Central Europe Review: politics, society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 1, No 11
6 September 1999

K A L E I D O S C O P E:

Vaclav Pinkava

22 years after his first blockbuster, George Lucas's retrospective Star Wars Episode I, The Phantom Menace, currently the third (second?) highest grossing movie of all time, is opening in Czech cinemas.

Why is it subtitled 'The Phantom Menace'? Probably a reference to the omnipresent holographic projection of the arch-villain giving evil orders, part hidden under his hood and cape, a shimmering blue phantom, identity unrevealed (except on the website), and a menace, certainly.

The official Czech translation, 'The Hidden Menace', is perhaps closer to the mark. There is a menace in this film. No phantom, and well hidden, even on the website.

The film is billed as good clean family fun. Almost nobody 'real' gets killed, only armies of droids, or computer generated creatures. But Lucas has once again succeeded in racist stereotyping, yet in the abstract, dislocated from colour, shape or habitat. By depicting extraterrestrials, he is safely out of reach of those who notice prejudice only if it applies to non-white, non-young-and-fit-and-handsome, non-men, here on Earth. In Star Wars, the stereotyping is in the characterisation, the behaviours and attitudes of the characters, their language, parodying the American ethnic meltingpot. These are humans in caricature, in carnival masquerade.

Of course, this might remain hidden from a Czech or other foreigner, watching a dubbed version of the film, but I saw it in London.

Lucas has been so accused (I would say found out) before.

As before, he masks his racial jibes with contrary details, to lay a false trail for the politically correct. But Jar Jar Binks is too much like the black club-owner Huggie Bear out of the old Starsky and Hutch cop series, and his people, the Gungans, behave too much like stereotyped Black Americans for my taste. Not entirely divorced from physical characterisation are the noseless aliens in their samurai headgear blockading planet Naboo, quietly spoken, disciplined, stereotyped, twotiming, inscrutable Orientals. Most obnoxiously, Watto, the slave-driving smalltime dealer who 'owns' Anakin Skywalker and his mom on desert planet Tatooine is a bignosed, halfshaven cliche Greek/Turk/Jewish greaseball, flitting around like a bespoke tailor on his decoy hummingbird wings.

What false trail? The creatures blockading planet Naboo have big round eyes, and green skin to prove they are not supposed to be Japs. The Gungans look like a cross between a human, horse and a frog - amphibious underwater creatures, whose ancient meeting place in the jungle is littered with Asian-looking ruined statues. They can't be Africans, can they?

To put the Politically Correct totally off the scent, we have the arch-decoy. The Head of the Jedi Council is played by a real African American actor, in the character of Mace Windo. So it can't be a racist film, can it? (Though some might find the name Mace a little too full of cliche sexual innuendo.)

So is this a racist film? Not in any nasty sense, perhaps. But the characterisation is two-dimensional, despite the near-3D graphics. It is all too much like a comicstrip or something out of America's cinematographic past, reminiscent of the 'outer limits' sci-fi of the fifties and sixties. Us versus them. Humans (English speaking, of course), versus the weird, helped by the cute. Speaking parts on the Jedi High Council go only to the humans, oh, except for Yoda, and he speaks funny. All is pigeonholing, stereotyping, cliches. Best if you don't notice. Let your midbrain enjoy itself. No harm done. May the Farce be With You.

On the positive side, there is fairytale in the allegories and humour in the in-jokes. In the archetypal underwater car chase scene big predators eat little predators, like the closing scenes of Jurassic Park. Then there is the race sequence on desert planet Tatooine, an acknowledged take-off of Ben Hur, or the triumphal procession at the end, parodying Cleopatra. Qui-Gon Jinn, the Jedi teacher of young Obi-Wan Kenobi reminds of Highlander despite swapping an oldfashioned sword for a green torch. The Galactic Senate on planet Coruscant (which is one big city), is like something out of Terry Gilliam's Brazil, and two ET senators get a cameo role. No doubt there are plenty of allusions left to notice second, third time around. Do come again. Nice money, thanks.

Star Wars is not worth missing, but it is trivial fun in the same way that a drunken party can be, combining loud razzledazzle with coarse simpleminded humour and facile philosophising.

As every rich American director knows, it helps your box office figures to play to primitive emotions, like love, sex, violence. Or racism. Ask Rambo. Star Wars Episode I earned over 28 million US dollars on the day it opened. But you don't have to do it this way to get richer, George, surely?

Whilst the once space-racist Star Trek has gone progressively overboard in positive characterisation of intergalactic ethnic minorities, George Lucas has gone retro.

The computer has made it all easier. Fictitious characters don't sue or become self-conscious when asked to parody an ethnic group. 'Characterisation' puts personalities into inanimate objects, a key feature of the computer animation used in advertising. What is the personality of an orange juice carton, a pair of jeans, an insurance company, or an alien? Animated, literally brought to life, they typecast and parody the people around us, entrenching our prejudices.

Yet it would be wrong to stereotype all of Hollywood directors as a bunch of cynics after money. Or at any rate, they would be the first to admit it.

Flipside up

Go and see Arnold Schwarzenegger's Last Action Hero, (or go and see it again.)

It is far more than an action movie, directed by (some would have you believe) a meathead. It has some spooky intellectual stuff wafting about it. A Phantom Menace to cliches and stereotypes.

The intellectuals stayed away because of prejudice, stereotyping the genre, unwilling to think past the name of the director and leading actor, because of their selfmade straightjacket of snobbery and so as not to challenge their minimal expectations.

By contrast, the action freak audience did not get enough blood and guts.

So the film flopped.

Yet, I feel it was meant to do just that.

Schwarzenegger is fed up with being typecast, as is clear from some of his later films (pregnant man, childcarer, etc).

In Last Action Hero the all-too-hidden message is 'look, we create fictional action hero characters to exploit, we put them through a hell of a time, they are usefully immortal, so they can come back in sequel after sequel suffer pain and anguish in order to have some tragedy to revenge, endless bad guys to confront, a never ending battle to fight - until one of the sequels turns out to be a flop at the box office. That is the only salvation, the only way out for an Action Hero.'

This film has black humour. Ingmar Bergman's Death comes out of the cinema screen, touches people, they die. Death walks grimly through our colourful world, starkly black and white.

The film has a moral, too. Bad guys usually lose in films, but not in reality. When the bad guy (Charles Dance) comes out of the cinema screen into the real world, and shoots someone, and nobody comes chasing after him, he knows he had reached bad-guy paradise. Reality is a place where the good guys don't always win.

So, for me, Star Wars is a mega flop and Last Action Hero, a mega hit.

The tendency to stereotype is in us all. It saves us thinking. If a man and a woman were to walk through that door, which one would be taller?

Vaclav Pinkava, 6 September 1999




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