Archive for July, 2010

Sunday Drivers

Posted in Uncategorized on July 26, 2010 by Andrew T. Smith

Harvey Pekar 1939-2010

Posted in Ramblings with tags , , , , , on July 12, 2010 by Andrew T. Smith

I was shocked and saddened today to find out that celebrated author and underground comic creator Harvey Pekar had died, seemingly unexpectedly, at the age of seventy. I first came to his work via a film based on his life, the wonderful American Splendor which takes its title from his autobiographical comics of the same name and from there I was soon sucked into his marvellous world of self deprecating autobiographical comics and passionate non-fiction graphic novels.

My favourite Pekar story also happens to be one of the first I read. The November 2006 issue of American Splendor opens with a tale called, “What happened to your parents?” In it, the curmudgeonly Clevelander charts the relationship he had with his parents from the point at which he left the family home; a story of family, love, death, guilt and cultural, bodily and mental decay – some of the hallmarks of his work. Depressing, yes, but never mawkish or self indulgent and, despite writing on such a deeply personal topic, Pekar’s gift for illuminating the human condition shines through.

The next issue opens with the tale of one man’s triumph over a blocked toilet – and I think that’s why Pekar was my hero.

The Great Unwatched #5: Invasion of the Bodysnatchers

Posted in The Great Unwatched with tags , , , , , , , on July 7, 2010 by Andrew T. Smith

Warning: If you pay enough attention, this trailer features spoilers, as does my review below.

Although it didn’t perform particularly well upon its initial release, Invasion of the Bodysnatchers (1956) is one of those films that has seeped into the public consciousness through television repeats, remakes and parodies. Indeed, when I finally got around to watch it I pretty much knew what to expect. This might explain why I was a little dissapointed by this, one of the most highly acclaimed science-fiction films ever made.

Returning to his hometown after a trip away, Dr. Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) is confronted by a number of patients convinced that their relatives are somehow not the people they seem. At first this  is attributed to some sort of mass hysteria but when a good friend of the Doctors stumbles across his own sinister duplicate the race is on escape the town and let the world know that the earth is facing an invasion of pod people.

There are aspects of this film I liked a lot, the cast in particular are universally excellent and director Don Siegel turns in some really creepy moments and suspensful chases. In fact the film as it originally stood under his vision is an effective Twilight Zone-ish parrable of cold-war paranoia. What is really unfortunate though, is that the film was tampered with by nervous studio executives. Originally the film ended with McCarthy, the last of the townspeople not to be replaced by a duplicate, frantically running between traffic on a freeway trying desperatley to alert somebody, anybody, of the threat posed and for all intents and purposes looking like he has lost his mind.  Wary that such a pessemistic ending would isolate audience members , executives at Allied Artists tacked on a prologue and epilogue that framed the film as a flashback told by Miles to his psychiatrists in a mental institution. What this served to do however, was to undercut a lot of the film’s suspence. Why should we worry about our main character when we know from the outset that he escapes the clutches of the villains? Even worse, the film’s epilogue sees the FBI being alerted to the danger of the pod people and the plans for the domination of earth presumably being thwarted.

As it stands in its theatrically released form Invasion of the Bodysnatchers is a good film; had it been left untampered I speculate it would have been near-great.

For more information of the film you could do no better than making a trip over to the ever intreaging Trailers From Hell where Joe Dante offers his thoughts on the film.

The Winds of Change?

Posted in Ramblings with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on July 5, 2010 by Andrew T. Smith

Since I haven’t had too much time to update this blog recently I thought it might be a good idea to repurpose some material. This – a look at issues of race and the concept of ‘orientalism’ in ‘Young Indiana Jones’  – might be a bit of a change from my usual waffle  but hopefully still interesting.

I can wax lyrical about George Lucas and Stephen Speilberg’s Indiana Jones franchise until the snakes come home. I love the character. But, before I get distracted with bullwhips, Nazis or fortune and glory, it might first be best to describe what is meant by a term called Orientalism.

In 1978, theorist Edward Said described his theory of Orientalism as a distinctive means of representing race, nationality and ‘otherness’ that has been supported by and supportive of the West’s colonialist and imperialist attitudes to the East, “a political doctrine willed over the Orient because the Orient was weaker than the West, which elided the Orient’s difference with its weakness.”

In referring to “The Orient” Said refers to a number of Eastern and Middle-Eastern cultures and proposes that Orientalism is an example of “imaginative geography,”  – that “The Orient”, far from being confined by natural boundaries, has been constructed  through Western discourse. In outlining this concept  he proposes three definitions.

Firstly, he describes Orientalism as providing a means for Orientalist scholars to justify and allow Western control and subjugation of Oriental lands. For example, if populations of the East are represented as being ruled by tyrannical overlords, this makes a case for Western intervention and rule; the West takes on a paternal role, a justification of Imperialist and colonial attitudes.

Secondly, Said suggests that Orientalism is an important factor in helping the West to define its image. By constructing the Orient as “the other”, the West is provided something to measure itself against and then judge itself as “normal.”

Thirdly, that the process of Orientalism is what has led to a false description and depiction of Oriental cultures. For example, for Europe to assert the image of itself as being cultured, civilised and mannered, it is useful to construct the Orient as an opposite – uncivilised, uncultured and savage – against which the West can measure itself.

Now, to relate this concept to the Indiana Jones franchise it is important to note that Said saw the majority of the film industry as representing orientalist attitudes.

In the films and television the Arab is associated either with lechery or bloodthirsty dishonesty. He appears as an oversexed degenerate, capable, it is true, of cleverly devious intrigues, but essentially sadistic, treacherous, low. Slave trader, camel driver, moneychanger, colourful scoundrel: these are some of the traditional Arab roles in the cinema…In newsreels or newsphotos, the Arab is always shown in large numbers. No individuality, no personal characteristics or experiences. (Said, 1978; 286)

Matthew Bernstein’s edited collection of film essays, Visions of the East: Orientalism in Film, traces depictions of the East in film from silent cinema entries like The Sheik (1921) and Thief of Bagdad (1924) through to modern action-adventure films (well, modern as of 1997 when the book was published), demonstrating a continued Western fascination in misrepresentations of the East through cinema.

I feel the need to add a disclaimer here by way of avoiding fan venom. It isn’t my intention to cast judgement upon Spielberg, Lucas et al. or to imply that the Jones films are without value, if anything looking at the franchise in this way makes it all the more interesting to me. To describe a film or television drama as being of Orientalist construction is not necessarily to judge the people behind said text’s construction as being maliciously racist, although in some instances this could of course be the case. A film or television programme need not even necessarily be  knowingly political and of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom Dr. Kaizaad Kotwal notes:

It was be argued that, Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, George Stevens’ Gunga Din and John Sturges’ Sergeants 3 are all political films. But, they are political not because that is what they set out to be, according to the intentions of their respective filmmakers, rather they are “accidentally political” by virtue of their filmmaker’s willful misrepresentations. (Kotwal, 2005)

In this respect, any Western film or product of popular culture can be evaluated in terms of how it may or may not present Orientalist ways of viewing the East, simply by virtue of the fact that it has been produced in the west and therefore will have been influenced by the society in which it has been produced.

The immensely popular Indiana Jones films series – consisting of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) – attracted criticism over what can be read as racist undertones in relation to the ways in which the films present various Eastern cultures. Important to consider is the fact that these are not niche films made by an unknown filmmaker and seen by a small audience, but  high grossing and influential blockbusters that perhaps better reflect dominant American cultural attitudes during the decade of their production.

Following the release of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade in 1989 there were no firm plans for any further films to feature the intrepid archeologist. George Lucas, however, decided to use the demand for the character in his favour and took the opportunity to pitch a series that mixed the action adventure of the franchise with real life historical events in a television series that featured the adventures of young Indi. His hope was to encourage children to engage with History, using the medium of television as a teaching tool. The series, however, did not set the world on fire.

The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles is a series that I think is long overdue for reappraisal. For example, it was a landmark in terms of television production. Another of Lucas’ main reasons for producing the series was to test out digital imaging techniques that ILM had been developing for use in feature films. The size and scope of the series called for costly set pieces, hundreds of extras and recreations of the past that a few years earlier may have been considered unrealisable. The development of CGI and digital compositing opened up new possibilities. Although Lucas was unsure if this techniques were advanced enough to be used extensively in feature production, what a series like Young Indiana Jones offered him was the chance to effectively have his research and development paid for by television networks eager to capitalise upon the popularity of his franchise. Today the techniques pioneered by Lucasfilm in the production of Young Indi are utilised on almost any flagpole television drama you care to mention; from Lost to Doctor Who and Desperate Housewives.

For our purposes however, the series is interesting to look at in relation to the concept of Orientalism and the accusations of racism that have been levelled at its parent film series. Edward Said’s theory of Orientalism – a long-standing process of representing and misrepresenting the East in relation to the West – has been engaged with in relation to many film and television texts, particularly in relation to Hollywood cinema. Stephen Speilberg’s popular Indiana Jones films during the 1980s have been accused of propagating Orientalist stereotypes and are an example of a set of movies which have been criticised for their depiction of various non-American cultures. My argument is that The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles can be viewed as presenting a more complex relationship with the concept of Orientalism than the series’ parent films, which have tended to garner a greater amount of critical attention.

Although he does not explicitly state it, Cedric Robinson describes Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom as an Orientalist text in his essay Indiana Jones, the Third World and American Foreign Policy: A Review Article. Although set during the 1930s, Robinson saw the film as a reflection and extension of contemporaneous Western attitudes to the non-European world; a post-colonial misrepresentation of India.

They have not acquired these images from history texts. Instead, these images are transmitted by the largest communications industry the world has ever known. They are not happenstance, not the simple result of imaginative brain-storming. These images are culled from the encoded cultural text of the society. (Robinson, 1984; 85)

Raiders of the Lost Ark, in particular, is a good example of Said’s theory of Orientalism in film at work, as it depicts many of the character archetypes he lists above; as stooges for the film’s main Nazi villains, Egyptian heavies are afforded little individual identity, hidden beneath robes and turbans and displaying ogre-like characteristics. Even the film’s sole sympathetic Eastern character, Sallah, can be seen to conform to the character type of the colourful scoundrel.

Putting his case forward more bluntly, J. Hoberman states:

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is inordinately racist and sexist, even by Hollywood standards… The film’s only humanized nonwhite is necessarily 10 years old. Indeed, when not particularly downward trodden, the denizens of the third world theme-park where Indiana seeks his fortune and glory are all duplicitous, evil scum whose favored cuisine is a suitably yuckey repast of raw snakes, giant beetles, and chilled monkey brains. (Holberman cited in Robinson, 1984; 85)

Certainly the depiction of Indians in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom conforms with Said’s comments on the depiction of ‘the Arab’ in film and television. For the most part the Indians in Temple of Doom are depicted en-mass. They are either presented as either evil hordes of sword wielding enemies to be dispatched, or as friendly villagers in need of a helping hand from our western hero. In the rare instance that a character is singled out as an individual persona, they are presented as villainous, misguided or in need of Western help to live their lives.

However, in comparison to these cinematic entries, little critical attention has been paid to the Indiana Jones films’ companion television series, The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, which I would argue presents a more complex relation to Said’s theory of Orientalism.

As well at the depiction of the colonised in the Indiana Jones franchise it is important to consider the role of the coloniser. In his analysis of the film Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Kotwal notes that the colonial presence in India is portrayed as benign and unintrusive. With the true villain of the film being Mola Ram, the anti-colonial Indian leader of the cult of Kali, British troops are presented as a necessary presence. Their victory over the “uncivilised” indigenous villains justifies their continuing control of the remaining population who are unable to maintain peace or govern themselves without Western support. By way of contrast though, several episodes of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles portray colonial presence as detrimental to the indigenous population. The Winds of Change depicts the events surrounding the Paris Peace Conference at the end of the First World War and deals with the real life decision to divide a post-war Middle East between Britain and France rather than to grant Arabian independence as was originally agreed in order to gain Arabian support during the conflict. In doing so, the tele-film depicts the calls for Arabian independence in a sympathetic light. Far from the pantomime villainy of Mola Ram, historical figure Prince Faisal of Iraq is portrayed as a passionate and dignified man who is betrayed by Western powers who did not feel that the people they governed were capable of running their own nation. A delegation from Vietnam, too, are depicted as similarly subjugated. While demonstrating historical examples of Orientalism at work, this instalment of the series does not support it as a continued process in the same way the theatrical Indiana Jones films may, inadvertently, suggest.

The Winds of Change is not an isolated example of this; the instalment, Journey of Radiance focuses in part upon a multi-ethnic Theosophy movement based in Benares, India, in 1910. The plot concerns a group of Western scholars taking advantage of people’s religious beliefs for profit and glory but those who are fooled into believing a false doctrine by the villain of the episode are equally made up of both colonisers and colonised with neither group portrayed in a particularly ignorant light. In fact, it is a young Indian boy, the real life figure Jiddu Krishnamurti, who is depicted as wise beyond his years and who imparts valuable life lessons in multiculturalism to Indiana Jones. Unlike the character of Mola Ram, Krishnamurti is seen to have a positive impact on his follower’s lives.

Later in Journey of Radiance Indiana Jones falls ill in Peking. His mother exhibits closed-minded attitudes to “barbaric” Chinese but is later proved to be wrong when, as a last resort, she allows the local doctor to treat and cure her child. This section of the episode however, does exhibit a similar attitude as Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, to Western intervention in the East  Just as the villagers in that film needed Indiana Jones’ help to retrieve their children and end starvation in the land, the poor but welcoming Chinese family who take in our hero and his family in Journey of Radiance require Mrs. Jones help to drive away an evil landlord.

To depict The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles as an idealistic and all-embracing television series that side-steps Orientalism at all times would be misleading. There are instances where the series could be viewed as presenting an equally problematic Orientalist discourse as its parent film series. Take, for example, My First Adventure, which features echoes of depictions of the Orient found in Raiders of the Lost Arc and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. The plot of this instalment of the series deals with slavery in 1908 Tangiers, Morocco. All of the characters, with the exception of the young Indiana Jones but including Westerners who do not agree in principle, are portrayed as accepting slavery as part of Oriental culture. While this in itself may just accurately reflect historical Orientalist attitudes, what is more problematic is the depiction of the Slavers and Moroccan population. The slavers are all portrayed as a homogenous group of grotesque child beaters and the only other indigenous characters we meet who are not involved in the slave trade conform to stereotypes of servants or eccentric shop keepers. This again relates back to Said’s summary of the Arab in film.

Also problematic are the scenes in which Indiana Jones disguises himself as different Arabian characters in Daredevils of the Dessert. To do this he chooses to adopt two personas that would fit well into Said’s description of the depiction of Oriental culture in film and television; firstly as a crippled beggar and then as a buffoon merchant, adopting comic accents for each. What is more odd is that the indigenous population are easily fooled by these caricature costumes.

What, then, can explain this adjusted, if still complex, engagement with Orientalism in this television series as opposed to the theatrical Indiana Jones films? Firstly, the very fact that The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles was a television series means that there is simply a greater amount of material to view and analyse; there is more room from variation in this production than there could have been during a three film run that totalled under six hours. Being a television series also meant that a larger creative staff were involved. While George Lucas oversaw production and outlined starting points for each storyline, the final scripts were written by a pool of writers from different backgrounds who obviously brought their own cultural points of view to the table. Different directors were also assigned to each instalment. It should be noted though, that while the backgrounds of this team of writers and directors did vary, they remained for the most part either British of American.

The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles was also a venture, on the part of Lucas, in “Edutainment”. Unlike the Indiana Jones film series, which claims to offer nothing more than enjoyable, escapist entertainment, the television series had a duty to make good on historical accuracy. An historical figure, for example, like Prince Faisal had to  be portrayed in something at least approaching an authentic light. As mentioned above, the series frequently depicts Orientalism at work during the early part of the twentieth century but crucially does not always accept it as a given or necessary thing, perhaps reflecting a more current historical viewpoint.

The series was also produced, some time after Said’s first work on Orientalism and the criticisms surrounding the depiction of Muslims and Hindus in the Jones film franchise. If viewed as a response to a critique of Orientalism, perhaps this may account for the series negotiated relationship to the theory.

One last point worth considering is that The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles did not perform as well as its parent film series, running for only two series. Instead of reaching a natural end it was cancelled by television networks despite Lucas’ attempts to change the format of the series during its later run. Of course the depiction of Indiana Jones in this series does not occupy the same space in the public consciousness that Harrison Ford’s interpretation of the role still does. In some respects this can be viewed as an indication that the series’ negotiated relationship with Orientalism did not reflect it’s audiences attitudes or expectations as well as Spielberg’s theatrical films.

Regardless of the reasoning behind this variation between the film and television series, the fact remains that The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles presents an interesting relationship with Orientalist theory that differs from the Indiana Jones film series. As it stands The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles remains an under-studied aspect of the Indiana Jones franchise but hopefully the above text might give at least one good reason for affording it a little more attention.