The Infernal Return: The Recurrence of the Primordial in Films of the Reaction Years, 1977-1983 (review)
- Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies
- Center for the Study of Film and History
- Volume 33, Number 2, 2003
- pp. 92-93
- Additional Information
Book Reviews | Regular Feature in various films. Apart from old friends like Griffith's epic and Gone with the Wind, both of which are central to their idea of the "divided white self," the authors examine the film convention whereby non-white races always need to be led to freedom and fulfillment by a Persil-bright messiah (Stargate, Indiana Jones and the Temple ofDoom); they analyze the role ofTahitians in the drama of male authority that exists in different ways in the three versions of Mutiny on the Bounty; they follow the evolution of what might be called the Scarlett and Mammy complex in women's relationships in Imitation ofLife (Stahl's and Sirk's) and in more recent productions like Passion Fish. There is plenty more besides. The general message is that, although the archetypes (or stereotypes) may vary according to different historical conditions and cultural pressures, certain concepts remain depressingly constant. Blackness and otherness is passive or savage, comic or servile; the lesser breeds, as Kipling would have put it, are capable only of nurturing whites through their neuroses or of being led by WASPish heroes. Even a righton New Age western like Dances With Wolves turns out to be a story of a white male crisis in which the Native Americans are subsidiary elements in Kevin Costner's psychodrama. It is, in short, a huge subject, but Vera and Gordon (they sound like a bad nightclub act) have not written a huge book. As a result, they suffer from trying to pack too much into the space. Matters are not helped by their use of examples from almost every conceivable non-white image, fromAfrican and NativeAmericans to Vietnamese in The Green Beret, and even the aliens in Men In Black. Because each of these groups raises slightly different contextual questions, the book finds itself skimming over problems or eliding issues that should be separate. For instance, there is a difference between white messiahs operating in their own country (To Kill A Mockingbird) and those spreading their beneficence abroad (The Man Who Would Be King). In fact, "imperialism ," which the writers use as a blanket term, has its problems . One ofthe distinctions betweenAmerican and British racial history is that the United States imported slaves onto its own soil, or slaughtered the inhabitants who were already there, while Britannia ran an export operation, shipping Africans to her colonies or plonking her flag on a pre-existing structure, like India. True, these are questions of degree rather than kind, but small shifts in emphasis matter in imaginative work. There are some frustrating omissions, too, inevitable because of the lack of space. Vera and Gordon are keen on the idea ofthe divided white self, but they do not say much about why it is divided, just as they frequently refer to Huck and Jim as the prototype for post-Civil Rights black and white relationships (men only), but never settle down to examine what Twain did and why it still matters. At a guess, there is a question here aboutAmerica's religious past, about the Calvinist idea of the elected good versus the unelected bad, ofthe righteous against the unrighteous. Whatever the truth, the book cries out for a wider cultural pondering. It would have been helpful to know more about the specifically American nature of this American aspect of the subject. Odd frustrations aside, however, there is plenty to enjoy, especially when the field of view is narrower and hence more penetrating. The chapter onAmistad, for example, is a laser-sharp study of how a historical event can be moulded into feel-good entertainment for white folks. The authors show how Spielberg and his teamremove slavery as an important element in the nation's genesis and, by a rhetorical conjuring trick, replace it with a retrospective liberalism. Also, there are two fine sections on films that feature white people "passing" as "other." These chapters emphasize a central cinematic sentimentality, the idea that racial questions can be resolved by a lightning change in the individual heart rather than in the power structures of which Hollywood itself is a key component. This is a pessimistic book; given the similarities between Birth ofa...