Otherness in Hollywood Cinema
by Michael Richardson
Continuum. NY, NY, 2010
272 pp. Trade, $32.95
Reviewed by Allan Graubard
If I lived only with those I know, in a city, culture, language, nation and landscape I know, I’d soon go a little bit mad. Without the “Other” I’d be all too much of what I see and whom I encounter, my eccentricities played out against a rhythm of near mirror reflections.
This also goes for representation; the images, stories, music and gestures that feed us. And it is here that Michael Richardson steps in with his study on Hollywood, and how its films have presented the “Other” as the US became a global power and thereafter. I agree with Richardson. This would not have happened as it did without those films that people identified with wherever and whenever they saw them.
Such was the allure and power of Hollywood films. Brilliant or dull, their function was multiform, incorporating a set of relationships that still, with some variation, plays on Cineplex screens. So what is it that Hollywood has given us, or gives us now, that we don’t know, haven’t met fully, rarely experienced and don’t completely understand?
Richardson responds to these questions. There is the wilderness and the frontier, two exceptional stages were they not used as backdrops to clichéd struggles and expropriations. What of night, that near palpable triumph of shadow and chiaroscuro, where characters seeking retribution or resolution rarely find it, and the cities they live in live them, a darkly lit labyrinth infused with criminal passions. There is the exotic, which typifies our consumption of a place, a culture and a time just distant enough to spice our hunger for variety. Women, sexuality, monsters, zombies, or the apocalypse? That latter fantasy, which at least during the Cold War, had a distressingly real politic reappears metaphorically: the lost cause of the Vietnam War, via Coppola’s flamboyant Apocalypse Now, or the ancient Maya drowned in verisimilitude and melodrama, via Gibson’s Apocalypto.
No doubt it is better that the Cold War is frozen into a history that no longer preys on us. Whether or not our current geo-political and cultural turbulence offers any advantages is something, we will find out. Richardson’s discussion of Jarmusch is apropos in this regard. I must admit that I am a fan of Jarmusch. And he does have a sense of “other” with odd events that slip between stories. In Ghost Dog and Dead Man, we have entered a parallel universe.
Before Jarmusch, of course, there is von Sternberg who refined the complexities of encounter between people, cultures, and bodies. Shanghai Gesture engages Richardson with its ironies, grace, and violence, all its masks torn apart by the end.
Richardson features King Kong and its creators, Copper and Schoedsack, whose 1925 Grass: A Nation’s Battle for Life launched their career. For Richardson, the former is an open book not only about when it was made but also as a meeting ground of images so rich with disproportion that it keeps the film vivant 80 years after it was made. The latter, an extraordinary film, is more of a period piece as its precursor, Nanook of the North or Noana, both by Flaherty. Bunuel’s Land Without Bread isn’t mentioned in this book but Richardson has discussed the film elsewhere.
Richardson has seen many films. They are films we know or have heard about and have yet to watch. He writes about them in a way that reveals in those films a relationship with the “Other,” known, perceived or dissimulated; an experience we share. Perhaps, too, this work will bear other, future studies that speak to a different breadth of films than Hollywood is capable of. There is also an element in the vast majority of films available to us that Richardson does not deal with: the score.
But that is another subject.