Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Year of the Dragon

The tragic life of Mitsui

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Leonardo Nam on Westworld

In the latest issue of The New York Times Magazine, the film critic Wesley Morris has a reflective piece titled “Last Taboo,” the subheadline of which reads: “Why Pop Culture Just Can’t Deal With Black Male Sexuality.” Morris, who is a gay black man, notes that full-frontal male nudity has become more common in recent years in movies and television, but it’s usually white men who are being undressed for the camera, which tells us a lot about the unresolved but highly charged feelings that the culture still has toward the black male body. As Morris writes:

Black men [are] desired on one hand and feared on the other…Here’s our original sin metastasized into a perverted sticking point: The white dick means nothing, while, whether out of revulsion or lust, the black dick means too much.

And although I don’t want to detract from the importance of the point that Morris is making here, I’ll admit that as I read these words, another thought ran though my mind. If the white penis means nothing, then the Asian penis, by extension, must mean—well, less than nothing. I don’t mean to equate the desexualization of Asian males in popular culture with the treatment of black men in fiction and in real life. But both seem to provide crucial data points, from opposite ends, for our understanding of the underlying phenomenon, which is how writers and other artists have historically treated the bodies of those who look different than they do.

I read Morris’s piece after seeing a tweet by the New Yorker critic Emily Nussbaum, who connected it to an awful scene in last night’s episode of Westworld, in which an otherwise likable character makes a joke about a well-endowed black robot. It’s a weirdly dissonant moment for a series that is so controlled in other respects, and it’s possible that it reflects nothing more than Jonathan Nolan’s clumsiness—which he shares with his older brother—whenever he makes a stab at humor. (I also suspect, given the show’s production delays, that the line was written and shot a long time ago, before these questions assumed a more prominent role in the cultural conversation. Which doesn’t make it any easier to figure out what the writers were thinking.) Race hasn’t played much of a role on the series so far, and it may not be fair to pass judgment on a show that has only aired five episodes and clearly has a lot of other stuff on its mind. But it’s hard not to wonder. The cast is diverse, but the guests are mostly white men, undoubtedly because, as Nussbaum notes elsewhere, they’re the natural target audience for the park’s central fantasy. And the show has a strange habit of using its Asian cast members, who are mostly just faces in the background, as verbal punching bags for the other characters, a trend so peculiar that my wife and I both noticed it separately. It’s likely that this has all been muddied by what seems to be shaping up to be an actual storyline for Felix, played by Leonardo Nam, who looks as if he’s about to respond to his casual mistreatment by rising to a larger role in the story. But even for a show with a lot of moving parts, it strikes me as a lazy way of prodding a character into action.

John Lone in Year of the Dragon

Over the last few months, as it happens, I’ve been thinking a lot about the representation of Asians in science fiction. (As I’ve mentioned before, I’m Eurasian—half Chinese, half Finnish and Estonian.) I may as well start with Robert A. Heinlein’s Sixth Column, a novel that he wrote on assignment for Astounding Science Fiction, based in part on All, an earlier, unpublished serial by John W. Campbell. Both stories, which were written long before Pearl Harbor, are about the invasion of the United States by a combined Chinese and Japanese empire, which inspires an underground resistance movement in the form of a fake religion. Heinlein later wrote that he tried to rework the narrative to tone down its more objectionable elements, but it pains me to say that Sixth Column actually reads as more racist than All, simply because Heinlein was the stronger writer. When you read All, you don’t feel much of anything, because Campbell was a stiff and awkward stylist. Heinlein, by contrast, spent much of his career bringing immense technical skill to even the most questionable projects, and he can’t keep from investing his characters with real rhetorical vigor as they talk about “flat-faced apes” and “our slant-eyed lords.” I don’t even mind the idea of an Asian menace, as long as the bad guys are treated as worthy antagonists, which Heinlein mostly does. But when the leaders of the resistance decide to grow beards in order to fill the invaders with “a feeling of womanly inferiority,” it’s hard to excuse it. And the most offensive moment of all involves Mitsui, the only sympathetic Asian character in sight, who sacrifices himself for the sake of his friends and is rewarded with the epitaph: “But they had no time to dwell on the end of little Mitsui’s tragic life.”

That’s the kind of racism that rankles me: not the diabolical Asian villain, who can be invested with a kind of sinister allure, as much as the legion of little Mitsuis who still populate so much of our fiction. (This may be why I’ve always sort of liked Michael Cimino’s indefensible Year of the Dragon, which at least treats John Lone’s character as a formidable, glamorous foe. It’s certainly less full of hate than The Deer Hunter.) And it complicates my reactions to other issues. When it was announced that Sulu would be unobtrusively presented as gay in Star Trek Beyond, it filled me with mixed feelings, and not just because George Takei didn’t seem to care for the idea. As much as I appreciated what the filmmakers were trying to do, I couldn’t help but think that it would have been just as innovative, if not more so, to depict Sulu as straight. I’m aware that this risks making it all seem like a zero-sum game, which it isn’t. But these points deserve to be raised, if only because they enrich the larger conversation. If a single scene on Westworld can spark a discussion of how we treat black men as sexual objects, we can do the same with the show’s treatment of Asians. The series presumably didn’t invite or expect such scrutiny, but it occupies a cultural position—as a prestige drama on a premium cable channel—in which it has no choice but to play that part. Science fiction, in particular, has always been a sandbox in which these issues can be investigated in ways that wouldn’t be possible in narratives set in the present, from the original run of Star Trek on down. Westworld belongs squarely in that tradition. And these are frontiers that it ought to explore.

Three men and a camera

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Bill Cunningham

What does it mean to be an uncompromising artist? Over the last two weeks, we’ve lost three very different men whose careers feel like a series of case studies in how to approach that unanswerable question. One was Bill Cunningham, the fashion photographer whom I once described as possibly the sanest man alive, and who maintained his creative and personal freedom for decades by paring his life down to the essentials in the heart of New York City. Another was the director Michael Cimino, who helped establish the Hollywood auteur era of the seventies with The Deer Hunter, and then singlehandedly destroyed it with Heaven’s Gate. The third was Abbas Kiarostami, who managed to do innovative work for more than thirty years in his homeland after the Iranian Revolution, in large part by being so persistently odd and original that his government didn’t know what to do with him. Each man is worth scrutinizing closely, either as a role model or as a cautionary tale, and for all their surface dissimilarities, they all tried, in their own ways, to crack the urgent problem of how an artist is expected to live in the world. (Because of the timing of their obituaries, I’ve been especially struck by the parallels between Cunningham and Cimino, who might otherwise seem to have nothing in common. Both were products of the Ivy League whose backgrounds remain shrouded in mystery, and both guarded their private lives so obsessively that they were asked pointed questions about their sexuality in interviews, which they both dodged, rightly, as irrelevant to the issue at hand.)

And none of them ever quite conformed to the expectations of their admirers. One of the recurring themes in the loving tributes to Cunningham that filled the New York Times over the weekend was that he was a gentle, generous man who could also be a huge pain to work with. Here are a few excerpts from the oral history:

The best thing you could do with Bill Cunningham was to get out of his way…He was a control freak to a large degree, but in a very unusual way. He was just all about the work…The assistants that the art department assigned Bill to do his pages—he went through a long string of people, and it was a love-hate toward Bill. John [Kurdewan] was one of the more long-suffering people in that role. Protecting his pages was very important to him.

Kurdewan himself remembers: “Art directors were dealing with Bill, and because it was so complicated they were complaining. It was ‘Just have John do it.’ I said to the art director, ‘What do I do?’ They said, ‘Whatever he wants.’” This might all seem slightly out of tune with the way we remember and think about Cunningham, but in fact, it’s perfectly consistent. The best reason to simplify your existence, declare your independence from money, and rigorously efface yourself is that it allows you to refuse to compromise when it truly matters. And Bill Cunningham understood this better than anyone.

Abbas Kiarostami

This isn’t an approach, to put it mildly, that would have made sense to Michael Cimino, who seems to have confronted every challenge with one of my favorite lines of dialogue from any movie, which he wrote for The Deer Hunter: “I’m gonna will us out of here.” And his career is less interesting for its ultimate failure than for the fact that he got away with it for as long as he did. The debacle of Heaven’s Gate, which lost $40 million and destroyed the old United Artists studio, has been told elsewhere, most notably in Steven Bach’s classic book Final Cut. Yet it’s worth remembering that it became a paradigmatic example of excess not because it lost money—plenty of films have lost more—but because Cimino was so scandalously willing to place his vision above the concerns of the executives whose careers he ruined. He was punished, not for directing a flop, but for daring to expose the helplessness of the systems that had been designed to prevent such an implosion from occurring. (Which isn’t to say that his critics weren’t right. The Deer Hunter strikes me today as an ethically problematic movie saved only by its sheer technical facility, both from Cimino and from his extraordinary cast, who seem to have spun their characters out of nothing. Heaven’s Gate is every bit the waste of resources that its reputation suggests. And the only movie by Cimino that I’d watch again today is Year of the Dragon, which suffers from the same racial obliviousness as The Deer Hunter, but at least takes the trouble to create an exciting story with a worthy antagonist. Cimino is hard to admire, much less to like, but he was far from a talentless or uninteresting director.)

Yet it’s Kiarostami whom I’ve found myself thinking about the most. I’ve only seen a few of his films, but it seems safe to say that his artistic evolution—from realism to audacious formal experimentation—was a reaction to the political climate in which he was forced to spend most of his career. Of his reception by the Iranian regime, Kiarostami said: “The government has decided not to show any of my films for the past ten years. I think they don’t understand my films and so prevent them from being shown just in case there is a message they don’t want to get out.” It’s a particularly bittersweet kind of success, but he still threaded that needle for longer than anyone could have thought possible. Kiarostami was sometimes criticized as apolitical, but he molded his audience in profoundly radical ways. As he once observed:

In my films, I try to give people as little information as possible, which is still much more than what they get in real life. I feel that they should be grateful for the little bit of information I give them. If they were as inquisitive when they come to watch my films as they are in real life, they’d make my life easier.

His movies are training grounds for empathy and the imagination, even when he deliberately frustrates any attempt at interpretation, as he does in Certified Copy, which is one of my ten favorite films of the decade. The problem of survival in the world also lacks a single definitive answer, as the lives of these three men suggest. But the first step, it seems, is to do whatever it takes to ensure that nothing comes between you and the camera.

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