Thursday, April 12, 2018

Gaijin Like Me

Took my family to see Wes Anderson's Isle of Dogs a couple weeks ago and loved it. Loved the story, the voice acting and the impeccably gorgeous doll-house aesthetic Anderson excels at creating - this time using real dolls instead of getting humans to act like them (no slight intended, I love his live action flicks and the performances within, but they're... mannered - it's a neat trick drawing real human emotions from unrealistic representations of humanity). After enjoying the film I thought I'd take a look at the chatter it was generating and found that it had drawn the ire of some critics and activists for racism/colonialism/Orientalism...

...which is something that didn't once cross my mind while watching it, but as popular a point of critique as it is seemed worth checking out. Skipped a lot of screamy, outraged click-bait headlines before settling on this thoughtful piece by Alison Willmore at Buzzfeed.

Willmore unpacks the film and its place in a long tradition of western film makers making a mess of eastern cultures even when trying to honor them and makes many good points regarding the general mindset of film makers and audiences as decades pass and things stay the same in regards to the western gaze. A really well-written piece that manages to invite discussion and thought rather than provoke knee-jerk reactions of the "shut up and let me enjoy what I enjoy" variety.

That the movie is not mean-spirited should be pointed out, but one criticism specifically leveled at Anderson is that he is not at all interested in addressing these tendencies in his work which... I'm actually pleased to hear because I think there's a big difference between film makers like Anderson and say hired guns who take on big studio projects that will happen with or without them. Nobody else is going to make Isle of Dogs (or The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou or The Grand Budapest Hotel) and the last thing I want film makers as distinct and personal as Anderson doing is letting their right hand know what the left is up to.

In any medium I want distinct voices as un-self-conscious as possible, free to create without knowing why they want to keep doing that thing they keep wanting to do. I want the art made and released - and then the critics and the audience can unpack it. An artist's sharp edges, shortcomings or pig-stubborn blind spots are often what keep their work compelling, tricky, not easily digestible and fascinating for years to come. I would not be thinking about and interested in discussing the issues put forth in Willmore's article if Anderson had made a different film.

Another sin mentioned in the piece, (which opens up the discussion beyond Isle of Dogs), is relentless use of the trope of white people immersing themselves in another culture and discovering their true nature as they ascend to the top of said cultural ladder until they finally prove to be the best example of its potential. It's... a thing. A thing not limited to white folk, but certainly most commonly represented in films seen around the world. A timeless trope that maybe needs a time out (or at least a tweak) when it comes to big studio film making.
The latest example used in the piece is Martin Zandvliet's The Outsider, a Netflix original I watched a few weeks ago starring Jared Leto as an American G.I. who befriends a yakuza member in prison and once outside joins the gang. By the film's end he's a pinky-chopping, back-tattoed, blue-eyed badass among a group of gangsters witnessing the crumbling of their organization and way of life due to weakened principles and corruption, but he stands as a bastion of honor looking toward the future. It's a sharp-looking, but silly-feeling movie that I'll probably watch again sometime for my violent entertainment needs.

The same night I watched The Outsider I revisited one of my favorite flicks that uses the trope - Sydney Pollack's The Yakuza with Robert Mitchum as the American G.I. enmeshed in matters of honor and betrayal between east/west business interests illicit and straight. He remains an outsider, but learns enough to make a key gesture of respect when the time comes... he and his Japanese counterpart are not so different after all. Written by Paul Schrader and Robert Towne and shot with balls left on the walls action bits, I dig it hard.

And Quentin Tarantino has more or less made a career out of embodying the trope - immersing himself in genre after genre and using its conventions and techniques to make his own bestest version of an Australian hotrod flick, Italian western, samurai revenge saga etc.

Another one of my current favorite film makers best left unconscious is Nicolas Winding Refn whose own yakuza flick seems to have been abandoned or postponed, but who, with Only God Forgives, inverted the trope by casting Ryan Gosling as an ugly American who owns a kickboxing gym in Bangkok - when he's pitted against the real deal though... let's just say it's not a Jean-Claude Van Damme picture. Refn, whose films are often obtuse in a Lynchian fashion, made perhaps my favorite statement about his artistic process and purpose in an interview with The Guardian: "I'm a pornographer. I make films about what arouses me. What I want to see. Very rarely to understand why I want to see it..."

Yeah, nailed it as far as I'm concerned. Like his Danish counterpart Lars Von Trier he's an audacious and talented artist whose work is divisive and an invitation to peer, nay leer, at all the psychic wiring he's exposing and as much as I don't like many of Von Trier's flicks, I hope he keeps making them so that I can further understand why I reject his worldview and sharpen my own.

I wouldn't have wanted Kubrick, Peckinpah or Milius nor do I want David Lynch, Jane Campion or the Coen Brothers over-burdened with commercial viability, or critical adulation either. The more free they are to just do what they do - the richer the conversations I'll be enjoying in the future.

If you're interested in Japanese film makers doing their own thing, but feel over your head as a gaijin like me... check out Chris D.'s Gun and Sword: An Encyclopedia of Japanese Gangster Films 1955-1980 and Outlaw Masters of Japanese Film full of terrific introductions, insights and interviews from the source.


Les Edgerton said...

Really want to see this after your review, Jed. My son is a huge Wes Anderson fan. It was from Mike that I learned that Wes' brother is the one responsible for creating the unique look of his films.

jedidiah ayres said...

it's a delightful curio of a movie - every frame a painting... If you liked THE FANTASTIC MR. FOX I suspect you'll dig ISLE OF DOGS too