Saturday, September 11, 2010

Movies I've Walked Out Of, No. 3: Dances with Wolves

I just came up with this guideline for myself:

Watch out for movies that center on a majestic wild animal/indigenous person befriending a domesticated hero.

Are these stories ever anything but emotional porn that strokes our "I'm wild at heart" pleasure centers (but don't need to give up any comforts)?
Or romantic schlock seducing us with the idea that a wolf would recognize us as a kindred spirit (if only it got the chance)?

After watching such movies, I leave the theater full of nostalgia for wildness, yet oddly stupified.
And dirty, as if I've just paid to be lied to about what a sensitive soul I am, and how therefore it's not my fault that bad things happen to wild things. Which, of course, I have.

The icky secret is that there's a lot of pleasure in feeling fellowship with oppressed wild things--from a distance.
We feel pleased with ourselves:
We are so sensitive.
We are so superior.
We are so... safe.

As with horror movies--we enjoy the elevated emotion because we're safe.
Except I don't enjoy it when I cry over a story I know is a lie.

Twenty years ago, I walked out of Dances with Wolves when the film was almost over, after Kevin Costner has joined with the Indians, to avoid just that.
I knew was coming:
a sentimental slaughter that would leave me emotionally devastated yet weirdly self-satisfied.

I hate this, but it's harmless enough, I guess, if we don't buy the luscious lie that we are exempt from responsibility for wearing furs because we weep for the wolf. Or buy that one side is wholly good and the other wholly bad.

It's so tempting to buy that, and so easy to overlook the implications.
A guy recently told me, for instance, he had no sympathy for the white farmers in Zimbabwe killed by black people taking over their land. In his eyes, it was a simple matter of justice being done--outraged innocence avenged. And he got to feel good about himself for being on the side of justice.

I told him if he felt that way about land redistribution, I'm sure he could find a local Ojibwe family to give his house to.
He did not feel moved to do so.

Well, neither do I. But I don't want to be reassured that I'm off the hook because I cry for the beloved country.

When I walked out of Dances with Wolves years ago, I wasn't particularly thinking about the cultural politics of race, I just didn't want to be emotionally jerked around against my will.

But recently, I came across this wonderful article:
which puts Dances in its larger context. Here's that bit:

[Churchill is talking here about movies like Little Big Man where the hero is a sensitive white guy who sees the evil other white men, like Custer, do to Indians.]

Always, these highly personalized embodiments of evil [e.g. Custer] were counterbalanced by the centrality of sympathetic white characters... with whom Euroamerican viewers might identify.

Always, the Indians in such films serve as mere plot devices intended mainly to validate the main white characters' alleged sensitivities, and to convey forgiveness to "good" (i.e., most) whites for the misdeeds of their "bad" (i.e., atypical or "deviant") peers.

Although one can readily imagine the response had Hollywood opted to depict the European Holocaust of the 1940s in a similar fashion (albeit Steven Spielberg comes uncomfortably close with Schindler's List) the convention has been adhered to vis-à-vis the American Holocaust with almost seamless precision for the past twenty-five years. Most recently, it has been manifestly evident in Kevin Costner's 1990 epic, Dances With Wolves...

[White audiences] first being led to demonize men like Custer, and then helped to separate themselves from them via the signification of characters like... Costner's Lt. Dunbar, are made to feel simultaneously "enlightened" (for having been "big" or open enough to concede that something ugly had occurred) and "good about themselves" (for being so different from those they imagine the perpetrators to have been).

[end Churchill]

Oh, yeah. Schindler's List. I'd probably have walked out on that film too, if I'd gone to see it. Spielberg is a master pimp of the simple-minded, feel-good emotional lie.

[Other movies I've walked out of.]


bink said...

Ooo! Ooo! I hate false manipulation. Honest manipulation in film is fine, but when it doesn't ring true, it bugs me.

Last night we watched Gran Torino. 90% of the film: good, old, honest, manipulation. White crabby old man becomes friends with Hmong family. Totally manipulated feelings but that's what I expected and I was fine with it.

Then he goes and gets himself shot--the plan being that if he is killed in front of a bunch of witnesses the bad gang-bangers will get locked up and leave the nice family alone.

Hello! People who live around gang-bangers are very unlikely to testify in a case like this. They had already made it clear that the Hmong in the neighborhood kept quiet when bad things happened. So suddenly when a mouthy white guy is killed they all step forward and point fingers and all the bad guys are arrested in one swoop. Yeah, right!

Totally wreaked any mild suspension of belief I had. It was so unrealistic it annoyed me and wreaked the film for me. I hate movies that go all stupid on me. And illogical plot turns are just stupid.

Margaret said...

"Dances with Wolves" - that'd be a brief, bloody dance for us. A fine meal for them.

I feel this is somehow related:
According to Jim (not golden-boy Jim) is on in the other room. Instead of painting the women as ditsy, naive sugar-puffs like old sitcoms used to, they paint the men as impulsive, brainless oafs. It's like a mathematical maneuver to try to balance past offences, but it ends up leaping from one imbalance to another. In the middle are real people.

There are good people;
there are bad people;
they are the same people.

ArtSparker said...

Kind of peripheral...but I walked out of Field of Dreams, so maybe there's something about Kevin Costner. Not crazy about "Signs" either - maybe it's something about fields? Actually was not tempted to see :Dances with Wolves", the whole big thing...just prefer little stuff.

Well, what these have in common is bullshit masquerading as thought.

Lill said...

Are movies really about thought?

I watch them exactly to get my emotional porn!

I'm not knocking your criticism of letting the white folks off the hook for the war against Native Americans because there were some white folks who did not participate. That porn does not ring true -- but on the other hand, what porn does?

I've never seen Dances With Wolves that I recall but I'll bet there are some white man fantasies about getting it on with the sexy Indian princess in it. Or white women's fantasies about getting it on with the sexy, bronze-chested Indian warrior. That's a particular fave of mine, as it happens.

If there's any of that in it I'm in!

Gotta be the odd woman out on this one :)

Anonymous said...

Hmmm... such nourishment you give, Frescadita. For our whole selves. I love Ward Churchill--(and YOU)! So... following on from all you've blogged here, the SURPRISing live conversations tonight and Bink-Marg't-ArtSprkr-Lill's remarks, I'm feelin'/thinkin' all beware/avoid the Kevin Costner vehicles-(his arrogant libertarian politics suck in real-life, by the way; the d-k-head is all engaged in exploitation of First Peoples' lands in the Badlands areas and prob'ly elsewhere!). Agree with M'g't that we are all one people in our goodnesses and our badnesses, though the sins of others seem often so much more ass-holic than our own. Thus we do need that "safe" space that art and humor create from/for us so that we can take the risk of seeing ourselves in the dangerous places/devil's clothes or identify with the evil-doer or scoff at them or judge them or hate them or analyze them to kingdom-fucking-come or all of the above and we seek this over and over again through various media. The movies make it easy and commercialize the acts so blatantly. So, when we do get pissed off/grossed out or whatever about the manipulations, the cheezy character choices and unrealistic plots that reflect the current sadness and sickness in our society, and we walk out as haughty consumers, we are walking out, too, on the parts of ourselves we'd rather not acknowledge. I did this back in the mid 70's part way into The Story of Adele H., a film I was really looking forward to seeing. I couldn't handle the protagonist's thudding obsession with some man at a point in my own life when I was coming to terms with how much energy I put into my own relationships with men. What Churchill says about the depictions in film of euro-settler/First Peoples' relationships and the threshold set by the "Industry"--(here,of course, read the "Man"/u.s. gov't/micomplex, etc.)--of what can be shown or not in whatever media, reflect the process of societal reckoning or not with the sins committed by the mass murderers who are relegated to a false past--(I say false past because the same sins are still being committed in different forms to this day)-- and how far the powers that be will allow the prevailing conventions to move per what will preserve the status quo of power over relationships. As to the Schindler's List parallel, my first exposure to the story was hearing Thomas Kenneally reading an excerpt aloud at a pub called Knopwood's Retreat in Hobart, Tasmania back in 1987 or so, when his work was in manuscript form before it was published in Australia first as Schindler's Ark; this was paired with Margaret Atwood reading from The HAndmaid's Tale. A woman audience member fainted. I was an expat Yank during Reagan's second term, coming to terms myself with having chosen to live in another stolen country. Believe me, seeing the films made of these works back in the u. s. years later hadn't the same impact as that earlier evening. I did not like either film and chose to sit and watch the horrors, like picking at an old wound; I did not feel any catharthis. And I did not walk away from them. I have only seen pieces of Dances With W.'s For better or worse, I have the feeling we're stuck with much of these stereo-typical perps and resister/heroes and the horrors they dish out/fight against, until we create new and better relationships among ourselves. Please feel free to delete this or use it only for yourself. I didn't mean for it to be so long, but I couldn't figure out a shorter way to say...(Veriword is EXEMA. Think I'll go scratch my itch and munch a Vegemite sandwich)

Fresca said...

BINK: Yeah, I'm fine with honest manipulation too.
What rubs people wrong varies a lot.
For instance, I rolled my eyes a bit at Gran Torino's unbelievable ending, but it didn't mar my enjoyment. But I totally see how it could throw someone off totally.

Shifting all the blame from one side to another still leaves us on a teeter-totter, not standing on the ground.

As I had a pike say in my "Herring for Christmas" film,
"I don't see how reversing the polarity of oppression in any way undermines the hegemony of discrimination."

SPARKY: I don't know why I didn't walk out on Field of Dreams too.
There's Something About Kevin...
I think it's that his self-satisfaction at his own sensitivity is not tempered by any sign that he can laugh at himself (Shatner's saving grace).

RIght--bullshit can be fun (Shatner again), but let's not pretend it's something else.

Preferring the little stuff...
reminds me of the woman in Before Sunset saying the people in International Aid she admires most are not the big hot-shots but the behind-the-scenes folks who make sure kids in rural Mexico get pencils.

NANCY: Movies may or may not be about thought, but I love to think about them--how they shape and reflect who we are, privately and publicly.

I like emotional porn, if it hits my pleasure centers and doesn't offend my thoughts.
"The Lives of Others" for instance, is highly romantic film about how Art Changes Lives. But does it?
Did Beethoven's music save Germany?
Well, hardly. But I enjoyed having that cherished hope/illusion stroked.

Sorry to report, no bronze fantasies in Dances: the boy/girl action is all-white because the Indian girl had been captured as a child, I think.
Yep, even the Indians are white.

STEF: "I believe in the legacies that multiply human freedom, not in those that cage."
--Eduardo Galeano

Clair said...

Fresca -
major post here. And I thoroughly agree. All art is subjective and therefore seeks, in some way, to manipulate. Some art pulls a single hair, some hits you over the head with a sledgehammer. I prefer the former, but the dimmer our minds are perceived as being, the more we get the sledgehammer. And Hollywood seems to think we have become quite dim indeed.

I've never held out hope for humanity en masse, but rather pin such hope as I have on the individual. In fact, humankind as a whole never ceases to depress me.

fresca said...

Nice to see you again!
The Sledgehammer of Manipulation--there's a good title. That kind of art is totally lacking in complexity and so it feels unreal, because reality is crazily complicated.

Sometimes I love humanity (the abstract) and not people (the annoying individual), but yeah, like you, usually it's easier for me to see the good/hope in the individual.

Lill said...

"no bronze fantasies in Dances: the boy/girl action is all-white because the Indian girl had been captured as a child, I think.
Yep, even the Indians are white."

???? What is the point of that? That movie is totally worthless.

frizzy said...

One word: Avatar.

Clowncar said...

speilberg. bleh. the color purple had me talking back to the screen. false and cynical, while pretending profundity.

at least costner made Bull Durham.

and Waterworld. I suspect I am the only person in america that liked Waterworld.

Fresca said...

Lill: Like I said. : )

FRIZZY: "Avatar" was next up on my "walked out of" list!

CLOWN: I guess I can't list "Color Purple" because I watched it on DVD, so I only turned it off. I wonder if I would have left the theater if I'd paid to see it.

Well, Costner didn't make Bull Durham, he was only lucky enough to be in it.

I liked Waterworld too, despite almost everyone's water-logged acting. Even if it was just Mad Max at Sea, it was really inventive!

Jennifer said...

Ugh, you might well have walked out on "The Last Samurai" as well, with Tom Cruise standing in for Costner and Noble Samurai for Noble Savages. Beautifully done death charge at machine guns with cherry blossoms floating everywhere, and only Tom understands, you know. IT made me weep and then feel dirty, like you say.

The funny thing is that "Last Samurai" was also very popular in Japan, my students loved it, identifying with the doomed samurai themselves and not seeming to mind the icky overtones. The whole "white man's burden" thing was very invisible to them, I think.