26 November 2013

The Racial Film as Expedition

In Europe, the 'racial film' accompanied what Pierre Leprohon has called 'a violent upsurge in exoticism' during the years 1920-25, a phenomenon also reflected in literature, in the triumph of Gauguin, and in jazz music (labeled in France 'la musique negre'). Probably the most famous French 'racial cruise' film was Leon Poirier's La croisiere noire (The Black Cruise; 1926), a long travelogue which followed a Citroen motorcar expedition traversing Africa from the north to as far south as Madagascar. An explicitly colonial film, La croisiere noire was a grand motorcar adventure designed to give witness to France's 'civilizing action.'

In the United States the 'racial film' vogue followed directly upon the success of Nanook of the North: Hollywood was willing to invest in films of ethnographic romanticism, time machines into a faraway present which represented a simpler, 'savage' past. Critics who have discussed early ethnographic cinema, including anthropologist Franz Boas, frequently mention Cooper and Schoedsack's Grass (1925) and Chang (1927) as archetypes of the genre. Meriam C. Cooper was an airplane pilot in World War I and World War II, a man so opposed to Bolshevism that he volunteered to fight Russian Communists for Poland in 1919-21. He met Ernest B. Schoedsack, a freelance war photographer, in Europe during World War I. David H. Mould and Gerry Veeder explain that Cooper and Schoedsack were typical 'photographer-adventurer' culture heroes, who, like other filmmakers in the period from 1895 to the 1930s, portrayed themselves as mavericks who had rebelled against the constraints of society, iconoclasts seeking adventure in the photographing of film of peoples in foreign lands. As Mould and Veeder put it, 'The mission of the photographer-adventurer was to bring back the film, whatever the danger or cost.' Whether it was the macho, individualist personae of modern Davy Crocketts who risked their lives in order to film distant places, an image spectacularized in the jungle filmmaker character in their 1933 film King Kong.

Grass (1925), their first feature-length film, made with journalist Marguerite E. Harrison, took as its subject matter the Baktiari migration in southwest Iran across the snowy Zardeh Kuh pass in search of grass to feed the Baktiari's herds. Like other expedition films, Grass focuses on the filmmakers as intrepid Great White Hunter, flagrantly equating the camera with a gun and using ballistic point-of-view identification to create the thrill of 'being there.' Visual anthropologist Asen Balikci asserts that Grass is markedly different from the humanist films of Flaherty in that it lacks a strong focus on the a man and his family struggling for survival: 'The basic theme of Grass emerges somewhat behind the screen; it lies in the grandiose conception of the filmmaker as the new explorer, the daring traveler and discoverer of exotic land, and this is the myth of the ethnographic filmmaker as a hero!'

The expedition is a voyage through time to a remote locale in search of a human unknown. The Baktiari of southwestern Iran are referred to as the 'Forgotten People' living the life of 'three thousand years ago.' Grass begins:


After a panoramic shot of camels walking in profile across the horizon, the intertitles continue: 

The heroes of the film are introduced: pipe-smoking Cooper, rugged-looking Schoedsack, and female journalist Harrison.   

Titles explain that Cooper and Schoedsack will not be picture in the film, because they are behind the camera. Subsequently, Harrison portrayed as a genteel lady traveler fully dependent on her male traveler companions, is the only non-Baktiari person filmed. Although providing a white point of reference for an American audience, her point of view is never established in the scenes or intertitles, and she almost fades into the mise-en-scene of the expedition.

The film comments: 'But going ahead, we were turning the pages backwards - on and on further back into the centuries. Till we reached the first Chapter, arrived at the very beginning...'

A voyage back in time to the origins of the 'Aryan Race' (and thus to the origins of the purported white viewer), Grass has no central native protagonist: even Haider Khan, the chief of the tribe of Baktiari, portrayed as a leader of this trek, is not developed as a character. Instead, what is foregrounded is epic endurance and spectacular nature: wide-angle shots of thousands of dark figures making a zigzagging line as they climb mountains of ice and rock. This epic theme, however, is adorned with cuteness. As the reviewer in the New York Times commented, 'It is an unusual and remarkable film offering, one that is instructive and compelling but in now way a story. Yet in this picture, there is drama interspersed with captivating comedy, and the audience last night applauded some of the wonderful photographic sequences and at other times they were moved to laughter by the antics of the animals.' Thus picturesque details such as the blowing up of goat skins for floating across rapids are accompanied by jokey intertitles. The Times reviewer accurately noted that the intertitles appear to have been written for Barnum and Bailey's circus.

Grass ends with the triumph of the filmmakers as contemporary Aryan heroes who followed the Baktiari on their dangerous trek in order to make their film. The film thus betrays a curious anxiety with producing sufficient evidence, reminiscent of the Time Traveller in H. G. Wells's novel who goes back into the future with a camera in order to take photographs which will convince of others of the veracity of his trip. The final film sequence in Grass even includes a close-up of a document signed by officials claiming that the filmmakers were the first foreigners to make the dangerous trek across the Zardeh Kuh pass. Despite the obvious effort to make the film succeed as Hollywood entertainment, the filmmakers were concerned with establishing the film's status as truthful document.

Cooper and Schoedsack's next film, Chang (1927), filmed in Thailand as if in the 'ethnographic present,' is about a family living in the jungle who must contend with wild animals, especially tigers and elephants. The most feared beast is 'chang' (elephant', a word that the audience repeatedly sees in intertitles but does not learn the meaning of until midway through the film. The voyage of discovery in Chang is one leading to the revelation of the identity of the beast, a discovery made all the more impressive when the film opened at the Rivoli theater in New York City, through the use of magnoscope technology for the climactic scene of the stampeding elephants.

The stars of Chang are not the human characters Kru and his wife and children, but the animals and the filmmakers who capture them on film. Schoedsack wrote that, with Chang, they were pursuing the same theme as they pursued in Grass, 'the theme of man's struggle against nature, only this time nature was represented by the jungle and its animals.' The film begins with the opening statement common in ethnographic cinema that Kru's family, these 'natives of the wild,' have never seen a motion picture. The family is represented as archaic Primitive Jungle people who must tame or kill wild animals in order to survive. In Chang, there is some attempt at depicting nuclear family life in the jungle (it is man and his family against nature), but again there is little character development and no sense of any broader social interaction. The real stars of the film, the animals, are both wild (hungry tigers, rampaging elephants) and domestic (especially Bimbo the pet monkey and a bear cub), with the intertitles even attributing dialogue to them. In his book L'exotisme et le cinema, Pierre Leprohon explains that the success of Chang derived from its ability to evoke the shock of childhood: 'It is here that cinema brought us back again to the most beautiful moment in our childhood. We suddenly found again our desire for discoveries, our nostalgia for these "elsewheres" where we would never be able to set foot.'

As the product of 'photographer-adventurers,' the filmed scenes with wild animals were considered risky, thrilling, and dangerous, and Chang ends with the spectacle of the elephants entering a corral, the intertitles underlining the lesson that 'Brawn surrenders to the brain,' man conquers nature. A glowing review in the New York Times called Chang 'an unusual piece of work, beside which all big game hunting films pale into insignificance, and through the clever arrangement of its sequences, excellent comedy follows closely on the exciting episodes.' Slapstick comedy, especially evident in Chang in the scenes between the children and the pet animals, as well as patronizing and corny intertitles, are again present. In the expedition variant of the 'racial film' genre in general, the filmmakers make 'inside' jokes with the audience about the 'ignorance' of the subjects through intertitles or with montage, the use of slapstick only serving to heighten the physicality of the characters. Much of the patronizing quality of the films derives from the use of the ape metaphor. In Chang, shots of a wizened old villager are intercut with that of a monkey, intended to lead the viewer to laugh at the parallel. This simian motif continues in Schoedsack's later Rango (1931), a film about a family in Aceh, a region of Sumatra, Indonesia, that takes as its premise a comparison between the orangutang and the Acehnese protagonist. Finally, of course, the anthropoid ape becomes the star in King Kong.

[The foregoing was excerpted from Fatimah Tobing Rony, The Third Eye: Race, Cinema and Ethnographic Spectacle (Duke University Press, 1996), pp. 132-37. See also the previously posted essay on Anthropological and Ethnographic Films.]

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