King of Scotland. 2006. DVD. Fox Searchlight, 2007. MacDonald provides the back story on filming with Ugandan extras, experiences with Amin research and representation, and the western viewpoint of Ugandan culture. There are too many ways to list in which this information influenced my writing. Suffice it to say that the impact is immeasurable.
“Man Boobs vs. Idi Amin.? Sucks or Rules. DWLyle. November 4, 2007, November 24, 2007 <http://www.sucksorrules.com/battles/detail/people/156911/man-boobs-vs-idi-amin>. This website pits one image against another and allows members to vote on which one sucks or rules. Although the point is unclear, what is interesting is that Idi Amin, a postmodern butcher of a dictator is pitted against Meatloaf?s man boobs from Chuck Palahniuk?s Fight Club. Amin continues to infiltrate pop culture.
Timberg, Craig. ?In Uganda, ‘Last King of Scotland’ Generates Blend of Pride and Pain.? Washington Post. February 27, 2007. October 26, 2007 <http://www.washingtonpost.com> This article covers the ways in which Hollywood?s Oscar buzz surrounding the film impacted Ugandan?s in Kampala. He mentions that there are drastic differences between Amin, Foden?s novel, and finally the film and compares the film with others about Africa that have been successful in Uganda. The last paragraph was most useful, highlighting the reactions of a realistic view of history through this piece of film fiction.
How twisted am I to find THIS funny?? Seriously. Click it.
It’s called?”Amazin’ Man” from “The Collected Broadcasts of Idi Amin” by John Bird, a staple on the Dr. Demento Show in the early ’70s. I’ve been playing this little?ditty for motivation while researching The Last King of Scotland. I’m kinda sick like that.
Ok, right now, here we’re going again from de top and this time, the first violins, uh I want you to plug the instruments into de gas main because I’m not getting the sound I’m liking… and de wives whats forming de backing group, get round to de front of me where I can keep my eye on you.
Now, I’m counting you with the well known counting thing. One, Two, …. oh no, what come after two? FIVE!
Idi, Idi, Idi Amin
Most amazing man there’s ever been
He de General, de President, de King of de Sea
Idi, Idi, Idi Amin
Look at the history, it packed with men
What rising to de top and getting chopped again.
No one handed dem de secret of de whole damn thing
You gotta give de population something to sing
Idi, Idi, Idi Amin
Most amazing man there’s ever been
He de General, de President, de King of de Sea
Idi, Idi, Idi Amin
Take Hitler, Stalin, Attila de Nun,
No-one got a good word for a single one.
Where these first class geniuses all going wrong
They never got the population singing along.
The rest of the verses only plunge deeper into madness… as do I.
Shaun of the Dead, earning just one star on Netflix, was a long, tedious end-of-the-semester letdown. (I can hear those of you cheering, “Finally, Kim suffers!”)
I?m sure we?ll discuss in class just how cleverly postmodern?the film?is, yet I?m painfully aware that without an affinity for zombie flicks I?m missing the lifeblood and guts of the joke. I couldn?t wait for the nightmare of boredom to end. At the same time, I look forward to reading Ryan’s reaction as zombies are far more his thing.
Since I have no emotional investment in this film, meet Nick from?”The Theory of Chaos Blog”?who wrote a?far more insightful and?enjoyable Shaun of the Dead review. His comments helped me understand what I was watching moreso than watching alone. In the mix,?Nick provides this gem of a summation:
This almost appallingly-amusing movie?s central joke is that there?s no thing too weird, say, for example, an apocalypse of the walking dead, that we as people couldn?t eventually filter into a background irritant. The inertia of the average low-watt slacker, we see, will always bring him back to his couch, television and beer.
Yeah, I get – and even admire -?the message. The thing is,?this format is?designed for a very specific audience. I’m not it.
I will say that when Shaun was zombified long before the Zombies arrived it made me think of Stuart Hall and the ways in which we define ourselves by adapting in relation to?”otherness.” Once the zombies hit the scene en mass, Shaun is no longer the zombie he had once been and it isn’t until they are killed or contained that?he returns to that state of being. The problem is, I don’t much care.
I’ve mentioned that already, haven’t I?