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Race, sex, and colonialism

As an Africanist historian committed to reaching broader publics, I was thrilled when the research team for the BBC’s genealogy program Who Do You Think You Are? contacted me late last February about an episode they were working on that involved the subject of some of my research, mixed race relationships in colonial Ghana. I was even more pleased when I realized that their questions about shifting practices and perceptions of intimate relationships between African women and European men in the Gold Coast, as Ghana was then known, were ones I had just explored in a newly published American Historical Review article, which I readily shared with them. This led to a month-long series of lengthy email exchanges, phone conversations, Skype chats, and eventually to an invitation to come to Ghana to shoot the Who Do You Think You Are? episode.

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After landing in Ghana in early April, I quickly set off for the coastal town of Sekondi where I met the production team, and the episode’s subject, Reggie Yates, a remarkable young British DJ, actor, and television presenter. Reggie had come to Ghana to find out more about his West African roots, but he discovered along the way that his great grandfather was a British mining accountant who worked in the Gold Coast for close to a decade. His great grandmother, Dorothy Lloyd, was a mixed-race Fante woman whose father — Reggie’s great-great grandfather — was rumored to be a British district commissioner at the turn of the century in the Gold Coast.

The episode explores the nature of the relationship between Dorothy and George, who were married by customary law around 1915 in the mining town of Broomassi, where George worked as the paymaster at the local mine. George and Dorothy set up house in Broomassi and raised their infant son, Harry, there for two years before George left the Gold Coast in 1917 for good. Although their marriage was relatively short lived, it appears that Dorothy’s family and the wider community that she lived in regarded it as a respectable union and no social stigma was attached to her or Harry after George’s departure from the coast.

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George and Dorothy lived openly as man and wife in Broomassi during a time period in which publicly recognized intermarriages were almost unheard of. As a privately employed European, George was not bound by the colonial government’s directives against cohabitation between British officers and local women, but he certainly would have been aware of the informal codes of conduct that regulated colonial life. While it was an open secret that white men “kept” local women, these relationships were not to be publicly legitimated.

Precisely because George and Dorothy’s union challenged the racial prescripts of colonial life, it did not resemble the increasingly strident characterizations of interracial relationships as immoral and insalubrious that frequently appeared in the African-owned Gold Coast press during these years. Although not a perfect union, as George was already married to an English woman who lived in London with their children, the trajectory of their relationship suggests that George and Dorothy had a meaningful relationship while they were together, that they provided their son Harry with a loving home, and that they were recognized as a respectable married couple. The latter helps to account for why Dorothy was able to “marry well” after George left. Her marriage to Frank Vardon, a prominent Gold Coaster, would have been unlikely had she been regarded as nothing more than a discarded “whiteman’s toy,” as one Gold Coast writer mockingly called local women who casually liaised with European men. In her own right, Dorothy became an important figure in the Sekondi community where she ultimately settled and raised her son Harry, alongside the children she had with Frank Vardon.

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The “white peril” commentaries that I explored in my American Historical Review article proved to be a rhetorically powerful strategy for challenging the moral legitimacy of British colonial rule because they pointed to the gap between the civilizing mission’s moral rhetoric and the sexual immorality of white men in the colony. But rhetoric often sacrifices nuance for argumentative force and Gold Coasters’ “white peril” commentaries were no exception. Left out of view were men like George Yates, who challenged the conventions of their times, albeit imperfectly, and women like Dorothy Lloyd who were not cast out of “respectable” society, but rather took their place in it.

This sense of conflict and connection and of categorical uncertainty surrounding these relationships is what I hope to have contributed to the research process, storyline development, and filming of the Reggie Yates episode of Who Do You Think You Are? The central question the show raises is how do we think about and define relationships that were so heavily circumscribed by racialized power without denying the “possibility of love?” By “endeavor[ing] to trace its imperfections, its perversions,” was Martinican philosopher and anticolonial revolutionary Frantz Fanon’s answer. His insight surely reverberates throughout the episode.

All images courtesy of Carina Ray.

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Monastic silence and a visual dialogue

As part of the Oral History Association conference, we asked Abbie Reese to write about her film-in-progress, which evolved in parallel to her book, Dedicated to God: An Oral History of Cloistered Nuns. This summer, Abbie was awarded a grant by Harvard University’s Schlesinger Library to conduct follow-up interviews with a half dozen women she began interviewing more than five years ago — women contemplating religious life. Abbie is preparing for post-production of a collaborative film made with and focused on a young woman in the process of becoming a cloistered contemplative nun.

Recently, a journalist asked me how I convinced the Poor Clare Colettine nuns, back in 2005, to let me write a book about their lives, and how I convinced them to help me in that endeavor. I explained that was not my approach. I asked the Mother Abbess if I could undertake a long-term project about their lives; I said that although I did not know the outcome, I would keep the community apprised.

At that time, I wanted to understand: What compels a young woman to make this radical departure to a cloistered monastery? I believed that there was value in the stories, perspectives, and memories of women who remove themselves from the world to pray for humanity — to become mothers of souls and saints on earth.

About the same time that I began to engage with the Poor Clare Colettine nuns in oral history interviews, I began interviewing young women around the States in the process of “discernment.” Each was contemplating if she had been called to a religious vocation.

I arranged to meet “Heather” in 2005. We met at her dorm at Elmhurst College in the suburbs of Chicago, and then we met up again a few hours later at the Corpus Christi Monastery in Rockford where she would stay overnight for the first time. (She stayed in an area outside the enclosure and visited with the Mother Abbess and the Novice Mistress, separated by the metal grille.)

Heather and I met over the years; I interviewed her as she maintained hope that she would join a cloistered order. Her parents required her to finish college first, and then she dealt with school debt as she struggled to find a job.

In 2011, I met Heather and her family at the monastery when she was delivered there. I continued to conduct oral history interviews and I was allowed to enter the enclosure to record video footage. At that time, I was enrolled in an MFA in visual arts program at the University of Chicago. I had sensed even before she joined the Poor Clares that Heather was hesitant in our interviews. I wasn’t sure the reason: her uncertainty, not knowing if she truly has been called to cloistered contemplative life; the familial opposition that led her to talk less about the prospect of a religious vocation; or the possibility that she was not as articulate verbally as she is sophisticated visually. (She was a painter and studied graphic design.) From her blogs, I read her open tone.

Abbie Reese - Image 2
Two nuns work in the wood shop of the Corpus Christi Monastery in Rockford, Ill. The Poor Clare Colettine nuns make vows of poverty, chastity, obedience, and enclosure. Courtesy of Abbie Reese.

An expatriate, Heather has made the exodus from mainstream society. A year after entering the monastery, Heather became “Sister Amata” in the Clothing Ceremony. (She chose both aliases to reflect and preserve the Poor Clare value of anonymity.) As she slowly integrates, Sister Amata is governed by a schedule that determines when she prays, sleeps, eats, and works, while she learns the expectations and the culture. Sister Amata continues the six-year formation process as she transitions into a new social role and new identity as a member of a community following an 800-year-old rule.

The enclosure is an intermediary space. The Poor Clare Colettine nuns intercede between humanity and an unseen realm; they believe their prayers and penances can change the course of history. Like the Poor Clares, Sister Amata inhabits a threshold — a space between worlds.

A contemporary practice that depends upon social contracts and long-term relationships is a complicated endeavor; representing others and representing otherness are problematic territories, following an imperialistic tradition of exploiting native resources. As in Bronislaw Malinowski’s model, boundaries between insider and outsider collapse, and the notion of “the outsider” slips. This hybrid of genres has probably sustained my focus and dedication because I find it challenging and nuanced.

To enact co-authorship and shared authority, to remove myself as the mediator holding the camera and the microphone, I obtained permission to lend Sister Amata a video camera. In essence, I chose Sister Amata as the cinematographer. I asked her to use the camera as if it were eyes encountering her world. I made three requests: document the daily rhythms of prayer, meals, and manual labor within the monastery’s rich material culture; record impressionistic moving images that place primacy on the visual over the discursive; and turn the camera upon herself to make video diaries of her impressions and motivations and experiences as she assimilates into the community.

Even though I was not physically present, my relationship with Sister Amata is embedded in the visual dialogue that transpired; the history of our engagement since 2005 fed the new film endeavor. Sister Amata’s video diaries are raw, sincere, and vulnerable. The nature of this as an exchange is evident when she addresses me directly.

The nuns gave me all of their documentation and I agreed to give them copies of it, as well. I met with Sister Amata and her novice mistress, “Sister Nicolette,” to download the digital files, to look at footage and to discuss it with them. I made additional requests.

Because of other nuns’ interest in contributing documentation, I lent a second camera. (The older nun constructed enactments of monastic life, instructing fellow nuns what to do, when.) I also recorded video footage inside the enclosure and my interviews with the nuns.

I am now working on post-production of a feature-length film that will be released theatrically. This project in-progress embeds the negotiations of a para-ethnographic, collaborative documentary:

How do we pursue our inquiry when our subjects are themselves engaged in intellectual labors that resemble approximately or are entirely indistinguishable from our own methodological practices?

Para-ethnography answers this question by proposing an analytical relationship in which we and our subjects — keenly reflexive subjects — can experiment collaboratively with the conventions of ethnographic enquiry. This methodological stance demands that we treat our subjects as epistemic partners who are not merely informing our research but who participate in shaping its theoretical agendas and its methodological exigencies. (Holmes, Douglas R. and George E. Marcus. “Para-Ethnography.” Ed. Lisa M. Given. The SAGE Encyclopedia of Qualitative Research Methods. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: SAGE Publications, Inc., 2008. Page 595.)

Film-making addresses some of the questions and interests that drive my practice. In giving Sister Amata and the other nuns the video cameras, they selected and composed what was recorded, essentially the same dynamic in my other interactions with them. Enunciating our “visual dialogue,” video cameras are seen crossing the threshold into the “Jesus cage,” passing between slats in the metal grille separating the monastery from our world. Through this exchange, the viewer will be granted Sister Amata’s vantage point — her painterly eye and the risks she has taken.

Once, a documentary film professor at the University of Chicago described her own work with a tribe in Alaska; she said that just as she chose to work with the tribe, they chose her. This professor said the same was true of my work — just as I chose to work with the nuns, they chose me. The title, Chosen, also reflects the nuns’ belief that God has chosen them for this ancient rule and demanding life.

Featured image: Poor Clare Colettine nuns return to the monastery after a funeral service on the premises, in 2010, for a cloistered nun who served in WWII. Courtesy of Abbie Reese.

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Classical mythology comes to Hollywood

This summer saw the release of Hercules (Radical Studios, dir. Brett Ratner). Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson took his place in the long line of strongmen to portray Greece’s most enduring icon. It was a lot of fun, and you should go see it. But, as one might expect from a Hollywood piece, the film takes a revisionist approach to the world of Greek myth, especially to its titular hero. A man of enormous sexual appetite, sacker of cities, and murderer of his own family, Hercules is glossed over here as a seeker of justice, characterized by his humanity and humility. And it is once again Hercules, not Heracles: the Romanized version loses the irony of the Greek, “Glory of Hera.”

This is neither the Hercules of ancient myth, nor is it the Hercules of Steve Moore’s graphic novel, Hercules: The Thracian Wars (Radical Comics, 2008), on which the film is loosely based. It is perhaps not surprising then that Moore fought to have his name removed from the project, at least according to long-time friend Alan Moore. Steve Moore died earlier this year and buried deep in the closing credits of the film is a dedication in his memory.

When he wrote his comic, Moore strove to fit his story into the world of Greek myth in a “realistic” way. Though the story (and that of its sequel, The Knives of Kush) is original, the characters and setting are consistent with the pseudo-historic Bronze Age of Greek legend. The film jettisons much of this careful integration for little narrative gain. I am never opposed to revisions to the myth (myth, after all, can be defined by its malleability), but why, for instance, set the opening of the film in Macedonia in 358 BCE instead of 1200? It adds nothing to the story, but confuses anyone with even a passing knowledge of Greek history — our heroes should be rubbing elbows with Philip II of Macedon, Alexander the Great’s father. The answer to this question, I suspect, is a sort of Wikipedial historicity: Hercules and his companions are hired by a fictional King Cotys, a name chosen by Moore as suitably Thracian — and there was a historical Cotys in 358.

George Kovacs - Hercules Comic Cover
A cover of Dell’s comic adaptation of the Hercules myth. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The Thracian Wars is set well after Hercules has completed his twelve labors: in the loose chronology of Greek myth, we are somewhere between the Calydonian Boar Hunt and the battle of the Seven Against Thebes. Hercules arrives in Thrace as a mercenary, along with his companions Iolaus, Tydeus, Autolycus, Amphiarus, Atalanta, Meleager, and Meneus, the only character made up by Moore. (The Hollywood film production jettisons those characters who might have LGBT overtones: Meneus is Hercules’s male lover, and Meleager is constantly frustrated by and therefore exposes Atalanta’s lesbianism.) Though no story of Greek myth involves all these characters, they all belong to roughly the same generation — the generation before the Trojan War. These characters could have interacted in untold stories.

But they don’t interact well. As Moore notes in the afterword to the trade paperback, “Hercules was a murderer, a rapist, a womanizer, subject to catastrophic rages and plainly bisexual…I wouldn’t have wanted to spend much time in his company.” The rest of the band is not much better. Where the film presents a band of brothers, faithful to each other to the death, in the comic these characters loathe each other and are clearly bound not by love of each other but the need to earn a living. They are mercenaries, with little interest in the morality of their actions.

Legendary Greece, then, is without a moral center. Violence and bloodshed are never far away. Sexual activity is fueled only by deceit or lust. The Greek characters speak of their Thracian surroundings as barbaric, but we are never shown any better. The art of the comic articulates this grim reality. Eyes are frequently lost in shadow, for instance, dehumanizing the characters further. Throughout, artist Admira Wijaya deploys a somber color palette of greys, browns, and muted reds to convey a bleak world.

This, then, is the great disconnect of Greek myth with the modern world. In our times, our heroes of popular culture must be morally pure; only black and white values can be understood. So-called “anti-heroes” are occasionally tolerated in marginal media, but even here their transgressions are typically mitigated somehow (think of the recent television series Dexter, in which the serial killer is validated by his targeting of other serial killers — the real bad guys). The heroes of Greek legend — the word “hero” itself only denoted those who performed memorable or noteworthy deeds, without a moral element — often existed solely because they were transgressors. Tantalus, Oedipus, Orestes: their stories are of broken taboos, stories of cannibalism, incest, kin-slaying. Later authors may have complicated their stories, but violation is at the core of their being.

Sure, the common people of ancient Greece benefited from Hercules’s actions as a slayer of monsters, but none of his actions were motivated by altruism. Rather, it was shame at best that moved him: in most tellings, his famous twelve labors were penance for the death of his family at his own hands. Many of his other deeds were motivated by hunger, lust, or just boredom. In the film, Johnson’s Hercules finds a sort of absolution for his past crimes. In the comic, redemption is not an objective; in fact, Hercules doesn’t even seem to recognize the concept.

Hercules is a figure of strength and power, a conqueror of the unknown, a slayer of dragons (and giant boars and lions). The Hercules of Hollywood shows us strength. The Hercules of myth — and of Moore’s comic — shows us the consequences of that strength when it’s not carefully contained. There is a primal energy there, a reflection of that part of our souls that is fascinated with, even desires, transgression. As healthy, moral humans, most of us conquer that fascination. But myth is our reminder that it always, always bears watching. Hollywood isn’t going to help you do that.

Featured image: An engraving from The Labours of Hercules by Hans Sebald Beham, c. 1545. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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Temperamental artists, unexpected hits, and Bond

Today, 5 October, we celebrate James Bond Day, and this year has been a great one for 007. In January, both song and score for Skyfall won Grammys, and 18 September marked the 50th anniversary of the general release of the film Goldfinger in UK cinemas. Shirley Bassey’s extraordinary rendition of the title song played a key role in its success. In these extracts from The Music of James Bond, Jon Burlingame recounts the stories behind some of the great title songs.

Goldfinger

More significantly, the public seemed to be paying equal attention to Goldfinger’s bold, brassy Barry score. “The musical soundtrack is slickly furnished by John Barry, who also composed the title song,” noted Variety’s film critic; its music critic later praised the album as “the strongest Bond film score to date.” In the United Kingdom, the soundtrack album made the charts on October 31 and reached number 14. But in America, it appeared on December 12 and rocketed up the charts, reaching number 1 on March 20, 1965. It edged out the Mary Poppins soundtrack (which in turn had displaced Beatles ’65 at the top) and remained the most popular album in America for three weeks.

Goldfinger would be the only Bond soundtrack album to reach the top of the charts. Barry was nominated for a Grammy Award, and although there was no Oscar attention—for Barry, that would come later, and not for James Bond—there was the satisfaction of worldwide commercial success. United Artists Records released Barry’s driving rock instrumental of Goldfinger (with Flick on guitar) and, a few months later, an LP titled John Barry Plays Goldfinger (acompilation of his arrangements from the first three Bond films plus a handful of easy-listening tunes).

Thunderball

The whole song was written over a mid-September weekend. And Welshborn singer Tom Jones, an old friend of Black’s who had already had two top-10 hits earlier that year (“It’s Not Unusual” and “What’s New Pussycat?”), quickly agreed to sing it. Black liked his “steely, manly voice.” Britain’s New Musical Express announced Jones’s signing on September 24, and they went into the studio on October 11 to lay down the track.

“I was thrilled to bits when they asked me to do Thunderball,” Jones remembered many years later. “There was a connection, because Les Reed, who wrote a lot of my big songs, was John Barry’s pianist. The most memorable thing about the session was hitting that note at the end. John told me to hold on to this very high note for as long as possible.” Jones’s now-legendary final note lasts nine full seconds, and in the isolated vocal recording he can be heard running out of breath, although that last part is buried in the final mix with the orchestra. “I closed my eyes, hit the note and held on,” Jones said on another occasion. “When I opened my eyes the room was spinning. I had to grab hold of the booth I was in to steady myself. If I hadn’t, I would not have passed out, but maybe fallen down. But it paid off, because it is a long note and it’s high.”

Diamonds Are Forever

Eighteen years earlier, Marilyn Monroe had sung “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” to iconic status in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Black’s words would make a Bond song equally famous. “Diamonds Are Forever” is more about fleeting relationships and less about the permanence of those shiny jewels that are often the remnant of a love affair—although one phrase in particular would result in the song becoming slightly infamous, and possibly costing it an Academy Award nomination.

It’s in the second verse: “hold one up and then caress it / touch it, stroke it and undress it.” “Seediness was what we wanted,” Black would later explain. “Sleaziness, theatrical vulgarity. It had to be over the top.” Or, as Barry himself would reveal in numerous interviews 20 years later, that particular verse was more about male genitalia than about precious stones: “Write it as though she’s thinking about a penis,” had been Barry’s advice to Black.

Moonraker

Williams met with Sinatra and his longtime aide “Sarge” Weiss at Sinatra’s office on the old General Services lot in Hollywood. “The amazing thing is, there was nothing there to play the demo on,” Williams recalled. “Sarge finally came up with a rusty old portable radio with a cassette player, mono, salty from the beach. And that’s what Frank heard the song on. And he loved it. ‘Marvelous, Mr. Paulie, marvelous.’ This from Music Royalty to me, and I was thrilled,” Williams said.

Sinatra opened a briefcase, which contained his datebook (and a .38, Williams noted), and they discussed possible dates for recording. “I left his office walking on air. We were all delighted. Then Frank was out. I don’t know what happened but, I was told at the time, Cubby and Frank had a big fight and he was history.”

No one remembers for certain why Sinatra ultimately declined to sing “Moonraker.” It may be that he had second thoughts, or that his ambitious Trilogy album was already in preparation and he preferred to concentrate on that. The story of a falling-out between Sinatra and Broccoli may be apocryphal, because Frank and Barbara Sinatra were all smiles at the New York premiere of Moonraker on June 28.

Skyfall

The final honors to come their way were the Grammy Awards, nearly a year later because of the later eligibility period of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. Both song and score were nominated and, on January 26, 2014, both won. Newman was present to accept his award. Skyfall had been a worldwide sensation: it became the highest-grossing film ever in Great Britain, taking in over £94 million in just six weeks. It eventually earned more than $304 million in the U.S. to rank as the fourth highest-grossing film of 2012. Its final worldwide box-office tally of $1.1 billion propelled it to the no. 8 spot among all-time box-office leaders.

Its title song had become the first Bond music ever to win an Academy Award, its score only the second ever nominated. By the end of 2013, the Adele single had gone platinum, selling over 2 million units, while Newman’s score album had sold over 30,000. Sam Mendes was signed to direct the next Bond film, set for release in October 2015. Bond, and Bond music, was bigger than ever.

Image credit: Golden Girl © Eon Productions, 1964

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Cinematic tragedies for the intractable issues of our times

Tragedies certainly aren’t the most popular types of performances these days. When you hear a film is a tragedy, you might think “outdated Ancient Greek genre, no thanks!” Back in those times, Athenians thought it their civic duty to attend tragic performances of dramas like Antigone or Agammemnon. Were they on to something that we have lost in contemporary Western society? That there is something specifically valuable in a tragic performance that a spectator doesn’t get from other types or performances, such as those of our modern genres of comedy, farce, and melodrama?

Since films reach a greater audience in our culture than plays, after updating Aristotle’s Poetics for the twenty-first century, we analyzed what we call “cinematic tragedies”: films that demonstrate the key components of Aristotelian tragedy. We conclude that a tragedy must consist in the representation of an action that is: (1) complete; (2) serious; (3) probable; (4) has universal significance; (5) involves a reversal of fortune (from good to bad); (6) includes recognition (a change in epistemic state from ignorance to knowledge); (7) includes a specific kind of irrevocable suffering (in the form of death, agony or a terrible wound); (8) has a protagonist who is capable of arousing compassion; and (9) is performed by actors. The effects of the tragedy must include: (10) the arousal in the spectator of pity and fear; and (11) a resolution of pity and fear that is internal to the experience of the drama.

Unlike melodrama (which we hold is the most common film genre), tragedy calls on spectators to ponder thorny moral issues and to navigate them with their own moral compass. One such cinematic tragedy — Into The Wild, 2007, directed by Sean Penn — thematizes the preciousness and precariousness of human life alongside environmental problems, raising questions about human beings’ apparent inability to live on earth without despoiling the beauty and integrity of the biosphere. Other cinematic tragedies deal with a variety of problems with which our modern societies must grapple.

One such topic is illegal immigration, a highly politicized issue that is far more complex than national governments seem equipped to handle, especially beyond the powers of the two parties in the American system. Cinematic tragedies that deal with this issue have been produced over several decades involving immigration into various Western countries, especially the United States; these include Black Girl (France, 1966), El norte (US/UK, 1983), and Sin nombre (Mexico, 2009), the last of which we will expand on here.

Paulina Gaitan (left) and Edgar Flores (right) star in writer/director Cary Joji Fukunaga's epic dramatic thriller Sin Nombre, a Focus Features release. Photo credit: Cary Joji Fukunaga via Focus Features
Paulina Gaitan (left) and Edgar Flores (right) star in writer/director Cary Joji Fukunaga’s epic dramatic thriller Sin Nombre, a Focus Features release. Photo credit: Cary Joji Fukunaga via Focus Features

In US director Cary Fukunaga’s Sin nombre (which means “Nameless” but which was released in the United States under the Spanish title), Hondurans escaping from their harsh political and economic realities risk their lives in order to make it to the United States, through Mexico, on the tops of rail cars. They travel in this manner since, as we all know, there would be no other legal way for most of these foreign citizens to come to the United States. Over the course of the journey, the immigrants endure terrible suffering or die at the hands of gang members who rob, rape, and even kill some of them.

The film focuses on just a few of the multitudes atop the trains: on a teenage Honduran girl, Sayra, migrating with her father and uncle; and on a few of the gang members. One of them, Casper, has had a change of heart and is no longer loyal to the gang, after its leader killed Casper’s girlfriend after trying to rape her. Casper and other gang members are atop the train robbing the migrants, but he defends Sayra by killing the leader when he tries to rape her. Ultimately, Sayra will arrive in the United States. However, she realizes that the cost has been too great—her father has died falling off of the train; she has lost Casper who is, ironically, shot to death by the pre-pubescent boy whom he himself had trained in the ways of the gang in the opening scenes of the film.

The tremendous losses, and the scenes of suffering, rape, and murder, make unlikely the possibility that the spectator will feel that Sayra’s arrival constitutes a happy ending. In some other aesthetic treatment, Casper’s ultimate death might have been melodramatized as redemptive selflessness for the sake of his new girlfriend. But in Fukunaga’s film, the juxtaposed images imply a continuing cycle of despair and death: Casper’s young killer in Mexico is promoted up the ranks of the gang with a new tattoo, while Sayra’s uncle, back in Honduras after being deported from Mexico, starts the voyage to the United States all over again. Sayra too may face deportation in the future. Following the scene of the reinvigoration of the criminal gang system, as its new young leader gets his first tattoo, the viewer sees Sayra outside a shopping mall in the American southwest. The teenage girl has arrived in the United States and may aspire to participate in advanced consumer capitalism, yet she has lost so much and suffered so undeservingly.

This aesthetic juxtaposition prompts the spectator to attend to the failure of Western political leaders to create a humane system of immigration for the twenty-first century, one which cannot be reached with the entrenched politicized views of the “two sides of the aisle” who miss the human story of immigrants’ plight. This film—like all tragedies—promotes the spectator’s active pondering, that is, it challenges them to respond in some way.

In the tradition of philosophers as various as Aristotle, Seneca, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Martha Nussbaum, and Bernard Williams, we find that tragedies bring to conscious awareness the most significant moral, social, political, and existential problems of the human condition. A film such as Sin nombre, through its tragic performance, points to one of these terrible necessities with which our contemporary Western culture must grapple. While it doesn’t offer an answer, this cinematic tragedy prompts us to recognize and deal with a seemingly intractable problem that needs to move beyond the current impasse of political debate, as we in the industrialized nations continue to go shopping and watch movies in the comfort of our malls.

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