Wednesday, February 6, 2008

(mostly from a reading intro at BYU, 9/21)

A professor of mine, Tomo Hattori, taught me that Orientalism isn’t a condition of geography but a condition of power. To me, the study of Orientalism illuminates not only interactions between Asia and western cultures, but interactions between white American and Native America as well. Disclosing the obscured structures of power inherent in oppression is a way to understand and overcome the disparities created by colonialist relationships between dominant and minority cultures. To that effect, I want to talk about the difference between cultural interfacing and cultural appropriation, as appropriation in art is a form of modern-day colonialism.

Cultural interfacing is a term I’ve come across as a technical writer working with companies that structure businesses and their internet or internal IT capabilities to easily translate to different global markets. For example, globalization ensures that software code created to perform inbound and outbound tasks may be read by computerized systems abroad. It’s a term that has also been used in communications to refer to strategies for contextualizing language to adapt translations from one culture to another or in manufacturing to refer to ways of making appliances, for example, that work in different countries. If you’ve ever tried to plug in your hair dryer overseas, you know how important this kind of interfacing is. But today I’m not really talking about internationalized programming languages or translation consultants or voltage adaptors. I’m talking about empathy—about trying to suspend judgment about others long enough to imagine, based on limited knowledge, what they might be going through, given context. In fiction, empathy is the baseline and adaptive strategy—the cultural interfacing—that allows us to look at, to write about, and to open a dialogue with different cultures.

In recent decades, much has been said and written to counteract the culturally devastating effects of cultural appropriation—and rightly so. When the dominant or privileged culture has a greater opportunity to define (artistically or otherwise) a minority culture, it rewrites its history and undermines cultural identity. Imagine, for example, that LDS culture had not created opportunities to define what it means to be LDS—whether through LDS-based publishing companies, Deseret Books, or BYU—and instead the culture was widely defined by Catholics, Baptists, or Muslims, or Buddhists. Being LDS would look very different, in that case, as I’m sure you’re all well aware. The author—and in this word I include not only writers but anyone with some measure of authority for defining the variables by which we live—naturally privileges his own perception over that of his “case study.” Similarly, the dominant culture has assumed a privileged position as literature about Native America historically has been dominated by non-Native Americans authors. Native Americans authors are understandably upset; confronted with white authors who proclaim, "I want to expose the 'plight' of the Native American," they counter, But here I am, speaking as loud as I can--are you listening? Until recent years, anthologies centered around Native American themes scarcely included native authors, despite the many talented storytellers and writers in the native community. Authors such as Sherman Alexie and Louise Erdrich--and promotion of their material--have made progress in initiating change, but more work is needed.

Cultural appropriation is the modern aspect of the ongoing colonialism that has haunted Native American culture for centuries. White writers recognizing this might avoid writing about other cultures. But isolationism doesn’t strike me as an answer either. Misunderstandings between cultures abound, creating a backdrop of tension that seems at times insurmountable. Business has been first to overcome cultural isolation, and it all comes down to money: globalization is profitable. For better or worse, U.S.–based company can hire scientists and techies from India or China or Argentina to create marketable solutions for customers at highly competitive prices.

Of course, I’m not here to talk about profit margins either—at least, not in terms of dollars. I’m talking about using art as a way for cultures to interface without offending one another with cultural appropriation. I'm talking about observing, with compassion, the other's culture from the outside in, rather than taking the position that it’s possible to write from inside the other’s body of meaning and signification. This strategy, using empathy and honesty as a baseline for cross-cultural understanding, stands to enrich our lives with knowledge and engagement.

Writing from the outside in might mean making a number of artistic choices. It might mean not using the first person when writing a character from another culture. It might mean not assuming the intentions or emotions of the “other,” but reporting the surface detail instead—the texture apparent—and acknowledging that which the narrator doesn’t know in at least equal measure to that which the narrator does know. It might mean pulling back from omniscience, or from complete specificity, and delivering instead some of the alienation one feels when shopping at the market in a foreign country—as another mentor of mine once noted, you see the colors, you feel the shapes, but you don’t necessarily know the function or value of each and every object.

By speaking against appropriation, I’m not advocating censorship. If you want to use first person or an omniscient narrator to portray a character from another culture that has somehow left a profound impression on you, by all means, do it. But if your hope is real communication—real dialogue and respectful interaction—you might look at your project as a programmer on the global market would. You’ve got to recognize certain protocols, build a structure using certain universal languages. (In the case of human experience, I would argue that our universality lies within the particular: we are limited in perspective, inherently and necessarily naive to the experiences of the other, except that we all, by virtue of existance, desire). But how to seam the pieces together? In the literary landscape that I would like to imagine, you’ve got to begin with some medium for cohesion and context, and empathy isn’t a bad medium to start with.

By empathy, I don’t mean feel sorry for; I don’t mean anything that would suggest either looking down at someone from a privileged position or looking up to something as if on a pedestal, which is itself dehumanizing. I mean, simply, observing both honesty and compassion in relating to something on a level playing field. I mean acknowledging the possibility that even deeply flawed people have redeeming qualities, that they likely arrive at their decisions from a context that, at least in their minds, to some extent, justifies their actions. Of course, a main character can’t help but assume a privileged position, just as an author can’t help but carry a measure of authority. Knowing this, I saddled my poor character Gretta with many flaws in an attempt to balance perspective—she’s an alcoholic, a flake, a troublemaker, a troublefinder. She has difficulty not only in comprehending "other" but in recognizing "self" and allowing this ubiquitous self to assume agency in her own life. I used Orientalist texts—and their counterpoints—to allow the character to examine, in as much as she is able, her own assumptions and the forms of blind colonialism (among both colonizer and colonized) that take up residence within her and in her surroundings. At the same time, I demanded the character reflect on her positioning as a woman among various contexts—race, workforce, family—because gender, too, is a condition of power.

I’m hoping that, with all Gretta's flaws and misunderstandings, she emerges as deserving of empathy as any other character in my book, whether Native American or white, religious or nonreligious, man or woman, friend or hitchhiker. I'm hoping the divide between protagonist and antogist becomes blurred, becomes something like ambitagonist, because within the dialectic of empathy, good and bad are less useful categories than if and how. Like anyone else, Gretta is doing the best she can, given the resources and experiences she has to work with.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Boys of Baraka

Voyeurism has me well inside and it might be a good long time before I come out: At what point do we turn off the cameras and ask what we might do to help? The Boys of Baraka. A great film, an important film released in 2005. But I've been told for the past several days about the millions it takes to make a film. And at the same time, about the importance of giving voice to that which is bound and duct-taped. But how much money would it have taken to create an alternative for Devon Brown, Richard Keyser, Montrey Moore, Romesh Vance, and the others? These boys revealed more character and poise than most people I've ever known. Bill Cosby offers an insightful afterword to the film. But notice that two of the boys wanted to become involved in the film industry. Could Cosby--better yet, could the film crew of Boys of Baraka--have helped make this a possibility? Have helped someone get into film school, get some side part, something? Boys who'd learned to behave in front of a camera.

All that money. And disappointment seems to be all that the industries of film and good will had to offer. Who held the camera as boys who were once given a beautiful opportunity deflated before the lens, told their way out of despair was shut down? We're not just watching a system letting children down--we're letting them down as viewers. Until I have a pocketful of change--and let's face it, that's not likely--I don't know if I can even bear to look.

Who are we to watch one day, the next to go to some film festival--to the parties, the after-parties, gathering our stacks of business cards, our stacks of postcards and free stickers for the collector kids or the mad uncles? I know I'm wrong--I do. I'll regret saying these things one day, probably tomorrow. Hell, I regret it now. I loved the film festival, I loved the incredibly talented and soulful people I met there, I loved the video I just watched. And after all, I'd know nothing of these boys without the film. But exposure is like fibromyalgia or something--if there's no known cure, why the diagnosis? If no one is willing to help--to offer some nod of a scholarship or some low-budget program to help disheartened youth toward something, why watch? For the cinematic pleasure of it? God. For fortitude, you might say. Let's spread that fortitude. But even fortitude doesn't come without cost--cost that for many is entirely out of reach. False hopes, video rental fees--whatever. How they must feel, even today. Hopefully good--hopefully they've found their own solutions, and it looked like some of them might have, at least as of postproduction. But when a system that appears to care for you drops you on your ass to fend for yourself...well, it must hurt.

Once, a woman was tied to the back of a car and dragged across a field near my home. I was in high school. That story played--and played, and played, and then it disappeared.

Well, for what it's worth, this is how you can find the film:

This is Christine, checking out.

Crossing Boundaries in FROZEN RIVER

Frozen River, written and directed by Courtney Hunt and produced by Heather Rae (director and producer for Trudell), is a story about crossing boundaries. Two single mothers cross ethical boundaries by smuggling Chinese and Pakistani immigrants from the U.S. to Canada via a hazardous road of ice through Mohawk land; neither woman wants to be involved, but neither feels she has a choice. One must feed and house her children despite being robbed by her husband, who has abandoned his family to pursue a gambling problem, and one, a widow, must try to win her stolen child back.

In Frozen River, we’re asked to cross racial boundaries as well. The film takes a courageous position, portraying a relationship between a Native American woman (Lila, played by Misti Upham) and a white woman (Ray, played by Melissa Leo) that is devoid of gratuitous sentimentality and is more often than not combative. Courageous, because Hunt has written a story that gives no easy breaks to white Americans or Native Americans—the film illustrates both problems and rewards associated with either culture, which makes it a natural target for those more comfortable with the patronizing or glorifying perspective so often portrayed in contemporary cinema.

Take, for example, the role of Jimmy (played by Dylan Carusona); Jimmy is a player in human trafficking, asking few questions about the fatalistic trade of human life, yet he shows compassion for Lila, understanding the financial and legal pressures she is under. His role is to help her, if opportunistically, despite the moral imperatives of the tribe, which doesn’t approve of smuggling.

And finally, the film traipses numerous boundaries of the individual: At what point do we accept abuse, and at what point do we resist? When must we protect the interests of ourselves and our families, and when do we risk such security for others, or for integrity itself? At what point do we admit we’re wrong, and at what point do we begin to make amends? What propels us to cease to be victimized by the past, and what initiates a new investment in the future? What does it mean to be Native, and what does it mean to be American? The questions the narrative evokes are endless and are raised organically in the film, so that one feels as much (if not more) engaged in considering and answering the questions as informed.

The acting in this film is phenomenal, and the story is unforgettable and refreshingly complicated. When asked what inspired Hunt to write this film, she explains that as a resident of the area (i.e., the Mohawk reservation between New York State and Quebec), she was familiar with the smuggling going on there—and compelled by the situation of all of those involved, from the Mohawks to the surrounding white communities to the immigrants who risked all to come to North America, even when it means long-term and often abusive indentured servitude.

The film is a striking contrast to the Sundance film I recently reviewed, Just Add Water. The comparison is, perhaps, unfair—Just Add Water is a comedy and Frozen River is a dramatic feature (too often, the cultural value of comedy is overlooked by critics and drama is overweighted, in my opinion). Yet moving directly from a film that condescended to poverty to one that portrayed it in all of its complexity and specificity called to attention the role of filmmaking: Are we invested in communication between parties at odds or are we interested in underscoring simplistic stereotypes for polarized ends? As a film-seeped culture, are we interested in cinematic visions of empathy or in cementing stratified notions of inadequacy?

Just Add Water contributes new vocabularies to the U.S. diaspora. In a poignant scene, Ray’s son T.J. (played by Charlie McDermott) is confronted by tribal police who have traveled off-reservation to confront T.J. for stealing and selling an old Mohawk woman’s credit-card number. T.J. stole the number only to help his family inch out of utter desperation: he wants his little brother to eat more than popcorn and Tang for dinner, and he wants him to have a present under the Christmas tree—a possibility that is out of reach for a family living on the income of a woman with a part-time job as a clerk at a discount store--at least, one that has been robbed of nearly five thousand dollars of savings. As I watched, I feared for the boy, even as I was angry at him for victimizing the woman. I waited for T.J. to be hauled off by authorities to begin a life of jailtime. But that’s not what happened. The tribal officer seemed to understand the politics of poverty—of desperation—when he asked not for retribution but simply for an apology. T.J., the officer said, had “done a bad thing” to Ms. Three Rivers, and he was asked to tell her he was sorry. He muttered that single word, “sorry,” and the officer and woman, apparently satisfied, drove away. This reminds me of a scene in Little Big Man, when Old Lodge Skins (a Cheyenne leader played by Chief Dan George), explains how his people would gain revenge on a nearby tribe: rather than shooting one another, men would tap enemies with long sticks to humiliate them. The narrative seems to ask at a critical time in our country’s history, What is the glue is that binds nations and peoples within nations—is it tolerance or is it revenge? Is it understanding, or is it ignorance? Let us hope that the majority of us believe in the former: tolerance and understanding are key to shutting down the machinery of oppression and division.

Inspired by this plotline, I asked Director Courtney Hunt whether this and several other instances of unrequited foreshadowing were part of an overall narrative strategy. Not only were we given cues that T.J. was doomed, we were led to fear that T.J. would start a house fire that could have burned all the family had—including T.J.’s little brother, yet the house didn’t get on fire. The safety of a road passing over and iced river was brought into question, yet the drivers never fell through the ice. Hunt responded that it wasn't a strategy, per se, but a reality; that is, when you're poor, you live on the edge. Your life is always surrounded by risk and potential for escalation from bad to worse. Whether through conscious strategy or integral realism, this film is not only courageous with content, it is courageous with form—from unrealized foreshadowing to blurry lines between protagonist and antagonist to multiplicity in perspectives. This is the kind of courage I look for in cutting-edge film.

The only critique I have of this fantastic Sundance film is that I wanted more. I understand that the narrative couldn’t have continued another hour, but I would have watched it through a dozen more hours--contentedly (given water, a blankie in Frozen Park City, and a ladies' room). I wanted to hear more about the people who were taken across the border. How does the backstory of the Pakistanis differ from the backstory of the Chinese? Where were they going? Were they willing parties? Would their families at home ever hear from them again. Without hearing more of their stories, I felt they appeared accidentally dismissed, though clearly this was a consequence of time limitations, not a flaw in sensibility.

The quality of the film, however, is such that I don’t think we’ll be seeing a sequel. I will be fantasizing, however, that the story continues, perhaps for a TV format. I trust that a woman who tells an interracial, international story without patronizing “the other” would find equal amounts of strength, empathy, and intrigue in telling the tales of those who cannot escape servitude as she would in telling the stories of Lila and Ray. I’m so happy to hear that Sony has just purchased North American rights to Frozen River. I believe this film is due a great deal of attention. Watch for truly stellar performances by a great cast, and watch for Courtney Hunt as her career as a writer/director takes off.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Feel Weird Film: Just Add Water

Five years of Hart Bochner’s life was spent on what he called a “feel-weird” film. He described the work perfectly—much better than the stock description I’m seeing here and there on the internet (“an offbeat romantic comedy”). The film was seamed together with quick, minimalist scenes and dark humor, my favorite. It was filmed, Bochner said, on less than a million dollars. (“Kids, don’t try this at home,” he warned—putting together a film is painful as it is, but scarce resources make it all the more discouraging, apparently.) The wonderful acting (including, but not limited to, Tracy Middendorf, Danny DeVito, Dylan Walsh, and Anika Noni Rose) reminded me why I can’t work with actors: they’re too damned talented—I’d fail to be anything but a drooling, speechless fan. Much of the film was funny as hell, and the fact that such a twisted film can attract such talent and a forum amid Sundance is nothing short of inspirational to me. Yet I started getting a creepy feeling from over-the-top dialogue, clearly intended to point disparagingly at the ignorance associated with poverty.

The story portrays Ray Tuckby, a na├»ve and well-intentioned man whose dignity is undermined by an adulterous wife, a careless son (not, the narrative reveals, his biological son), and the asshole-in-charge, a guy who operates a meth lab and brings in the town’s only real stream of money—a resource that allows the drug dealer to bait youth and oppress the town in general. With the help of a handful of townspeople, including an entrepreneur who opens a gas station (played by DeVito), Ray devises a plan to blow up the meth lab. The plan works—executed with humor and simplicity—and the town…well, the town lives happily ever after, despite continuing chemical contamination, an unexplained prosperity-found despite the end of the town’s only real channel for money, and the callousness of a population emotionally and intellectually stunted by drug use.

Sounds great, huh? And honestly, I laughed--out loud. But…okay, this is where I realize I’m irritatingly PC, which comes as a not so pleasant surprise to me. Middendorf’s character has lived in toxic, impoverished conditions for years only so she can wait in private anguish in improbable hope that her childhood sweetheart will finally leave his wife and cast his affections on to her (ouch--the feminist in me is prodding me with something sharp to go on, but I won't on this point). The only blacks portrayed in the film were two prostitutes and (by reference only) a medium. One of the prostitutes (R'ch'lle, played by Rose, or Lorrell Robinson in Dreamgirls) wants nothing more than to date an uninspired, lazy white boy (played by Jonah Hill, the spaz on Superbad) that, in any other town (city, state, country), she wouldn't likely consider remotely appealing. I could argue that almost all of the white people in the film (except for the wealthy investor) were portrayed as ignorant, shortsighted, and incapable, so to make Rose's character a schoolteacher or county worker or something might have seemed out of place. But that only brings me round to an even more bothersome complaint.

I guess I started getting conflicted most when Bochner spoke following the film, delivering what amounted to me (true, I have issues) as the first white-on-white “I love your people” speeches. Apparently, poor folk are so exotic that the characters portrayed in the film—inspired, Bochner suggested, by real townspeople he’d witness when he was forced to stay in the shit-assed town during a shoot—that they “had one of these things called a swamp cooler.”

And here I must reveal myself. Though I now have the luxury of central air, I went several years wishing I had a swamp cooler—and at least a couple of years saving up for some cheapest-in-class electric getup I could stick in my window (that is IF the windows were not painted shut by a slumlord). Yeah, my family hails from the wrong side of the tracks in the West: we say “I reckon” and “gimme a tall neck” and all that business. And I’ve seen poverty worse than mine—the kind of bare cupboards that make your jawbone grind at night, leaving you with a fine, polished, flat finish on your molars. But no adult I know is so out of touch they don’t know what a French kiss is, and the reason the neighbors aren’t paying the power bill is not to sun themselves lazily but because they’re dead-assed broke and hopeless. Also, the dialect here was not only uncomfortably exaggerated, but resonant more of the South--or, I should say, in cinematic (likely simplified) portrayals of the South. In other words, small-town westerners don't sound that bad.

I think about a few films I love that depict poverty with humor. Drowning Mona comes to mind, as well as Welcome to Collinwood. Here, the dialogue and the stories were colorful and exaggerated, but not hollowed and sterotypical. Each character was distinct and felt authentic...though to what, I'm not quite sure. With Drowning Mona and Collinwood, I had the sense that at least someone involved in the script might have known, as the characters in Just Add Water are said to know, what having power shut off felt like. And when in Drowning and Collinwood a character said something within the dialectic of scarcety, they said it right. I wondered if possibly the dialogue became a little choppy during production—after all, Bochner said he had to shoot in less than thirty days. Or perhaps the actors had made changes. But when asked, Bochner insisted the dialogue was exactly as he'd writtten it and wanted it; I believe he said he hadn’t changed two words during filming.

Bochner said also that he wanted to portray Ray’s family with dignity. He really enjoyed the townspeople he’d worked with. For example, when he was scouting for people, he entered a house with a boy “who must have weighed 350 pounds." The boy participated in the film—in part to appear in a quick scene involving a young man moving cardboard boxes for the drug dealer; the local said that even though he didn’t get paid for his work (since, Bochner said, they hadn’t any money to pay him) it was the best experience of his life. (Anyone's jaw grinding yet?)Well, kudos for giving meaning to an otherwise (so I'm told) meaningless youth.

But imagine for a moment that a film had poked fun of the poverty of an American Indian reservation, crafting dialogue that describes some variety of ignorance and unwitting poor judgment. Oh. My. Hell. That would be bad. I can think only of a couple of reasons Bochner was able to get away with condescending to what he called “the common man” (whom, he explained, were very important to him—i.e., I love your people): first, he condescended foremost to other whites (I’m setting aside, for the moment, the implicit racism in R'ch'lle's role because I’m still too annoyed even to address it), and second, because he will never have to look back. That man--Bochner--has connections. I mean, just how silver is his spoon? I wouldn't be able to begin to say. If I had a memory (and my neurologist would tell you I don't), I’d recite the many filmmakers he said he’d worked with. But I'm forgetful, thank god. And, after all, I took a’likin’ to them scenes when that dialogue shut the hell up finally and 'llowed Dylan to exercise his tragic actor-learnin' front of the camera, his back to his cheatin' wife. By god, his face (and ever' one of his veins and twitchin' muscles and sech things) just turned all kinds a red and blue and gray and his crybaby eyes made a goddamned movin' pitcher of itself, they did. Good thing he didn’t et too much cuz then he had to work for the love of it instead of for the lunch of it, you know.

But again, I worry. About my own sensibilities, I mean. Why are Drowing Mona and Collinwood brilliant to me...why do they not raise my can’t-stand-a-classist red flags? It might be, as my IT husband would say, a user problem. After I'll, I've seen these films at least eighty times each, trying to understand how they operate, and Just Add Water I've seen once. Maybe I need to give it a second look, or possibly I need to broaden my range of tolerance for things that might be considered sexist, racist, and classist. But for now, I'm going with this: I think Drowning and Collinwood dignify their characters, fools though they may be, by giving them singular personalities and capabilities, along with the usual fears and insecurities we can all identify with. With these films, I felt I was laughing with the characters, and hurting for them, and when I saw Just Add Water I walked away feeling instead as I'd just made fun of someone...strange, unreal, head hung a little lower.

All that said, the acting is definitely worth seeing, and the composition of some of the shots was really terrific. Watch for the "cue"--for the scene with the stripper (who is the wife of the entrepreneur) as she distracts thugs. Funny, funny. Why did I quit gymnastics, anyway?

Just Add Water, World Premiere (2008, 90 min, USA)Written/Directed by Hart Bochner
Starring Dylan Walsh, Danny DeVito, Jonah Hill, Justin Long, Tracy Middendorf, Anika Noni Rose