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THEORIES OF CULTURAL RELATIVITY Daryl Chin The relativity of recent cultural politics has been a necessary correlative to the changing demographics in the United States. Yet these changes threaten to destroy whatever cohesion that American culture once had. What had been regarded as traditional culture in the United States is now regarded with suspicion. These are the changes that David Denby notes as "the literature, philosophy, and political thought of the West that have come under increasing attack in recent decades as 'Eurocentric,''hegemonic,' and, in general, inappropriate for a country whose population is made up of people from many places besides Europe-descendants of enslaved Africans and of American Indians, for instance." Right there, one can note that Denby's statement is dubious, and his political naivete is evident, since even his terminology is dated: the term is currently "Native American" and not "American Indian." This simple example is part of the deconstructive tendency in academia which, accompanied by political intent, has sought to undermine the very notion of cultural tradition in the United States. The discourse around the film of SaintJoancan do as well as any to delineate the changes. At a recent screening of the Otto Preminger film version of Bernard Shaw's SaintJoanat Film Forum in New York, it was interesting to reflect on the animosity which accompanied the premiere in 1957. At stake in the initial critical hostility was the notion of desecration, the fact that SaintJoanis one of the finest English-language plays of this century, and the film does nowhere near justice to the play. At the screening, I met a film student, a young man from Korea. As a film-literate student of the 90s, his view of the film centered on the idea of Otto Preminger as "auteur" as defined by the "politique des auteurs." He was with three friends, also film students, one from Europe, the other two Americans. Their view of SaintJoanwas conditioned by two factors: Preminger as "auteur," and the "legend" of Jean Seberg. None of them had any idea about the status of the play, and it would not have been important to them, anyway. None of them had ever read the play, or, in fact, anything by Bernard Shaw. Though the American critical response to SaintJoanwas one of great disdain, the French and English responses were more complicated. Traditional critical response was as negative as the majority of American responses; other responses 0 87 were disposed to seeking justifications for the problematic realization of the film. It would be too easy to simply dismiss these critical rationales as aberrant. The reason I raise this issue and attempt to explicate this shift in critical response is that the positive response to SaintJoancontinues to have weight. The younger people I know who saw SaintJoanat the recent screening have no vested interest in SaintJoanas a literary work by Bernard Shaw. These young people are not stupid, they just do not care about those tired old literary values, or those dated old theatrical values. The idea that this film version of SaintJoanmight be an inadequate representation of the play is an idea which holds no meaning for them. These young people were going to SaintJoanto find something of merit. How can a movie judged an unmitigated disaster on its initial release now (thirtyfive years later) have merit? What merits can be found? And how do these merits signify changes in cultural polity? During the period when the politique des auteursstill was being debated, the young British critics for Movie devoted an issue to Preminger in 1963. Though SaintJoan was not one of the films singled out for extended analysis, it was mentioned favorably in passing. Jean Seberg's performance, which had been widely attacked at first, was listed as one of the gallery of "sleep-walkers" in Preminger's work, and this was meant as praise from V.F. Perkins. The divergence of acting styles was regarded as a key to Preminger's stylistic "objectivity" by Ian Cameron. In his book Movie Man (1967), David Thomson wrote of Preminger: "Thus his St. Joan is not a saint but a girl some think a saint and others scorn.... Shaw's play...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1537-9477
Print ISSN
1520-281X
Pages
pp. 87-101
Launched on MUSE
2018-01-03
Open Access
No
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