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Life in False Faces

About Mostly Inadvertent Offences

Previous Entry Life in False Faces Jun. 22nd, 2011 @ 05:36 pm Next Entry


Ralph Bakshi's Coonskin is a kind of satire one doesn't often see, particularly not within the last twenty years. To be sure, there were plenty of people when it was released in 1975 that thought the film was racist, who took it as precisely the sort of thing it was mocking, which is often how unimaginative people take satire. It's for that reason satire is usually very broad--One has to be able to easily follow the line of logic that Stephen Colbert's obsession with himself is an absurd exaggeration of Bill O'Reilly's egotism, or Peter Griffin's infantile stupidity mocks the way men in sitcoms are written as broadly stupid, which in turn is a satire on typical American men.



But while Coonskin has several examples of brilliant, very straight forward satires of logic, like the various attempts of black characters to placate "Miss America," manifested as a buxom white woman wearing only red white and blue paint, the bits I enjoyed the most were what seemed to be satires by way of dream logic. The mafia boss's wife who goes through a metamorphosis when she's fatally shot from old woman, to beautiful young fairy, to moth.



I understand a lot of the movie riffs off of black American folk tales, most of which I'm unfamiliar with--I only recognised the bits from Song of the South, nicely parodied with the protagonists Brother Rabbit, Brother Bear, and Brother Fox. So I don't know how much of the fascinatingly weird stuff is references to folk tales I don't know. I loved the isolated, short segment about the single mother who tells stories about loving a cockroach and a rat.



The movie's nightmarish at times, not just because of the strange and violent imagery. The fact that it's never been released on DVD and is only available in a rather weathered form gives it the feel of something buried in the cemetery of American consciousness, the footage too dark and the black characters, drawn and coloured in likeness of racist caricatures, frequently disappear into photographed backgrounds.



There are garish invocations of basic human ugliness and one gets the impression of human souls in pain, forced to inhabit the grotesque cartoons.

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From:robyn_ma
Date:June 23rd, 2011 01:02 am (UTC)
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It's a great film.

The cockroach anecdote has two levels. Bakshi said the cockroach was meant to represent black men who left their women. (I have a hard time seeing the movie as sexist, because this sequence is spot-on about a certain type of black female experience, especially as written by a white guy.) Also, visually the cockroach and the rat are tips of the hat to George Herriman's archy and Ignatz.

I'll be blunt: if a black animator had made it, it'd probably be considered a masterpiece. But there was and still is discomfort with the idea of someone being so harshly truthful about experiences he hasn't personally dealt with. And on the other hand, most of the time, white people do fuck up non-white stories. Spike Lee took a lot of shit for essentially bullying Norman Jewison out of directing Malcolm X. But then Jewison directed The Hurricane, which hits every damn guilty-white-liberal beat. Lee, because he's black, felt confident to tell the truth about Malcolm, which is that Malcolm was pretty much a piece of shit before he smartened up in jail. (Of course, Lee also took a lot of shit from other black people who didn't want certain unflattering truths told about Malcolm.)

Bakshi, on the other hand, told a story where everyone's pretty much a piece of shit and stays that way, because of the poisonous society that produced them. It's a very complex movie. And yeah, some of it is puerile and borderline. But it's still one of the ballsiest movies about race and racism ever made.
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From:setsuled
Date:June 23rd, 2011 03:00 am (UTC)
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Bakshi said the cockroach was meant to represent black men who left their women. (I have a hard time seeing the movie as sexist, because this sequence is spot-on about a certain type of black female experience, especially as written by a white guy.)

It didn't even cross my mind it was sexist, though now that you mention it, I can see how there would be critics who would say that. A lot of people seem to see sexism in any movie where a woman is portrayed unflatteringly.

Also, visually the cockroach and the rat are tips of the hat to George Herriman's archy and Ignatz.

Ah, I thought they looked familiar and assumed they were a homage of some kind, though I haven't read George Herriman's work.

But there was and still is discomfort with the idea of someone being so harshly truthful about experiences he hasn't personally dealt with.

It is a weird standard. No-one complained about Clint Eastwood making Letters from Iwo Jima or Rob Marshall making Memoirs of a Geisha.

Bakshi, on the other hand, told a story where everyone's pretty much a piece of shit and stays that way, because of the poisonous society that produced them.

Yeah. The overall impression I had was of the disastrous effect entrenched, ongoing conceptions have on people. The part where the old man is ecstatic about finding a cotton sweater in a trash can I thought was rather signifying.

But it's still one of the ballsiest movies about race and racism ever made.

It really is extraordinary.
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From:robyn_ma
Date:June 23rd, 2011 03:46 am (UTC)
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'No-one complained about Clint Eastwood making Letters from Iwo Jima or Rob Marshall making Memoirs of a Geisha.'

No, the complaints about Geisha were more about Chinese actors playing Japanese characters. Which seems a fair complaint to me; there aren't any capable Japanese actors? Besides, that's sort of a false equivalence owing to my own vagueness; specifically, black people's radar goes up when a white guy directs a movie about black people. Which it probably should; white guys generally don't have a great track record telling black stories, however well-intentioned they are. You get paternalism, or you get guilty-white-liberalism, you get all sorts of problems. People like Bakshi unfairly get tagged as racists by black people disinclined by their experiences to give white people the benefit of the doubt.

My take, as mentioned above, is not so much that an artist shouldn't have the right to tell a story about a culture not his/her own, but that the result is often timidity on the part of the artist, or idealization, which is another form of dehumanization. Bakshi, if nothing else, was not timid and did not idealize. But it's not like he was just some suburban white guy who blundered into making Coonskin. He was a hipster going way back, and I'm guessing he hung out with a lot of black people and heard their stories and internalized them. So it wasn't much of an imaginative leap for him to take a black viewpoint.

A lot of people point to Spielberg's The Color Purple, which I think is a pretty decent film, not great but not a disgrace, whose major flaws come from the book itself, or at least the problems of turning it into a movie. Should a black lesbian have directed it? Ideally, probably, but then it wouldn't have gotten made, at least not with the budget and stars that it did. Then you have Spielberg's Amistad, which was really fucking boring and a prime example of timidity — most of it is white people talking in court, and the most vivid parts have to do with the conditions on the slave ship. It was an important story squandered. I think Spielberg felt the importance of it and choked, which he didn't do as a Jewish director making Schindler's List.

It's an interesting discussion to have, the notion of trying to do justice to another culture's experience through imagination and compassion, versus the old 'write what you know.' Partly, I think, it gets back to 'it's okay to hit your own group,' in a way. You're able to be more honest if you're telling a story about your own group. But then you get people in your group complaining that you're not presenting a good face forward for the group — 'Hush, fool, white folks don't need to know that shit about us.' It's like Dave Chappelle making his show to amuse black people, then growing uneasy when he realized that white people were also laughing, and maybe for different, less savory reasons than he'd anticipated. The foolishness and foibles that were supposed to be known only between black people were now being aired for everyone to see. Even more interesting in Dave's case was that he had a white partner on the show, Neal Brennan, and they made a pact that nobody but them would ever know who wrote which jokes. For all we know, the white guy wrote some of the most edgy racial stuff on the show.
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From:setsuled
Date:June 23rd, 2011 04:22 am (UTC)
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No, the complaints about Geisha were more about Chinese actors playing Japanese characters. Which seems a fair complaint to me; there aren't any capable Japanese actors?

I actually complained about that too. Though I was more put off by the fact that I don't like Rob Marshall and I'd read the book and thought it wasn't very good. On the other hand, the other night I watched a recent Japanese film called Sakuran with a plot very similar to Memoirs of a Geisha and it sucked ass. Though I think that's more because the film felt a bit J-Pop-ish. It was like if Ryan Seacrest made a movie about courtesans.

Besides, that's sort of a false equivalence owing to my own vagueness; specifically, black people's radar goes up when a white guy directs a movie about black people. Which it probably should; white guys generally don't have a great track record telling black stories, however well-intentioned they are. You get paternalism, or you get guilty-white-liberalism, you get all sorts of problems.

Yeah--but I'd say there's potential for that in the two Japanese by way of white men stories I mentioned--certainly Memoirs of a Geisha read to me like a white man wanking over geisha. But there's certainly none of the timidity. Obviously the book would've been received very differently if Golden had written about a black female sex slave in the 1800s. Though I suppose what this says is that our culture's readier to permit men to assume authority on women than it is to permit the existence of whites having insight into black people.

My take, as mentioned above, is not so much that an artist shouldn't have the right to tell a story about a culture not his/her own, but that the result is often timidity on the part of the artist, or idealization, which is another form of dehumanization.

I agree.

I'm guessing he hung out with a lot of black people and heard their stories and internalized them.

The film's Wikipedia entry says he drew on his experiences growing up in a primarily black neighbourhood. It quotes him; "All my friends were black, everyone we did business with was black, the school across the street was black. It was segregated, so everything was black. I went to see black movies; black girls sat on my lap. I went to black parties. I was another black kid on the block. No problem!"

Even more interesting in Dave's case was that he had a white partner on the show, Neal Brennan, and they made a pact that nobody but them would ever know who wrote which jokes. For all we know, the white guy wrote some of the most edgy racial stuff on the show.

I'd point to Ang Lee, whose movies are all over the place in terms of cultures. What should he know about white gay men in the 1960s or confederate soldiers in the American Civil War? I think the key is he lacks the timidity you mentioned and he's good at finding a heart in these stories he can identify with--usually someone isolated or caught having to cope with a drastically changing world.
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